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What does anti-Muslim bias look like at the U? A Q&A with Sharifa Al-Qaaydeh

Sharifia Al-Qaaydeh is an associate clinical professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing.

This piece is part of an ongoing series about discrimination and how to prevent it.

One of the things that makes the University of Utah campus community so rich and diverse is the variety of backgrounds of its students, faculty, and staff. An important part of creating a sense of belonging and safety is creating space for people of different faiths and religious beliefs. At time, differing belief can lead to hateful or biased actions. 

This school year, the Racist and Bias Incident Response Team received two reports of anti-Islamic activity on campus. A note with a negative connotation about Islam was placed on a map of Saudi Arabia in a residential hall, and a propaganda letter that included anti-Islamic sentiment was sent to a university employee. 

An important part of addressing anti-Muslim bias on our campus is creating respect by working to better understand the experiences of Muslim community members. 

Asking respectful questions is completely appropriate, according to one Muslim student at the U. “If you are curious and respectful, it is usually OK to ask your friends questions about why they fast for Ramadan or wear a hijab, or do other things related to their faith,” she said. “That means someone is willing to learn more about someone else as a person and they are trying to overcome their biases.” 

Read more about that student’s experience here.

Sharifia Al-Qaaydeh, an associate clinical professor of nursing and a U alum, talked about her experience as a student and now faculty member on campus, and the ways people can be more inclusive and respectful of Muslim colleagues, students, peers, and friends.

How would you define or describe anti-Muslim bias?

Any comments or looks or assumptions that are based on a person’s bias of who a Muslim is. People often conflate being Muslim with being of Arab descent. With that, a common incorrect assumption is that someone doesn’t speak English. My name is very Arabic sounding, and even though I am from Utah and have lived here my whole life, people assume I don’t speak English. 

Another assumption is that being Muslim means you are oppressed. I’ve had a couple of encounters with people who assume your husband must beat you or that your life is controlled by an angry man who is forcing you to do things. I know there are some cases of that, but that is not unique to being Muslim. 

Those are two of the biggest things I encounter. I am not a person of color, and the Muslims I know who are tend to experience a lot more issues. 

You mentioned the assumption of oppression. In more left-leaning spaces, it seems that type of bias would be one of the most prevalent forms. Can you tell me more about your experience with that?

You bring up a good point. Left-leaning individuals and spaces can become oppressive in supporting women in wearing whatever they want, except for when it comes to wearing a head scarf. They’re fine with nuns. They’re fine if you want to wear hardly anything at all. They support all of that. But when it comes to the hijab, they say, “Oh no, that’s oppressive.” 

I’ve actually had even a couple of colleagues that I work with ask me about it, not in a negative way, just from a place of curiosity. What I will tell you is the majority of the people I know were never forced into it. I was not. I started wearing a head scarf, and even a more traditional one when I was younger before I was married or anything.  

There are some cultures where women are forced to wear it and I don’t want to downplay that either. I also wouldn’t consider those cultures representative of all Muslims. It’s hard to get people to see that you can support people at both ends of the spectrum. True acceptance would just be: “You can wear whatever you want.” 

What are examples of anti-Muslim bias in our campus and clinical community?

When I was a student in the early 2000s,  we were doing blood pressure readings and Doppler readings to assess if people had blood clots at a community health fair. An older gentleman asked me to take off his shoes because that’s what Muslim women do for their husbands. I got super upset. I remember telling my instructor, but not really getting any help. 

From my experience, and what I’ve heard from my students, one of the big places we see discrimination is from patients in clinical environments. One way to prevent this is working to educate patients to make sure they know making biased assumptions or disrespecting Muslim clinicians is not alright. 

How does anti-Muslim bias hurt the individual it is directed towards?

We have several nursing students each year who are Muslim and I think that sometimes anti-Muslim bias keeps them from speaking up. I’ve noticed sometimes they may not feel comfortable sharing information. We’ve had a couple who were kind of isolated from their groups. I can’t prove that there was bias there, but I see it with other students of color too. And we know student success is impacted by how involved and included students are. 

One way the university addresses this issue is by hiring faculty and staff that look like the cohorts of students they are serving. Students don’t feel as included if every person they see is white or male. If they can relate to somebody and somebody understands them a little bit more, that makes a difference. 

What are the ways people can be better allies to Muslim members of the campus community? 

Stand by your Muslim friends if they have concerns. Listen and try to understand. If you hear about something that can be reported, I always encourage students to do that, even if it is done anonymously. 

Ask questions about people, rather than making assumptions. And don’t always use students as examples of the underrepresented group they belong to. Don’t make them the poster child for Muslims on campus. Realize we have students from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences on our campus who are Muslim.