American-born Muslims face discrimination

May 9, 2016

By Natalie Howell
NNAF News Fellow

Growing up in a Muslim community in Iowa, Talal Adam was not really exposed to Islamophobia when he was young. He said he first became aware of discrimination and he was a senior in high school when he noticed that his mother had stopped wearing her hijab. Adam had lived his whole life up to that point seeing his mother wear her hijab, so when she stopped, he was really confused. When he approached her, however, she seemed to evade the question.

“She kind of, you know (sidestepped) when there’s a personal thing people don’t want to answer,” said Adam. “So that’s kind of when I noticed that something was wrong.” 

Adam learned then that his community and even his family were not immune to Islamophobia. When Adam’s mom would wear her hijab to work, she would be exposed to unwanted stares and negative comments. Adam said that this played a factor into her becoming fed up and eventually deciding to stop wearing the traditional head covering.

“When Muslims don’t want to show their religion, it’s usually out of fear, and they don’t want people to think negatively of them,” Adam said. “[Muslim women] are easy targets, especially when they have the headscarf. Stigma is automatically on them.”

Adam is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, majoring in biology with a double minor in chemistry and philosophy. Adam grew up in the U.S., but said that sometimes he feels as though he is an outsider, not fully accepted by his home country because of his beliefs. 

“This is America. America talks about freedom of religion,” said Adam. “You shouldn’t be afraid to practice your religion.”

There are about 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S., which makes up about 1 percent of the population. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 46 percent of Americans say that the Islamic religion is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.

Adam said that he is lucky, because he has not experienced much of this Islamophobia throughout his life. He attributes this to the communities he has been a part of in Iowa and now at college. However, he said that he is constantly having to explain and defend himself and his religion. Although, he added, most of the time he enjoys informing people about Islam. He said at times it can get redundant and tiring, especially if the questions are meant to be malicious. 

Adam noted that a UWRF football player continuously compared Adam having to explain himself as a Muslim to him being instructed to do 200 push-ups by his coach, only to realize upon completing the exhausting activity that his coach wasn’t watching and he would have to start over.

“When these ignorant, fear-mongering comments come at you, you get tired, you know?” explained Adam.

Mohammad Battah, a senior UWRF biology student and a Muslim, said some days the stigma and discrimination are obvious, and other days they are not. However, he said, it seems to be always there, and he never knows when it might affect him or his relationships with others. He does his best on a daily basis to avoid certain situations.

What kind of situations?

“Dangerous ones, ones that get you shot at or ones that will get you beat up in a way,” said Battah. “I’m here to live my life and be safe.”

Battah said he tries to stay away from Islamophobia by avoiding the news. He said that if a terrorist attack happens, he will learn about it, but he doesn’t want to hear more about the actions of Islamic extremist groups. He condemns the violence of such groups like ISIS.

“I think we shine a light on these people and we continue to let them do what they want to,” said Battah. “I don’t care if you call yourself God; you cannot go around killing people. I don’t care what name you’re hiding behind.”

Even so, Battah has not been able to tune out the damaging language from the Republican presidential candidates and other politicians. In the same study done by Pew, 77 percent of conservative Republicans said that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers, while only 21 percent of liberal Democrats agreed with the statement.

“In the recent elections, I’m appalled at how we’re allowing [politicians] to speak in such a way and how we haven’t as a society said you can’t do this,” said Battah. “You absolutely cannot go out and say these things.”

Battah also noted that growing up enveloped in stigma takes a large psychological toll, one that does not go away easily. He said it’s the same as being bullied, and how that feeling never really goes away.

 “This is a lifelong bully system by U.S. citizens and non-citizens. By everyone who is and is not Muslim,” said Battah. “It’s gotten to the point that now we even question our own selves.”

Battah said that the best way to combat Islamophobia in the U.S., as well as around the world, is through education. He explained that if people took the time to learn about Islam, the beliefs and practices of the religion, that the distrust and misplaced fear would begin to diminish. He also said that schools and universities, such as UWRF, should take the time to talk about why the act of terror happened and how they feel about it. He believes this would help students to better understand the difference between terrorism and Islam.

“A lot of those feelings come from anger, uncertain anger. They don’t know why they have it, but it’s because somebody died and they saw a picture of somebody dying,” said Battah. “And the media tells us in big, bold words: Muslim.”

Common misconceptions about Islam, such as that Islam promotes violence and oppresses women, can also be changed through education. Although violence and oppression does happen in the name of Islam, Adam said that given the number Muslims world wide, it is easy for people to attribute violence in the Middle East to the religion instead of the culture that exists there. That belief then carries over to how people perceive Muslim Americans.

Adam said that to understand something, one should put their preconceived notions behind them and not be afraid to ask questions. For Muslims, it’s important to answer those questions and express the love that is in their religion.

 “If someone has a religion and they believe it 100 percent, they should believe it can do goodness to the world,” said Adam. “That’s what I believe with my religion.”