Fight or Flight? Muslims in America

>Flickr/Marie. L.

Fight or Flight? Muslims in America

Fight-or-flight mode.

That seems to be the state of the Muslim American community lately. When Muslims aren’t being kicked off flights for speaking in Arabic, we are fighting to reclaim our civil liberties and identities. After the wave of violence in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, coupled with flamboyant anti-Muslim rhetoric from various presidential contenders, anti-Muslim motivated hate crimes have tripled in the U.S. These alarming rates have also placed many non-Muslims who are racially profiled as such, particularly Sikhs, at risk of violence. The dirty shades of Islamophobia have tainted a broad spectrum of American life, from the egotistical heights of policy down to the very microscopic chemical reactions taking place in the blood of our veins. However, the latter has been ignored and unaddressed in our response against Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is a crucial determinant of health: Through a complex, multilevel pathway of biological, social and political processes, Islamophobia has had a devastating toll on physical and psychological health over time. As such, Islamophobia has become a significant impediment to the health of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims, who are targets of frequent violence, discrimination and stigma.

Time and time again, research centered on LGBT, Black and immigrant populations have shown the ways discrimination, stigma and resulting stress can trigger a cascade of physiological activities to release stress hormones, activating the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Overstimulation of these chemical processes and exhaustion of the body can lead to poor mental and physical health over time. Islamophobia is one such trigger.

Very few studies have assessed the public health ramifications of Islamophobia, but the few that have, have discovered a correlation between discrimination and worsening health among Muslims. A study examining health outcomes of British Muslims before and after 9/11 found that blood pressure, body mass index and total cholesterol worsened with increased exposure to discrimination. Another study conducted among Arab American adults in Detroit discovered that perceived discrimination in the aftermath of 9/11 was tied to increased psychological distress, reduced levels of happiness and worsening health. Lastly, a study assessing the impact of post-9/11 discrimination on the mental and physical health of Iraqi refugees residing in the U.S. confirmed a correlation between stressors resulting from discrimination and a number of illnesses including neurological, respiratory, digestive and blood disorders.

However, most overlooked are the ways in which policy and systemic discrimination are risk factors for the health of Muslims and non-Muslims living under the threat of Islamophobia. Structural-level factors — which are deeply rooted with religious, racial and ethnic biases — play a significant role in perpetuating stigma against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. These are the very same policies and institutions that govern social factors influencing health outcomes such as housing, education, employment and health care.

Take the health care system, for example. Religious discrimination and culturally inadequate care is prevalent within the health care system. Lack of culturally adequate care can include failure to understand Islamic ethical positions on issues such as pregnancy and end-of-life care or sensitivity to gender dynamics in patient-provider interactions. Ultimately, this system works to bar Muslims from receiving proper health care and creates a health inequality between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. Moreover, a quarter of Muslim doctors in the U.S. face religious discrimination at work, preventing those who are the best candidates to provide culturally adequate care from doing their job while making them susceptible to stressors resulting from discrimination.

Take another example: the education system. Prominent cases centered on discrimination in the education system have made headlines in recent years. Most notably, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school because a teacher mistook it for a bomb. Even more recently, a Muslim high-school student was mistakenly named “Isis” in her yearbook and is now facing bullying from her classmates. Many Sikh children have also faced discrimination at school post-9/11, with some having their turbans ripped off their heads by fellow students and others having slurs thrown at them such as “terrorist” and “go back to your country.” All these hostile conditions are extra hurdles to receiving an education and serve as stressors for Muslims and those racially profiled as Muslims, which adversely impact health.

Furthermore, laws targeting Muslims are harmful to their physical and mental health. Since the signing of the U.S. Patriot Act, Muslim communities have experienced an exponential increase in hate crimes and discrimination. Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims frequently encounter airport profiling, verbal harassment and physical assaults stemming from the implementation of this law. Over-policing and increased suspicion of Muslim communities have exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment, creating a stressful social environment for those living under the threat of Islamophobia. Evidence has shown that increased suspicion and vigilance of Muslim American communities is associated with adverse mental health outcomes such as subclinical paranoia and anxiety. Such laws are a violation of many basic rights, but none as uncontested as the human right to health.

Public health can play a crucial role in highlighting the social conditions and systemic barriers that breed Islamophobia and health disparities. Historically, public health scholarship has played a part in discrediting discriminatory policies by underscoring their impact on poor health outcomes. Where tolerance and appreciation for difference has failed, public health provides a unique means of impeding Islamophobia as a barrier to the fulfillment of the human right to health.

However, intervening along the causal pathway between Islamophobia and health requires the critical engagement of health professionals, who have been largely absent in the battle against Islamophobia. Health professionals have the ability to literally address the fight-or-flight response to Islamophobia through research, advocacy and culturally sensitive care. But first, there must be recognition of the complex social, political and biological pathways that allow Islamophobia to negatively imprint on the health of Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike.

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