More than a decade after Al-Qaeda tore down the World Trade Center and massacred almost 3,000 people, Islam is still viewed by many with fear and suspicion.
Islamophobia—the dislike and prejudice against Islam and Muslim people—is on the rise in the United States even as the nation progresses toward becoming a more tolerant and accepting society.
Independence Day 2014 is a day that will forever stick in the mind of Rina Nizam, a Pasadena City College student from Malaysia, for two reasons. The first reason was that it was her first Independence Day in the United States; the second reason was that it was her first encounter with being the target of discrimination.
It started as an innocent day out at a mall in Pomona. As Nizam and three other female friends—all of whom donned hijabs (Islamic headcloth for women)—waited for the bus, eggs suddenly came flying towards them. Shock was the only thing on the 19-year-old’s mind as she tried to make sense of what had just occurred.
“People might say that [they were just] celebrating the 4th of July, but they only threw eggs at us—the four girls wearing hijabs,” Nizam said. “My female Indian friend was not [affected] and there were about five other people at the bus stop.”
As satisfying as it would be to deny the existence of something as insular as Islamophobia, there are statistics that indicate that it is a weighty matter.
When Americans were asked to rate their feelings toward Muslims on a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being the coldest and 100 being the warmest) in a July 2014 survey, the Pew Research Center found that Muslims scored a mean rating of 40. Muslims ranked the lowest in the survey, which asked participants to do the same for atheists, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Hindus, Jews and Mormons.
That isn’t the scariest part.
This is: 42% of Americans support the use of racial profiling in law enforcement against Arab Americans and American Muslims, according to a June 2014 study by the Arab American Institute. In other words, nearly half the country would encourage police officers to arrest an Arab or Muslim person on the sole basis of their ethnicity or religion.
Is there a basis for the prejudice Americans have decided to bestow upon Muslim people?
In 2013, two Muslim brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing six and wounding close to three hundred people.
Earlier this year, two brothers affiliated with Al-Qaeda charged into the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and fatally wounded eleven staff.
It doesn’t help either that the Islamic State has gained a rapid rise in notoriety in recent years for destroying historical monuments and publicly beheading innocent hostages.
Are these hostile sentiments unfounded? No. Is it irrational to blame more than a billion people of Muslim faith for these events carried out by an extremely small percentage of black sheep?
“I think that jihadist terrorists are extreme believers who [have] lost the true message of the Quran: treat others kindly and live peacefully,” said Syeda Husein, a 19-year-old American Muslim from Southern California. She added that apart from Snapchat’s Eid Mubarak newsfeed in July that featured personal snaps of individuals celebrating the holy occasion with happiness and joy, she had never seen Muslims being portrayed in a positive light in the media.
The fact that political leaders make no secret of their intolerance toward Muslims does not help matters eithers.
“There is a radical strain of Islam in this country—it’s not just over there—trying to kill Americans every week,” former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) proclaimed at a town hall meeting in 2012. Following this speech, his district saw several anti-Islam hate crimes which included an acid bomb attack on a Muslim school.
While Husein has never encountered any truly Islamophobic individuals, there have been many times where her last name has been mocked. Comments like “Are you related to Saddam Hussein?” or “I’m going to be nice to you so that you won’t blow me up like ‘your people’” are only all too familiar to her.
“I wish people can understand that one individual’s action does not represent the majority of others,” Husein said. “Islam does not promote violence or harming others whatsoever. The actions of one person do not represent the entire religion.”
The fatal shooting of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C. in February 2015 is perhaps the most widely-known case of American Islamophobia today. This horrendous crime has been reported in extreme depth by news outlets all over the world, leaving people gobsmacked by the astounding inhumanity of the perpetrator. This incident is not the first of its kind and will probably not be the last.
In spite of the appalling egging episode, Nizam remains optimistic about the American public’s changing perception of Islam.
“Americans have come to understand that Islam is a religion that promotes peace but there are a few religious fanatics that [have] caused a lot of damage on the general view of Islam and Muslims,” she said. “I also believe that people tend to see the bad than the good in others and that [is] what makes people see Islam as an aggressive religion.”
America is evolving as a community, as a society, and as a country. There is a lot to learn and a lot to forget. With understanding and acceptance, Islamophobia can conceivably be a thing of the past.