Exclusive Commentary: Islamophobia is a Public Health Issue

There is an elephant in the room. He has been stomping around the world for years, spraying graffiti on mosques, igniting fights and fires. His memory is exceptional, but selective, holding fast to images of war and terrorist attacks.  He even takes lives point blank.

On February 10, 3 young Muslim students were murdered in North Carolina—Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her younger sister Razan Abu-Salha. Craig Stephen Hicks might have been motivated to massacre his neighbors over a long-standing parking dispute. The media seemed quick to latch onto that chilling explanation over a more charged one—a hate crime. News reports that portrayed Hicks as an all-around angry guy who dissed all religions equally struck me as simplistic and one-dimensional, at best.

Within a week of turning himself in, Hicks was indicted on 3 counts of first-degree murder. But the conversation cannot and should not end there. We risk missing something big and malignant if we react to this tragedy like children sorting shapes; as if there’s a single reason for it that neatly fits into one box or another.

Like many public health problems, the Chapel Hill shooting strikes more than one chord. Both mental health and gun violence are clear topics for discussion. Islamophobia—fear of and hostility toward Muslims—is also a serious contender. At the very least, research shows that it may increase anxiety and depression in the population and reduce their sense of safety.

FBI data shows that between 2002-2013, Muslims have encountered around 100-150 hate crimes each year—a rate 5 times higher than before 9/11. The FBI is investigating whether or not the triple homicide will join the list.

“The overwhelming pressures faced by this group, including surveillance, hate crimes, and institutional discrimination, stimulate an urgent need for psychologists to better understand and ensure the well-being of this population,” wrote Mona Amer and Anisah Bagasra in the April 2013 American Psychologist.

The need to look at this attack and others through the lens of prevention—another pillar of public health—is clear to Iman Jandali, MHS, a member of the Barakat family who was trained at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“In the Department of Health, Behavior and Society, we are encouraged to look at social factors and root causes of public health problems,” she told me. “As a public health community committed to creating healthy environments, we need to treat Islamophobia like any other public health issue.”

In other words, we need to stop ignoring the elephant.

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