Browse all

Islamophobia today in the words of those who experience it

A look at the Italian situation between social media and reality

Islamophobia today in the words of those who experience it A look at the Italian situation between social media and reality

"That's enough. Are you going to give advice on how to convert too?" or "Take her out for carbonara and pork ribs." These are just some of the comments we received on March 17 under our post titled "How to support someone observing Ramadan". Although they might seem light-hearted and humorous on the surface, these words actually conceal (not very well) negative intent, making us reflect on the issue in Italy today. Motivated by these words, we have decided to give a voice to those who experience these issues firsthand to denounce Islamophobia once and for all.

What does Islamophobia mean?

In 1990 the Runnymede Trust, a British organization for racial equality, published an important report titled "Islamophobia: A Report on British Muslim Experience". This document already highlighted the spread of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United Kingdom and contributed to the broader recognition of Islamophobia as a distinct form of religious discrimination. Many reports followed, up to the present day. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved. According to experts in Geneva on March 15, 2024, the comments we received are not an isolated case but a small spark that contributes to igniting a much larger and more dangerous fire. This is why they have issued a warning about the alarming level of harassment, intimidation, violence, and hate speech based on religion or belief, which also affects Muslims in Europe.

Islamophobia today: data, studies, and statistics

A 2022 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that anti-Muslim prejudice is significantly higher than prejudice against other minority groups. Regarding Italy specifically, we have recent statistics that are downright frightening. The 2023 report on Islamophobia in Italy by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) highlights that in 2022, 129 episodes of Islamophobia were reported in Italy, an increase of 22% compared to 2021. Moreover, the report notes that Muslims in Italy are more likely to face discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, and education compared to other groups. We asked people directly affected by this form of discrimination in Italy to share their experiences.

Fay Yabre: direct and indirect discrimination

"Before I started wearing the veil, I never experienced Islamophobia, but once I put it on, I absolutely did. These incidents are divided into direct episodes, which I noticed are more frequent in the workplace, and indirect ones, which occur in everyday life," begins the account of Fay Yabre, a model and fashion design student. "An article published last year during fashion week in an Italian magazine - using the incident of an Iranian girl killed for removing her veil (an act totally against the principles of Islam) as a pretext - criticized the designers who allowed us to walk the runway for them, claiming that a girl walking on the catwalk with a covered head is a symbol of women's oppression. When I read this article, I was so upset that I cried," she continues. Unfortunately, these incidents also extend to daily life, for example at the beach. "As a Muslim woman, I have to wear the burkini, which initially embarrassed me a lot. When I finally decided to wear it to go to the beach, I felt extremely judged, sensing the disdain of people and their comments, which made me never want to swim at the beach in Italy again." And what about the indirect episodes? "Think about when during Ramadan you're asked if someone is forcing you, or the feeling when you pray outside your home: I feel extremely judged. Once a lady offered to help me without my family's knowledge, as if it were a given that a girl wearing a veil is forced to wear it."

As you might imagine, and as a direct consequence of all this, for Fay, being a Muslim content creator is more than a pastime; it's a true responsibility. "I feel the duty to try to make people understand that even though I wear the veil, I am a person just like everyone else. The first thing to do to improve the situation in Italy, in my opinion, would be to have more tolerance towards the Muslim community. For example, allowing leave from work to go to the mosque on Eid, not judging or creating problems for someone praying outside, not judging a girl entering the water in a burkini." Fay believes that social media can be useful for informing and educating on the subject. By changing perspectives, a Muslim girl who is afraid to come forward might feel a little less alone and a bit more understood, and those who watch her might connect with her and overcome some barriers. "To a girl who wants to take this path, I say go for it without stopping; there will be tough moments, but you will find people ready to learn from you and support you! When I started wearing the veil, being alone, it was essential to follow as many Muslim creators as possible with whom I could connect and be inspired by," concludes Fay, with an important insight into the positive side of social media, the community aspect.

