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Backlash against Muslims takes a toll on imams

Dec 16, 2015

Evening prayer at the Islamic Center of East Lansing.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. went way up after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. And the backlash against American Muslims is on the rise again after the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations notes on its website "that it has received more reports about acts of Islamophobic discrimination, intimidation, threats, and violence targeting American Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) and Islamic institutions in the past week-and-a-half than during any other limited period of time since the 9/11 terror attacks."

Not surprisingly, the increased backlash is causing a lot of stress for Muslims in general and for Muslim religious leaders in particular. 

Sohail Chaudhry is an imam at the Islamic Center of East Lansing. He says his job as an imam is part prayer leader, part teacher and, increasingly, part counselor. When he became an imam ten years ago, by then the anti-Islam sentiment had died down after 9/11 and he mostly counseled Muslims about their religion; occasionally some marriage and conflict resolution counseling, too.

Today, he still deals with those issues, "but also due to changing political climate and what’s happening around the world, there are new issues that were not there back then."

Like how to deal with Islamaphobia.

A few Fridays ago after the terrorist attacks in Paris, a female Muslim college student came to him for counseling. Chaudhry says the young woman "said to me that her professor came into the class one day and jokingly said to her, ‘I hope you’re not hiding guns under your head scarf today.'"

The young woman didn't want to tell her parents about what had happened, and she didn't know who among her friends she could turn to for advice. So she asked Imam Chaudhry what she should do. He suggested she report the incident to a counselor at her school. 

With the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, Chaudray says Muslims in the U.S. and in his community are stressed and anxious. They want to know: Are they safe? Are their children safe? And they turn to him, the imam, for answers.

And they aren’t the only ones who turn to imams for answers. The media demand answers, too.

Farha Abbasi, a psychiatry professor at Michigan State University, recently surveyed dozens of Michigan imams to evaluate their mental health and she found "that one of the biggest stressors that they are facing is the political atmosphere and media coverage."

Not only do imams constantly have to defend Islam in the media after something bad happens in the name of their religion, says Abbasi, but they also see their mosques coming under attack, too. Just recently there have been reports around the country of mosques being vandalized and of armed protests outside the mosques.

The L.A. Times put together a timeline of recent attacks and threats against mosques and Muslims in America. Here's an excerpt:

Dec. 8: Officials at a mosque in Jersey City, N.J., reported receiving a letter calling Muslims “evil” and telling them to “go back to the desert,” one of a number of hateful messages in recent weeks. The letter referenced comments Donald Trump made about people in Jersey City celebrating after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Dec. 7: A caretaker at the Al Aqsa Islamic Society in northern Philadelphia found a severed pig’s head on the doorstep (especially offensive because many Muslims do not eat pork for religious reasons). Police and the FBI are searching for suspects.

Dec. 7: The owner of Fatima Food Mart in New York said he was attacked by a customer who said, “I’ll kill Muslims.” Police arrested the customer, a white man in his 50s.

Dec. 2: An apparently bullet-riddled copy of the Koran was left outside an Islamic clothing store in Anaheim the day of the San Bernardino shooting.

Imam Suhail Chaudhry from the Islamic Center of East Lansing says it’s all very stressful.

"There literally are days when we are thanking by the end of the day that nothing happened today," says Chaudhry. "We did not hear any news about Muslims or Islam being or attacked, or Muslims being part of some terrorist activity around the world.

That gives the imam, at least from my end, another day off from these kinds of issues and worrying about how we’re going to respond. So it is very relieving to me when, for example, a whole week goes by and we have not heard anything like this. But ... I’m not getting those weeks."

Chaudhry says he doesn’t see an end in sight. Especially now that the presidential race is ramping up and Islam and Muslims in general have become a major focus for many of the candidates