Thursday, November 5, 2009

Now Hiring. Muslims Need Not Apply.

For Muslim-Americans, discrimination in the workplace and in hiring practices is the norm. This discrimination comes in many forms; but no matter what form it comes in, it has a grave impact on Muslim-Americans. Muslims and Non-Muslims should remember that such discrimination in America is a part of our history. Many religions, cultures and ethnic groups have faced hatred and bigotry in the past, and in many ways, it’s just our turn. The difference is, however, that we have certain recourse that other minorities did not have in the past.

It’s common for Muslim-Americans to face discrimination in the workplace. During job interviews especially, Muslims who practice outwardly by either wearing a hijab for women, or a beard and a kufi (skullcap) for men, are at a significant disadvantage. Notably, one Muslim woman was not hired at Abercrombie and Fitch because her headscarf did not (supposedly) fit their style. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2008, reported 3,273 complaints of religious-based discrimination.

I have personally found that there are several ways in which discrimination at job interviews happens:

1) They are open about it. While applying for a job to load and unload trucks at a local FedExKinkos dock, I got the ol’ “go back where you came from.” Even worse, one classmate in college was told in a phone interview “sorry, we’re not hiring Muslims right now.” I remember the look on her face when she told me that. I remember her telling me how tired she was of this country, and how she just wanted to go back to Pakistan. (She was a U.S. Citizen.)

2) They just can’t get over it. For a possible job at a charitable organization in Rochester, NY I was given the option of having a phone interview, or coming in person. I always like to come in person, because I am not ashamed of how I look, nor do I want any surprises the first day of work, if I do get the job. As usual, the interviewer walked in with a smile, until she saw me. Her face changed, but she tried to be cordial. She asked me some questions and I politely and smilingly replied. While I was replying to one of her questions, however, (I’ll never forget this!) the interviewer exploded like a volcano. Out of nowhere, she suddenly slammed her hand on the table and screamed “I have friends in Israel!”

3) They give excuses. This is the interviewer that doesn’t really have ill will towards Muslims personally, but also can’t afford to be a hero. “Look,” they usually start out, “most of my clients are [fill in the blank] and they wouldn’t like it if I hired you.” For me, that blank was filled with “firefighters.” For my sisters (who are dentists) in Long Island, that blank was filled with “Jewish.”

4) They are “subtle.” “Don’t worry,” I was told with a wink and a smile, “we’ll take care of you.”

No matter how you’re discriminated against, it hurts. Like hell. All at the same time, you feel angry, helpless, bitter, worthless, and alien to your own society. You feel different, and, after a while, despair sets in. A study done by psychologist Mona Amer of Yale University corroborates this. In her study of 611 Arab-American adults, she found that Arab-Americans had much worse mental health than Americans overall. About half had symptoms of clinical depression. The cause of this depression, she says, is the verbal harassment Muslims and Arab-Americans face in a post 9/11 world.

Instead of depression, Muslims need to look at the broader picture, and buck up. America has a long history of discriminating against many different races, cultures, creeds and religions at one time or another for various reasons. Blacks faced slavery. Native Americans had their land and culture destroyed. The Japanese were thrown into internment camps, (imagine every Muslim in America thrown into Guantanamo). Women weren’t allowed to own property (Please note, Muslim women have always had the right to own their own property thank you very much!)

An old Jewish neighbor (who has since retired and moved away), graduated from the same law school I did. He told me his story when he was a first-year law student. “I remember one student, he was a Catholic Priest, who decided to go to law school. He was no dummy. He actually ended up graduating at the top of his class! I’ll never forget the first conversation we had. As we were talking, he started staring at my head. ‘What are you looking at?’ I asked. ‘We were always taught that all Jews had horns,’ the priest replied.”

Don’t forget, even Catholics were discriminated against. When the Irish-Catholics came to America during the potato famine, signs outside businesses would openly say “Help Wanted. Irish Need Not Apply.” When Kennedy ran for president, he had to repeatedly say that he would not take orders from the pope. Moreover, an entire group, known as the “Know-Nothing Party” also known as the “American Party” was dedicated to keep immigrants and especially Catholics from being able to vote or hold public office.

The point is, that becoming part of the American story means going through the same growing pains and the same rights of passage all other American subcultures went through, namely, discrimination. This is not to say, that discrimination is ok; just that people have gone through this before, and things have gotten better. Eventually, Muslims will be recognized as the full members of American society they are, just like all other groups.

What non-Muslim Americans should learn from their past, is not to discriminate in the first place. Even if your ancestors came to America on the Mayflower, they did so because of persecution and discrimination. Every American should look to their past and try to remember when they, as a group, were shunned, hated and despised. They should remember the trials and tribulations their ancestors went through just because they were “different.” Every American should remember the evils of the discrimination their ancestors faced, and know that they have the chance to be a part of the fight against this evil. Judge us not by the direction in which we pray, but by the content of our character.

The good news is, Muslims have recourse that most previously discriminated American subcultures didn’t. Muslims often do not speak up against what is done to us, but we have every right to. Laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect us from the injustices we face. Just last month, a Muslim won a settlement against his employer for allowing other employees to make jokes about Muslims being terrorists. Moreover, of the 3,273 religious discrimination complaints, almost a quarter of them resulted in outcomes favorable to the parties claiming discrimination, with a total payout of 7.5 million dollars last year. For more information about fighting discrimination, see the EEOC website.


In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,007 Americans, 58% said they had never met a Muslim. And those who did know Muslims felt a lot better about them.

In Los Angeles, there are two "cousins clubs," interfaith groups of Muslim and Jewish women, so named because they share a common ancestor, Abraham. Participants read each others' sacred texts, celebrate holidays together and learn about one another's spiritual lives.

The women have become close, says Shayna Lester, co-founder of one of the groups. "We find we have more likenesses than differences. We no longer call each other cousins. We call each other sisters."

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