Asha Salim: the power of faith

"Islamophobia in Italy is directly related to the fear of the different, the fear of something that doesn't correspond to the familiar norm. All these fears turn into hostility and therefore Islamophobia," explains Asha Salim, a writer who founded The Creal Club, a community characterized by "conversations, culture, and creative wellness from the perspective of Black and POC women of the diaspora." Salimm reveals that being a Muslim creator in Italy primarily means being one of the few. "I am not currently a hijabi woman, so people often don't ask what my religion is. Faith for me is a natural thing, and very personal. Faith and religion are fundamental parts of who I am, and I put them on social as I do in my everyday life," she tells us. According to her, the only solution to the problem of Islamophobia is education. "Education that starts from and within schools," she specifies. "If we encounter Islamophobic individuals and communities, it's because they have grown up with notions that Islam is something to be feared, something oppressive, whereas it's quite the opposite." But not only that: "The second thing, I believe, is recognition and sharing. By recognition, I mean acknowledging Islamic holidays just as we do with Christian ones, recognizing the hijab as a choice and not an obligation, and modesty as a will and not an imposition." According to the creator, social media has allowed us to bridge the gap between us and what appears distant and different. Her advice for a girl like her: "The first thing is to never lose Iman (faith); everything I have done, do, and will do is solely possible through my faith; without it, I would not be here, and I would not have the opportunity to pursue my ambitions. Then, I would tell her to stay true to herself, her principles, values, and culture. Creative environments can often create confusion and fear, especially in Milan, where you are often the only minority in work contexts (such as events). It is important to know who you are, be proud of it, and see your history and culture as a wealth."

Sabrina Salem: a matter of trust in the future

"Although I don't remember a single, strong experience of Islamophobia, I do remember well what I felt and experienced since elementary school. As a child, I kept telling myself that I was the same as everyone else and didn't understand why others didn't see it that way. To be invisible, to be the same, I imposed rules on myself that led me to detach from my religion, my origins, and to be angry with my family that was really supportive of me": this is how the story of Sabrina Salem begins, marked by exclusion and a perceived diversity to be eliminated. Sabrina is now 23 years old and is more confident than ever. In the past, it wasn't like this: "I suffered various forms of bullying, both from children and from teachers. They never missed an opportunity to make me feel different. It's absurd, because I remember well the day I decided that I wouldn't care anymore. I was in fifth grade and unfortunately or fortunately I had understood that the problems in life were other, and not the ignorant people around me," she confides. "When the ISIS period started, around 2013/2014, I was in middle school. Everyone was scared and no one spread the right messages to differentiate ISIS from Muslim people. In fact, that year for my third-grade exam, I presented the Quran and ISIS as my topic. It was really strange that a 13-year-old girl had to explain things to adults."

Her newfound serenity also came through skateboarding. "At Milan's Central Station, on my skateboard, I found an opening that allowed me to rediscover myself and be 100% myself. I felt good thanks to the street, to the people who were and still are there. This allowed me to bring out my most imaginative, inventive side. In the creative world, of which I am now a part as a stylist, I have the opportunity to express my truth every day." Sabrina Salem sounds hopeful: "Things are getting better now, I see it with my younger friends. Most of them have a multicultural approach and are more curious. Every year they experience Ramadan at 360 degrees with me. Perhaps a fundamental thing must also come from other Muslim people and from my community, they should be proud and open up to people without fear." And her advice? "Keep your identity close always. Especially now, and in our work. It’s easy to get lost, this is a chaotic world, but you have to be yourself. You might help someone who is suffering. Art, fashion, all forms of expression in general, can help anyone who doesn’t have the same opportunity to express themselves. Moreover, only by doing so will you find the right people you want to be surrounded by and consequently feel good. We are lucky to be able to live in multiple realities, let's make the most of them! It’s up to us to change things, and I no longer see it as a remote possibility."

Can words change things? Maybe not, but it's a start

"We must reclaim our narrative and tell our stories. We must show the world that we are not the one-dimensional figures we are often portrayed as. We are doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, and activists. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. We are human beings, just like everyone else": these words from Egyptian-American journalist and author Mona Eltahawy are emblematic and make us reflect on the superficiality of Western society in its approach to Islam. On TV, on the radio, in school classrooms: we hear about Islamophobia but it always seems like a distant story. Egyptian-Canadian activist and co-founder of the Muslim Women's Network, Aisha El-Hennawy, explains instead that: "Islamophobia is a global problem, but it requires local solutions. We must work together in our communities to combat prejudice and discrimination. We must educate our neighbors, our friends, and our families about Islam. We must defend each other and denounce injustice." And now, it’s also up to us to do something about it, with words but also with actions.