Panel discusses perception of Muslim Americans at University of Richmond

Illustration by Mai-Phuong Bai

Zach Armstrong
Contributing Writer

A panel of Muslim journalists visited the University of Richmond Friday to discuss the roles of Muslim writers as a normalizing force in portraying Muslim-Americans as regular citizens, rather than others.

The discussion was sponsored by the Virginia chapter of the nonprofit Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America. The four journalists told stories of their experiences as Muslims growing up in America and how public perception of their demographic can be improved.

Carmel Delshad, an editor and reporter at WAMU 88.5, described stories of students at her middle school giving her the nickname “terrorist” after the 9/11 attacks. One student said “let’s drop bombs on all of them,” in reference to people of Middle Eastern descent. 

The panelists also discussed how news media covers the Muslim community in misleading ways. Buzzfeed reporter Hannah Allam said “there is no so much thing as the ‘Muslim community,’” since all Muslims are not one homogeneous group. Allam also discussed how she refrains from writing the words “hijab” and “Allah” in her reporting, saying they come across as “scary words,” and chooses to say “head scarf” and “God” instead.

Islamophobia has spiked in recent years. According to FBI data, there was a 99 percent increase in Muslim-targeted hate crimes from 2014 to 2016. In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order — colloquially known as the “Muslim ban” — barring residents of seven Muslim-majority countries entry to the U.S., as well as limiting the number of accepted refugees to 50,000.

According to recent surveys by Pew Research Center, half of Americans view Muslims as not being part of “mainstream American society,” and 41 percent said Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

The 2018 midterm election showed positive signs for Muslims in the U.S. with the election of the first two Muslim women — Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, and Ilhan Omar, D-MN — to Congress.

Omar, a Somali refugee, opened her Nov. 6 acceptance speech with the Islamic greeting “Assalamu alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.” She also danced to Somali song “Dirgax.”

According to Allam, many people watched Omar’s speech on social media and commented Islamophobic remarks, including “I’ve got some bacon for you,” mocking the fact that Muslims do not eat pork.

“I think [the election of Omar and Tlaib] inspired the death rattle of white supremacy,” said New York Times contributing writer Wajahat Ali. Ali also added that many Trump supporters are a base who “see Ilhan Omar as a direct threat to their identity.”

Ali said Omar and Tlaib should send a message to constituents that they are public servants first, who simply happen to be Muslim, to create a more positive view of Muslim Americans.

Allam said many people interpreted Omar’s victory as either the end of the world or a wonderful phenomenon. Few online comments on election night were simple congratulations of their victories.

Ali said news media should make people aware that the Muslim experience in the U.S. is not negative — it is one of joy, hope and success. Ali told the story of his uncle, a Middle Eastern immigrant who raised a family in the U.S. and felt he achieved the American dream. But the public perception didn’t change.

“When I turn on the TV,” Ali’s uncle said, “they either see me as a terrorist or a taxi driver.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included a quote in which Carmel Delshad said bullying made her stop wearing hijab. Delshad has not ever worn hijab in the past. The quote has been removed and updated as of March 5, 2019. 

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