As negative stereotypes surrounding the Middle East persist, students involved in the Muslim Student Association at Portland State University find themselves subject to acts of discrimination.
Fatima Ali, member of the MSA, said that she could recount many recent incidents involving the discrimination American Muslims face daily. While her first-hand experience of wartime backlash isn’t extensive, she has been unable to completely escape the effects of “terrorist” stereotyping.
“I don’t necessarily look like I’m Muslim,” she said. “And I actually had a professor say to me, ‘You’re Muslim? You don’t look like one of them.’ I was just like, ‘Honey, you had the guts to say that?'”
Ali has also been affected by the experiences of her mother and other family members, who have had plenty of encounters with prejudice since 9/11, she said.
While working at a family member’s business, Ali’s mother was told by one of the employees to “send her terrorist ass home,” she said. Her cousin experienced a similar incident, however instead of verbal assault, he was shown a highly offensive piece of visual commentary.
“It was a picture of a Muslim man kneeling to pray, but there was something being shoved” into him from behind, she said.
Another cousin, as well as her aunt, faced discrimination at Portland International Airport when returning to the United States from Lebanon.
Incidents such as these are far from isolated, ranging from Muslims being refused service at malls to strip searches at airports, Madiha Sultan, another MSA member, said.
Though her family is Pakistani, she explained that she is American.
“I was born and raised in California,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and never thought that I’d have someone call me a second-class citizen.”
“You work, you pay taxes and do what everyone else does, and this happens,” Ali said. “With the Patriot Act, the government can imprison Muslims indefinitely based on hearsay or suspicion. There’s no due process. They can take people in and hold them.”
The passing of the Patriot Act has also interfered with Muslims’ ability to practice their religion, she said.
“One of the five pillars of Islam is to give money to people,” she said. “People used to send money to family members back home, mosques, Palestinians or others in need. Now if people send money, they get questioned and can be arrested.”
Ali said the steps being taken by the U.S. government are violating many people’s rights.
“It’s absolute racial profiling,” she said. “It could be a beautiful act if it wasn’t concentrating on a single group of people and making them feel oppressed. Right now, it’s like, trade in your freedom for security. How do we get security from racial profiling?”
Ali said Muslim U.S. citizens face persecution because they’re different.
“People are scared of losing their citizenship and residency,” Ali said. “It’s also just dignity; people aren’t allowed to have dignity anymore.”
“I grew up loving my religion,” Sultan said. “It’s too bad that Americans can’t see what I see.”
Ali said stereotypes are to blame for discrimination.
“Stereotypes have a life of their own,” she said. “I stereotype. I think it’s natural to do with people who are different from you. But when stereotypes are used to oppress someone, and hurt them, it’s entirely different.”
Sultan said the media is often to blame for the perpetuation of such negative attitudes.
“The media automatically does stories, focuses on a certain person, then finds out that they’re innocent,” she said. “But what happens to that person’s reputation? It’s destroyed.”
“I saw a picture with a U.S. soldier holding an Iraqi baby, and it said something like, ‘The U.S. is here, everything is going to be better,’ but where were the parents? How is that baby going to eat? Shouldn’t the baby’s own parents be holding it? They’re probably dead, but the media sees things and pictures things a certain way.”
In addition to questionable media coverage, discriminative behavior continues to exist.
“People overseas react because of the way that they’re treated,” she said. “When they lash out, we need to see the people, not just their lashing out.”
Despite her negative experiences, Sultan said many people have lent their support and sympathized with her situation.
“Some people are sincere and know what’s up,” she said. “They know it’s a specific group, extremists.”
Sultan said her mother is concerned about her reacting to discrimination.
“I didn’t tell my mom that I was giving an interview,” she said. “She doesn’t want me to speak up.”
Ali explained that her situation was the similar.
“If my mom knew that I was interviewed, she’d ask, ‘What if they were trying to get you to say something?'” she said. “She’d be like, ‘Now I’ll have the FBI knocking on my door.'”
While MSA members daily face the possibility of societal backlash, Ali is more concerned about what the future might hold.
“History repeats itself,” she said. “We have the new laws. We all used to sit in history class and laugh, wondering what happened to the African Americans and Japanese. Guess what? It’s happening again and we’re going backwards.”