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Islamophobia harms the fearful as much as the feared

Nov 19, 2015

The Next Idea

The ISIS attacks in Paris triggered fresh waves of fear and suspicion aimed at Muslims.

In just one example, the FBI is now investigating a Michigan woman regarding a tweet she sent out the day after the Paris attacks:

“Dearborn, MI has the largest Muslim population in the United States. Let’s f--- that place up and send a message to ISIS. We’re coming.”

Credit flickr user JMacPherson / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

From a local tweet like that to CNN anchors questioning why no one in the French Muslim community spoke up to warn of the Paris attacks, the shock waves of fear and paranoia can be felt resonating far and wide.

Dr. Farha Abbasi wants to remind us that knee-jerk reactions and generalizations like these can harm the people making them just as much as those they're aimed at.

“Phobia, paranoia, is something that affects both the perpetrator and the victim,” she says.

Abbasi explains that Americans live in a peaceful, cohesive society, but when paranoia seeps into the cracks of our communities it starts to make us distrust one another.

She is concerned that the way American Muslims are treated and portrayed in light of these attacks will have detrimental effects on children still growing a sense of identity.

“Suddenly Muslim youth are under attack. They feel that they have to defend and they have to stand up and say, this is not us, this is not about me,” Abbasi says.

But according to Abbasi, it isn’t just Muslims being affected by these phobic tendencies.

"I think we are caught in between people who are perverting our religion and people who want to push towards those people."

“We are seeing high rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress [among American Muslims.] But we are also seeing similar findings in non-Muslim Americans who are now fearing that ISIS is right there in their neighborhood or they are looking at everybody suspiciously … so it is affecting both sides of the issue,” she says.

Abbasi came to America 15 years ago, and tells us that from Day One she was subjected to suspicion and scrutiny all too familiar to Muslims in the U.S.

“I was asked this question, ‘why aren’t you denouncing terrorism?’” she says. She tells us while being screened for citizenship she was made to stand and apologize about al-Qaida and the Iraq War, and she had to announce that Saddam Hussein “was not one of us.”

She looks to school shootings in America, in which the perpetrator often turns out to be a white male. “Does that mean that every Caucasian kid here should [be asked,] ‘but why don’t you denounce these college shootings?” she says.

“Naturally we all denounce terrorism,” Abbasi says. “But to be asked again and again … I feel it’s microaggression now.”

Since the Paris attacks, Abbasi has come up with an idea she’s calling MUTE, or Muslims Under Threat of Extremists. She explains that the vast majority of Americans do not buy into the story that all Muslims are terrorists or an extremist threat, but the vocal minority “are hijacking our narrative” and painting a negative picture of the community as a whole.

“I think we are caught in between people who are perverting our religion and people who want to push towards those people,” Abbasi says.

“MUTE is a call to all fellow Americans to come together in the spirit of the United States of America: e pluribus unum, out of many, one – and I am one of those many.”

For The Next Idea, Abbasi discusses how Islamophobia harms everyone in America and how we can work together to overcome irrational fear and paranoia.

Dr. Farha Abbasi is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and the managing editor of the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.

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