From Ignorance to Bigotry

From Ignorance to Bigotry

Thank You Note

A huge thank you to Dr. Ashleigh Louis for giving me the chance to shed light on narratives that are usually unheard or even silenced.

A Kind Remark

The purpose of this article isn't to victimize the communities mentioned but to highlight the struggles that have resulted from terrorism, the media's reporting of it, and the political climate that surrounds this topic. There are plenty of ways in which terrorism affects these communities; I’ve decided to pick a few and give examples from my own experiences to help illustrate them.

Author's Background

I am an Egyptian American Muslim woman. I identify as a North African; an Egyptian identity that links Africans to Arabs. While I am not fond of the broad label "Middle Eastern," I accept the label whenever someone asks me if I am one.

I am white-passing, and I don't wear a hijab, but my mother does. Typically, people don't assume I am Muslim when they meet me because I don’t particularly “look like” what they expect. However, whenever I am with my mother, people generally gather that both of us are Muslim.

They Know, Oh No!

Being a Muslim who doesn't look like a Muslim (based on the narrow expectation held by many), I almost always feel like I am closeted. I fear that if a person I like knows my religious identity, they will stop liking me. It feels like I am always carrying this chip on my shoulder. I constantly fear the people around me and worry that they’ll treat me differently or worse, discriminate against me, and violate my human rights.

Are You Rude, or Are You a Bigot?

I often encounter people in life who act rudely towards me in a way I find difficult to interpret. I’m unsure in those situations if they are deliberating being rude, having a bad day, or are coming from a place of bigotry or racism. I can't tell you how many times I have interacted with flight attendants who have been extremely rude to me while being super friendly to others. The only explanation that I can think of was that my mother is a hijabi. Therefore, they know that we are Muslims and treat us accordingly. I am generally kind to everyone I meet, so it is hard for me to think that I might’ve personally triggered their behavior.

Once I forgot my phone in a terminal at Heathrow airport and had to go back through the security check so I could retrieve it. After I went through the fast track which I was told by a security guard to use, I asked people if I could go before them, which they happily agreed to. When I finally reached the security check the TSA agent turned his back to me. I kindly asked, "may I please pass?" and he ignored me. I asked again, "may I please pass?" This time, he shouts at me and says, "don't you see that I am busy?" And guess what? He wasn't doing anything. A Lebanese woman behind my mom and I realized what he was doing. She said in Arabic, "he is sneaky" and what she meant was that he did that on purpose and that he is not busy. In other words, he is just a bigot. Anyway, after a minute or two, he signals for a woman to take his place, and then she kindly asks me to pass through the metal detector. It is moments like these that I am unsure if the person I am encountering is discriminating against me or not. When that happens, I pray to God that I am paranoid and that their treatment is a result of a bad day and that it is unrelated to my identity/religious beliefs/race/ethnicity. No one wants to be an outcast or made to feel terrible about who they are, but when you are a minority, usually that is exactly how you feel, unfortunately.

Learning but Not Really

In one of my graduate classes, a professor of mine said: "I don't know what happened to Muslims, they used to be smart" in response to a student that made this unpleasant remark about a Muslim majority country. I remember raising my hand and saying that almost all Muslim majority countries are in political turmoil. There are intelligent Muslims just like there are intelligent non-Muslims; it is not a matter of religion. The only difference is that the media rarely sheds light on successful Muslims. Religion doesn't hold you back unless you are using it to limit yourself, and that is not exclusive to Islam or Muslims. I think the most frustrating thing about this whole incident is that we weren't in a political science, or theology, class. We were in a psychology class discussing different theories in counseling. And if there’s a group of people who should be particularly open-minded and sensitive to multiculturalism, it’s therapists!

