By Rebecca A. Clay/Posted on American Psychological Association
When President Donald Trump first tried to stop citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, he cited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as his rationale. Yet none of the men behind those attacks hailed from these countries. In fact, a Cato Institute analysis shows that between 1975 and 2015 no one from these countries killed a single American in a U.S. terrorist attack.
Unfortunately, equating Muslims with terrorists has become disturbingly common in American society—and the consequences can be violent. According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report released in November, the number of assaults, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 was higher than at any other time except the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. In 2015, there were 257 anti-Muslim incidents, up from 154 in 2014—a 67 percent increase. In 2001, 481 incidents were reported.
And these aren’t isolated incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a report released in February, the center noted the dramatic growth of organized anti-Muslim hate groups, with the number of such groups jumping from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016—a 197 percent increase.
Psychologists are responding to this growing tide of Islamophobia. They’re working to overcome obstacles to researching this vulnerable population (see sidebar on page 38) and documenting the impact anti-Muslim bias is having on Muslim Americans. They’re also creating interventions designed to help ensure Muslim Americans receive the mental health treatment they need and working to reduce societal prejudice of all kinds.
The hateful rhetoric toward Muslims gives people permission to be discriminatory toward them, whether overtly or more subtly, says Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. In a 2015 paper in Qualitative Psychology, Nadal and co-authors describe how people with overlapping religion, gender and other demographic characteristics can become targets of what the researchers call intersectional microaggressions.
“Muslim men get stereotyped as terrorists, violent and criminal,” says Nadal. For Muslim women, the most common stereotype is that they lack control over their own lives. “The reality is that a lot of Muslim women view it as quite the opposite,” Nadal says, citing comments from his qualitative research. “They’re proud of their gender, do have a voice and choose to celebrate some of their traditional roles.”
Muslims also face another form of discrimination—the assumption that they’re not “real” Americans, says Nadal. “Nonwhite immigrant groups are viewed as perpetual foreigners and aliens in their own land, even though many have been in the country for several generations or view themselves as completely American,” he says. The result of these negative messages is that many Muslims are in a constant state of vigilance, says Nadal.
Some may also be facing acculturative stress, “the behavioral, social and psychological change and stress that people experience when they encounter a different culture,” explains Anisa N. Goforth, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montana. She and her colleagues have found that first- and second-generation Muslim ArabAmericans ages 11 to 18 who experienced acculturative stress were more likely to be withdrawn, sad and depressed, though holding on to their religious practices helped protect them against psychological problems (School Psychology Quarterly, 2016).
Anti-Muslim discrimination doesn’t just hurt Muslims. It may also undermine U.S. employers, suggests research by Saba Rasheed Ali, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa’s College of Education. In a study of more than 125 Muslim women in workplaces across the country, Ali and co-authors found that both workplace discrimination and religiosity were related to lower levels of job satisfaction. Whether women wore a hijab or not made no difference when it came to discrimination (Journal of Employment Counseling, 2015). This workplace discrimination could have an effect on productivity, Ali speculates. “Any time someone experiences low job satisfaction, they’re not as productive,” she says. “When you give support to Muslim women—or any worker—you have an impact on their ability to do the job and do it well.”
Recognizing the threat that Islamophobia poses, psychologists are working to make sure Muslim Americans get the help they need. Unfortunately, Muslim Americans face several barriers to treatment, including stigma about mental health and mental health services in Muslim communities, says Phoenix-area practitioner Nafisa Sekandari, PsyD. “Some imams have said that talk therapy is incompatible with Islam, that people should just pray more,” says Sekandari.
In addition, the fear of anti-Islam sentiments can keep people from reaching out to non-Muslim psychologists, Sekandari says. “I’ve also had several patients who have gone to non-Muslim psychologists who told them that they needed to change their religion,” she says. “We need to educate non-Muslim psychologists. If you have a bias toward Islam or any religion, you need to refer people to other providers.”
To counter the stigma, Sekandari, along with teacher and activist Hosai Mojaddidi, co-founded www.MentalHealth4Muslims.com in 2009. The site offers a directory of Muslim mental health practitioners around the country, as well as articles, podcasts, webinars and other resources for people seeking help.
While such interventions hold promise at the individual level, psychologists say the problem needs to be addressed on a more systemic level as well. One psychologist who is taking that kind of action is Sameera Ahmed, PhD, who directs the Family and Youth Institute in Canton, Michigan, a research and education institute specializing in the mental health needs of American Muslims.
One area the institute focuses on is the bullying of Muslim students by peers, teachers and coaches. According to a 2015 study of more than 600 Muslim students by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, more than half had experienced bullying—twice as high as the national average. And being called a terrorist, having a hijab pulled off and other acts of bullying can have a negative impact on students’ academic performance, mental health and physical health, says Ahmed, citing the research on bullying in general. “There’s a lot of fear,” she says.
To raise awareness of the issue, Ahmed presented that research and urged schools to respond when she spoke as a panelist in two U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention-sponsored webinars in 2016—one on how educators and counselors can prevent bullying of Muslim students and another on how educators, counselors and community members can build Muslim youth’s resilience.
Ahmed also holds workshops for educators, parents and others interested in Muslim youth. A priority is to alert Muslim parents—especially immigrants—that their adolescent children may be indulging in the same kinds of risky behavior as other American teens. “Oftentimes Muslim parents don’t even consider that their child would be experimenting with drugs because drug use is prohibited in Islam,” says Ahmed, adding that bullying and exclusion may increase the likelihood of adolescents and emerging adults engaging in risky behaviors.
The media must also change the way they depict Muslims to help prevent hate crimes, says social psychologist Muniba Saleem, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In an article in Communications Research in 2015, Saleem and co-authors described three experiments that tested reactions to media stereotypes of Muslims. The experiments revealed that exposure to news in which Muslims are depicted as terrorists was associated with support for military action in Muslim countries as well as support for unconstitutional policy proposals, such as not allowing Muslim Americans to vote or to own guns. The researchers also found that exposure to positive depictions of Muslims, such as a news clip about Muslim Americans volunteering during the holiday season, decreased participants’ view of Muslims as aggressive.
Other psychologists are developing interventions designed to fight all kinds of prejudice, including Islamo-phobia. One that has been studied specifically with anti-Muslim prejudice is the imagined contact strategy created by psychology professors Richard J. Crisp, PhD, of Aston University’s Aston Business School in Birmingham and Rhiannon N. Turner, DPhil, of Queens University Belfast in the United Kingdom. The intervention is based on the idea that simply imagining a positive social interaction with a member of an outgroup—whether Muslims, people with mental illness, the obese or any other group—will lead to more positive views of that group.
“There have now been over 70 studies from independent laboratories all over the world demonstrating the positive impact mental imagery can have on intergroup attitudes,” says Crisp, who reviewed the literature on imagined contact in a 2014 meta-analysis co-authored with University of Sussex psychology lecturer Eleanor Miles, PhD, in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.
“A number of these studies have examined differences in religious beliefs as a basis for prejudice and shown that properly implemented imagery techniques can lead to a softening of such biases,” Crisp says.
There’s still more work to be done in understanding how imagined contact works and in identifying the conditions that enhance or hinder its effectiveness, says Crisp. But, he says, “the breadth and depth of the empirical support give us hope that mental imagery could come to play an important role in combating prejudice and discrimination.”