Arab Americans and American Muslims Express Mental Health Needs
By Deborah Goodman
"I have a friend who said, 'In the morning, instead of telling
me Good Morning, my boss tells me Hi Terrorist.' And then I asked
her, 'But why don't you call the police or call somebody who would
be able to help you with this?'
"And she said, 'Adnan, I want you to know that if I call anybody,
I will be fired. And I need this job.' "
This incident was related by Adnan Hammad, Ph.D., director of health
and medical services at the Arab Community Center for Economic &
Social Services in Dearborn, MI, at an Arab American and American
Muslim listening session hosted by SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health
Services (CMHS) in November, just 2 months after the September 11
terrorist attacks on America.
It is one example of the verbal harassment, vandalism of property,
and physical assaults-some resulting in deaths-that many Arab Americans
and American Muslims have experienced since the attacks. These events
prompted SAMHSA to hold a listening session to examine the effects
on the mental health of this community.
CMHS staff-Capt. John Tuskan, Jr., R.N., M.S.N, Teresa Chapa, Ph.D.,
and Zena F. Itani, M.P.H.-planned and coordinated the meeting, which
focused on identifying unmet mental health needs and drafting recommendations
to address them. The discussion was facilitated by CMHS National
Advisory Council member Abdul Basit, Ph.D., a research associate
in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and
president of the American Islamic Association of Mental Health Professionals.
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Problems & Needs
In the wake of September 11, many Arab Americans and American Muslims
experienced both grief and fear: grief at the tragedy and loss of
life, and fear of being blamed and stigmatized.
Zahid Bukhari, Ph.D., director of Project MAPS (Muslims in American
Public Square) at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding,
Georgetown University, described the variety of ways in which Muslims
were affected by the incidents: some as victims or relatives of
victims killed while working in the World Trade Center, some as
targets of backlash discrimination, some serving as members of the
American military, and some who have received positive expressions
of support from other Americans in the wake of the tragedies.
Citing some examples of interfaith solidarity, Sayyid Syeed, Ph.D.,
secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said
that when the Toledo, OH, Islamic Center was attacked after September
11, approximately 1,500 people of other faiths circled the Islamic
Center and provided protection the next day.
The diversity of societal reactions has created an emotional "roller
coaster for Muslims for the last 2 months," Dr. Bukhari observed.
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Perhaps the most universal experience following the attacks has
been a profound self-questioning.
"The same question keeps coming up," said Salma Abugideiri, M.Ed.,
LPC, of the Center for Multicultural Human Services in Falls Church,
VA. "How American am I? What does it mean to be Arab? Can I be Arab
American? And what does it mean if I'm a Muslim in America who has,
up till now, felt very comfortable, very safe, appreciating the
religious freedom . . . and now being forced to answer some very
Listening session participants said that many Arab American and
Muslim children born and raised in the United States are now fearful
to attend school or go to the movies and have been asking difficult
theological questions that their parents cannot answer.
Participants further noted that some first-generation Arab Americans
immigrated as refugees fleeing repressive regimes or war-torn countries.
The events have caused a retraumatization for them in a country
they had considered a haven.
Many Christian Arab Americans also experience confusion and isolation,
feeling as if they don't belong in either the Muslim Arab world
or in American society at large.
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Lack of Appropriate Help
Responding to the mental health needs of this community is complicated.
"Seeking mental health treatment [is] taboo; it's not part of our
culture," Ms. Abugideiri said.
As in many other cultures, stigma and a sense that problems should
be resolved within the family often prevent individuals from seeking
For those receptive to mental health counseling, other problems
arise, such as a lack of Arabic-speaking service providers for new
immigrants, or a lack of culturally appropriate treatment.
Dr. Basit, who has published articles on this subject, spoke about
the pitfalls of cross-cultural diagnosis and treatment.
In an article, "Religious and Ethical Factors in Psychiatric Practice,"
published in the Journal of the Islamic Medical Association,
Dr. Basit wrote, "The underpinning of all research, leading to various
schools of thought in the field of psychiatry, is without doubt
a product of Western scholars, representing the religio-cultural
traditions, historical symbols, and narratives of Western society.
. . . Consequently, methods and techniques developed in the West
may not be suitable for treating American Muslims, whose religious
and sociocultural backgrounds are quite different."
In other published papers, he delineates some of the differences
between Western and Islamic perspectives on counseling. In the West,
he says, primacy is placed on individualism and personal fulfillment,
whereas in American Muslim culture, personal goals are often subordinated
to the collective goals of the family and community.
Western psychotherapy, he also observes, is secular, focuses on
the development of new coping techniques, and often espouses a relativism
in ethical issues. In contrast, he says, an Islamic approach is
embedded in spiritual faith.
One participant described a cultural sensitivity training session
she had given for American social workers in which one of the social
workers suggested she remove her hajab (head scarf) to
"The mental health professionals really can do a great deal of
damage, and it only takes one person like that," she said. "The
word will spread throughout the community and then [people] won't
send their kids to the school counselors for fear that all of the
girls then are going to be encouraged to take off their scarves
or change other cultural patterns or ways of doing things."
In the current climate, many Arab Americans and Muslims further
distrust and avoid social service organizations for fear that if
they express themselves openly, they could be detained for questioning
or even deported.
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Community and Interfaith Outreach
Participants noted that in places where earlier efforts had been
made to build bridges with the greater community and to establish
interfaith activities before September 11, fewer problems arose.
Faroque Khan, M.B., M.A.C.P., a physician and the spokesperson
for the Islamic Center of Long Island, said that his Center's previous
outreach and educational activities over several years had resulted
in a supportive community response after September 11.
Participants urged that mosques and Muslim community centers invite
representatives from the police, fire, and public health departments,
as well as churches, synagogues, and temples, to attend events and
They also said that offering educational programs about Arabs and
Muslims to schools could help foster understanding among children,
teachers, and other school personnel.
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Culturally Sensitive Services
In addition to providing training in cultural sensitivity to mental
health professionals, participants also recommended that mental
health professionals work closely with Muslim religious leaders.
As one participant observed, "People in the Muslim community-and
it's probably true in Christian and other communities when these
crises occur-they will go to the religious leader in the community,
and quite often the religious leaders are not trained to intervene
Collaborating with imams and providing them with additional education
about mental health would enable the mental health and religious
communities to reach and assist people more effectively, participants
They called for funding more research on culturally grounded therapeutic
approaches for Arab Americans and Muslims, for the development of
manuals detailing best treatment practices, and for the compilation
of a directory of Muslim resources and services in America.
Participants also expressed a desire to help Americans increase
their understanding of Arabs and Muslims. They advocated for more
work with the media and entertainment industries to combat negative
Despite their concerns and the enormity of their task, participants
still generated a feeling of optimism.
As one observed, "We have come here today because we believe that
things can change."
For more information, contact Capt. John Tuskan at SAMHSA's Center
for Mental Health Services, Room 17C-05, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville,
MD 20857. Telephone: (301) 443-1761. E-mail: email@example.com.
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