Another past professor spoke poorly about her Muslim clients. They sought her help, and in return, she mocked them. Also, she made it seem like their actions were related to their Islamic beliefs. I spoke with her during break time and explained to her that there is a difference between culture and religion; in a nutshell, she brushed me off. She then continued to talk about Judaism and Christianity and their perspectives about a specific topic and then said condescendingly, "I don't know what Islam says about this. Does anyone know? I don't know what it says, but I can guess." So, I raised my hands and said I knew the answer because I am Muslim. The funny thing is that she was shocked to hear that ("oh, you are?"). I am guessing that she assumed that all Muslims look a certain way and I wouldn't be surprised if she did. I remember having to drag myself to her class. By the way, this class did not require discussing religious beliefs, and if it did, which it didn’t, her biased attitude was unnecessary. Unfortunately, there is more to this story, but I am choosing not to reveal it all to protect my anonymity.

Every single time incidents like this happened, my mind goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode and I completely zone out. I am unable to listen to my instructor, and I miss a huge chunk of the lecture. It bothers me because these professors were supposed to create a safe environment for all students (again, especially considering that they are therapists). Instead, they made me feel extremely uncomfortable and unwelcomed. Unfortunately, I am not the only Muslim or minority that has faced these types of issues with instructors.

Other Forms of Discrimination

Discrimination can occur in many forms to many groups of people. Terrorism is an extreme form of discrimination that affects people across the world, including physical and verbal assault, burning of mosques, or even murdering worshipers in mosques (like what happened in New Zealand). Of course, all of these forms of violence are not limited to the groups discussed below. I have chosen to focus on the following minority groups because they reflect aspects of my identity that allow me to speak from a place of experience and authentic personal impact. The following also represent groups that are commonly misunderstood, so I wanted to provide clarification and insight for those who want a more accurate understanding of these groups.


The general public believes that all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are Arabs, which is inaccurate. Islam is a world religion, meaning that there are Muslims from all over the world. There are Arab Muslims, African Muslims, North African Arab Muslims, Desi/Southeast Asian Muslims (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi), Chinese Muslims, Japanese Muslims, Western Muslims and the list goes on. Even though all Muslims share their religious beliefs, their cultures (and subcultures) differ due to divergent geographical factors. Hence, to say that all Muslims are the same is far from the truth. Just like any community, all individuals are unique even if they have similar cultures/traditions/rituals.

Not all Arabs are Muslims; in fact, there are Christian and Jewish Arabs. Christian Arabs are often discriminated against for the assumption that they are Muslims or because they are simply Arabs. I don’t personally know if Jewish Arabs are subjected to the same treatment, but I imagine it’s likely the case.

Want to learn more? Check out the following resources.

American in Arabic by Bassem Yousef documents Arab Americans trying to be involved politically due to rise in discrimination after 9/11 (watch 6:35 – 13:06).

Views on Arabs and Muslims in America post 9/11 (watch 16:28 – 16:46)

Arab Americans being defined by Americans (watch 7:18 – 8:32)

Arab American Association in New York and some struggles that Arabs have faced (0:12 – 3:56)

Middle Easterners

The general public uses Middle Eastern interchangeably with Arab and Persian. I am personally not a fan of that description given that it is too broad and doesn’t account for the differences that exist within the different countries/regions. That being said, it is without a doubt inaccurate to say that all Middle Easterners are Muslim.

Want to learn more? Check out the following resources.

Bassem Yousef interviews the Iranian American stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani. Jobrani speaks about being an Iranian American/Middle easterner (watch 3:00 – 9:00)

Egyptian American Jewish professor gives a brief introduction about her life (watch 5:16 – 12:45)


Sikhism is a religion, so when someone is a Sikh, he/she is not a Muslim. With that said, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims because Sikh men are usually brown complexioned, have long beards, and wear turbans. Given that the general public thinks that most Muslim men are brown, have beards, and wear turbans, this community is often misinterpreted.

Want to learn more? Check out the following resources.

American Sikhs’ experience

A Canadian Sikh politician being attacked by a woman who thinks he is Muslim

Brown People

The term “Brown people” sometimes refers to Southeast Asians. Also, it describes a persons’ skin color. Not all Southeast Asians are Muslims, so some non-Muslim Southeast Asians experience discrimination based on the assumption that they are Muslims. It is important to note that being Brown does not exclusively mean that you are Southeast Asian.

Want to learn more? Check out the following resource.

Lily Singh, a famous Non-Muslim Indian Canadian YouTuber, receives a bigoted comment and responds with a skit (warning: contains offensive language).


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