When I was 16, a Texas police officer pulled me over and said ‘it’s people like you that are ruining this country. Go back to your country.’ People who speed, I thought? Girls who are late for figure skating practice? I wasn’t sure what he meant. What country was I supposed to go to’ I was born and raised in Austin. Then, it dawned on me. It was a month after 9/11, and he meant Muslims.
Islamophobia is widespread. In the 15 years that have followed the Sept. 11 attacks, many Muslim or Middle Eastern Americans have been repeatedly exposed to hate and discrimination in the United States.
The unfounded hatred of Islam or stigmatization, fear and dislike of Muslims rose to 67 percent in 2015, the highest it has ever been. Right after 9/11, unfavorable attitudes towards Muslims were at 60 percent. In fact, hate speech and crimes against Muslim Americans tripled after the San Bernardino and Paris attacks. Muslim Americans have been harassed on college campuses, they have lost jobs, mosques have been vandalized, Muslim charities have had their assets frozen, and racial profiling has occurred at airports and on the streets.
But there is an effect of all this that has not been widely reported. The impact on health.
Simply put, Islamophobia has grave physical and mental health consequences for Muslims in the U.S. It is a public health issue. Yet, research on the health implications of this is understudied and often ignored by the masses.
We, as Americans, can and must do better.
Muslims are often represented as coming from non-white groups, so their religious identity is linked with racial identity. In reality, Muslim Americans include many nationalities and racial categories, including black and white, and anyone who appears Muslim-like, Sikhs and many non-Muslim Arab, Iranian and Indian Americans.
Unfortunately, Islamophobia is deeply institutionalized. Americans are exposed to political campaigns, news coverage and movies that portray Muslims as outsiders and villains.
One study found that the coverage of Islam and Muslims in The New York Times was more negative than the coverage of cancer, alcohol and cocaine. Structural forms of discrimination, forms such as media coverage or political campaigns that call for a ’ban on Muslims,’ help normalize discriminatory attitudes and create the institutional system of discrimination.
A system of discrimination can lead to differential access to fundamental determinants of health such as education and employment. Moreover, when individuals are targeted based on their identity, the persistent exposure to discrimination has a pervasive, negative effect on health. Being a victim of Islamophobia can be traumatizing, with severe and lasting health impacts.
Members of stigmatized groups have greater stress, strained social relationships and unequal access to resources or medical care. Social marginalization increases the physiological response to stress.
Discrimination of Muslim Americans has been linked to paranoia, psychological distress and reduced happiness as well as high cholesterol, obesity and other health problems.
Another study finds a lack of social support leads to depression for Arab Muslim immigrant women. Islamophobia also prevents Muslim Americans from seeking health care, resulting in more late-stage cancer diagnoses.
Reversing the trend of Islamophobia in the U.S. will be a long-term task. We must better understand how the social climate of Islamophobia takes a toll on the health of Americans.
By addressing Islamophobia as a public health issue, we can condemn hateful ideology and actions against Muslim and Muslim-like Americans while meeting an objective goal of health as a fundamental human right for all.
Moving forward, health professionals should be aware of these discriminatory barriers that patients face when receiving care and their own implicit bias when they deliver care. Media coverage should reflect the diversity of the American Muslim population and shift the dialogue away from illness-inducing stereotypes. And lawmakers must realize that policies that single out and discriminate against Muslims make Americans sick.
This is my country, and the health of this country requires tackling the hatred that causes real health-related harm to Americans.
Goleen Samari is a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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