Misconceptions of Muslims can lead to hate crimes

By Jonathan Jacobson

When Amina Butt leaves her home every morning, she makes sure she is covered by a hijab, a headscarf Muslim women wear. It covers the hair and often falls down around the shoulders. This characteristic makes the Muslim religion very clear and can occasionally make Muslims a target.

“In the beginning, I was always paranoid,” said Butt, a sophomore in LAS.

Her paranoia may have been warranted. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, hate crimes against Muslims went up 1,600 percent from 2000 to 2001, arguably as a result of Sept. 11.

“Muslim women have more fear because of the way they dress,” said Mujahid Al-Fayadh, imam at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center.

This has led some Muslim women to stop wearing scarves, he said. Muslim women who were forced to put their safety before their religion became embarrassed to come to the mosque, he said. Ashamed of their decision not to wear the hijab, many stopped attending religious services.

“People expect more freedom in the U.S.,” Al-Fayadh said. “The public messes it up.”

Muslim women face an intricate paradox. They can wear the hijab and potentially face the scrutiny of non-Muslims, or they can choose not to wear the hijab and face embarrassment in their own communities.

It’s not just the way Muslim women dress. The way they act has also been affected.

“We’re afraid of speaking,” Butt said. “We try hard not to be controversial and not to offend anyone.”

At the same time, Muslim women are upset with the situation they have been put in.

Reem Rahman, a sophomore in LAS, voiced her opinion recently, against advice from relatives. She wrote a letter to a Chicago radio station, accusing a popular radio host of advocating “deliberate racial profiling.”

“A lot of people are afraid to say things,” Rahman said. “There are key words that I wouldn’t say on the phone or in e-mail. The mentality is that we are being monitored. It causes you to curtail what you’re saying.”

Rahman said she is hesitant to perpetuate the stereotype of an extremist Muslim.

“Sept. 11 allowed (Muslims) to see the extent to which extremists had gained power,” said Valerie Hoffman, an associate professor of Religious Studies with a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies.

These extremist views dominate the media and ultimately prevent people from developing a real understanding of Islam, Hoffman said.

“The way we’re presented in the media as one monolithic religion” causes many of the group’s problems, Rahman said. She explained that misconceptions about Muslims can be attributed to the way they are portrayed by the media.

These fallacies about Muslims characterize them as violent, Butt said. She also explained that many people think Muslim women are oppressed.

“There is a misconception that (Muslim) women are like those in Afghanistan,” said Laila Al-Marayati, a spokesperson for the Muslim Women’s League and a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Rahman agrees that Muslim women are misunderstood. This begins with the hijab, she said. The hijab, to her, is about moving the emphasis from the way one looks to “your character, your personality and what your actions are. These things define who you are,” she said.

Although there is no scientific count of American Muslims, the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates the number to be seven million. Before Sept. 11, this minority simply never received the news coverage it receives now.

“People are more aware (of Islam), but not any more knowledgeable about it,” Al-Marayati said. “There is both an inability and an unwillingness to understand.” The news coverage helped to create myths about Islam that may take a long time to erase.

“This Muslim community was set back decades,” Al-Marayati said.

“Before, they could be ignorant about us, but now they’re ignorant and they hate us,” Butt said.

This ignorance and hatred has helped fuel many problems in the daily lives of Muslim women.

“It’s a fact that it’s harder for us to get jobs because of our last names,” Rahman said. She explained that a friend of hers, while applying to work at a law firm, was told it was unlikely that she would be able to get a job if she continued to wear her hijab.

Companies are hesitant to hire applicants who look like they are Muslim, Rahman said.

“People don’t want that as a representation of the company,” she added.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, between Sept. 11, 2001, and May 29, 2002, the commission received 497 charges alleging discrimination on the basis of the Muslim religion. During the comparable period one year earlier, 209 charges were received.

Many policies in the United States could discriminate against practicing Muslims, either accidentally or on purpose. In order to receive her visa, for example, Yasemin Copur, a graduate student, had to take off her hijab for her picture. If she refused to do this, she would not be granted her visa and would be unable to study in the United States.

The U.S. embassy in Turkey explains on its Web site “if the applicant must wear head cover, the ears and the forehead must be seen clearly.” The hijab, though, is supposed to cover those things, Copur said.

Muslim women had problems like this before, but Sept. 11 exacerbated these, Al-Marayati said.

“(Muslim women) must now be defensive and open at the same time,” Hoffman said.