Framing Islamophobia as a Bruising Public Health Concern

Portrait of young woman wearing hijab head scarf
Portrait of young woman wearing hijab head scarf

Last year, I was on my way to a fundraiser hosted by the NYU Islamic Center with my friend Heba. Both of us were wearing the hijab along with dabs of blush and lipstick, excited for our first outing after moving to New York City. We were walking single-file under a crowded scaffolding not more than a block away from where the event was being held, when a white frail-looking woman locked eyes with me. Within seconds, she pushed her way through the crowds and body-slammed Heba into the metal walls of the scaffolding. Heba cried out and covered her face with her hands, fearing another round of violence. The woman began to aggressively scream slurs at us, "F*** you! F*** you Muzlims!" This was the first time I realized ideological Islamophobia can quickly transition to physical violence, leaving behind bruises. And unfortunately, this was not the last time.

Today, Islamophobia is being presented as a religious, political and human rights issue. But in addition to these narratives, there needs to be a more aggressive push to recognize and frame Islamophobia as a public health concern. Bringing Islamophobia onto the health agenda, as we have done in the past with issues such as racism and gender inequality, will allow for more opportunities to garner widespread condemnation against hateful ideology, speech and actions targeting Muslims under a secular and arguably objective platform.

A number of studies have documented the ways in which Islamophobia has left its black and blue bruises on the bodies of Muslim men and women. A literature review published in 2007 found that Islamophobia contributes to health disparities among Muslim minorities due to differential access to health care as a result of religious and ethnic discrimination, and culturally inadequate care. Additional studies have demonstrated that Islamophobia is resulting in poor psychological outcomes among Muslims in response to overt and subtle forms of microaggressions. And in a recent study published in the American Journal of Bioethics that received attention from The Washington Post found that about 25% of Muslim doctors face religious discrimination in the workplace.

Yet, despite the available data, the public health angle to combating Islamophobia has been underutilized in mainstream efforts. And in the public health sphere, research examining nuanced manifestations of Islamophobia has been understudied and regrettably ignored.

Current conversations that dissect the complex global social, political and economic forces resulting in the minority strains of militancy we see on television are difficult for lay-people to understand and comprehend. This is why Donald Trump's overly simplistic, unambiguous, deterministic and xenophobic rhetoric is appealing among his supporters. However, relying on the American values system that celebrates science and powerful institutions of health to understand the adverse health consequences of Islamophobia is much more easily digestible. And in doing so, we are able to use science to discredit policies and agendas that fuel systemic violence against Muslims as a crucial determinant of health.

To some degree, framing Islamophobia as a public health issue distances itself from controversial, heated and divisive discussions surrounding religion, morality and bipartisan politics. Instead, with a public health perspective, founded on principles of social justice, we are able to focus on the commonality that people from all walks of life bruise.

Hina Tai is a graduate student at Columbia University and an associate editor at The Islamic Monthly. You can find more of her work on her blog Perception by Apperception.