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“The health of this country requires tackling the hatred that causes real health-related harm to Americans.”
A UC BERKELEY STUDENT IS REMOVED FROM A COMMERCIAL FLIGHT after he is heard speaking Arabic. A 14-year-old Muslim American boy is suspended from school for bringing a homemade clock suspected of being a bomb. And Goleen Samari (MPH ’10, PhD ’15) receives death threats simply for writing about them. Harassment on college campuses, vandalized mosques, lost jobs…this is the reality of Islamophobia, and the Fielding School alum is speaking out on what she views as a growing public health concern.
“When I was 16,” Samari wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the Sept. 21, 2016 edition of The Dallas Morning News, “a Texas police officer pulled me over and said ‘it’s people like you that are ruining this country. Go back to your country.’ … I wasn’t sure what he meant. What country was I supposed to go to? I was born and raised in Austin. Then, it dawned on me. It was a month after 9/11, and he meant Muslims.”
Many people experience this type of discrimination daily, simply based on stereotypes and appearance. Islamophobia — the unfounded hatred of Islam or stigmatization, fear and dislike of Muslims — is widespread in U.S. society. In 2015, only 33 percent of Americans expressed favorable attitudes toward American Muslims, according to the Arab American Institute, down from 48 percent five years earlier. Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States are five times more common than before 9/11.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, Samari is seeking to better understand Islamophobia’s public health implications. “Islamophobia is very visible in the media,” Samari says. “Yet, little has been written about it from a public health perspective, despite how damaging discrimination can be to health.”
In an editorial published in the November 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Samari makes the case that Islamophobia is making Muslim Americans sick. She argues that discrimination eats away at a person’s mental and physical health over time, leading to stress, social isolation and delays in seeking medical care — all of which can lead to increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cognitive impairment, and mental health concerns, among others.
Samari notes that her recent review of the research literature on the health effects of Islamophobia returned only 34 studies worldwide. As part of her effort to provide more concrete research findings on the relationship between Islamophobia and health, she plans to focus on the impact of media coverage, political rhetoric and policy on the health and health care utilization of Muslim and Middle Eastern people in the United States — information that could help to inform policies to reduce discrimination in the future.
“This is my country,” Samari says. “And the health of this country requires tackling the hatred that causes real health-related harm to Americans.”