Several Muslims interviewed in a new survey have had positive experiences with answering people who verbally attack them by being kind and initiating a two-way conversation. But practitioners of this strategy pay a price. It’s exhausting to have defend yourself all the time.

How do young Muslims deal with hate speech and verbal assaults?

What does it do to you to be regularly called a "bloody terrorist" or some other ugly epithet?

Hatred against muslims and verbal assaults are part of everyday life for many muslims, also in Norway. This has been shown in many studies.

After the terrorist attacks in France in October, this Muslim hatred could blossom again in Norway, said Linda Tinuke Strandmyr, acting director of Agenda X, the Norwegian Anti-Racist Centre's resource centre for youth.

“These kinds of incidents contribute to increasing the sense that Muslim people are the enemy, there’s no doubt about that. People who grow up in Norway with a skin colour or religion that’s different than the majority are constantly made aware of how these events affect us,” she says.

“Racism hurts,” says Linda Tinuke Strandmyr.

Learning more about coping strategies

How do Muslims experience this kind of hatred?

What strategies do they have to cope with these assaults — year after year?

There has been little knowledge about this issue — until now.

“It's a paradox, because this is a major societal problem,” says Rune Ellefsen, a researcher at the University of Oslo. Ellefsen and his colleagues Azin Banafsheh and Sveinung Sandberg have conducted an in-depth study to come up with some answers.

The study is part of a larger research project called "Radicalization and Resistance", which has involved interviewing 90 Norwegian Muslims aged 18–32.

Fully 67 of the participants had experienced verbal assaults, discrimination or social exclusion because they were Muslims.

Travelling by bus

The young Muslims in the study described a wide range of experiences that had affected them.

What’s most difficult, they said, are angry encounters that happen face-to-face and are directed at them personally. This is in contrast to what we hear about the most, which is attacks that take place online and via social media and by other groups.

Rune Ellefsen and colleagues have conducted a major study on a little-studied topic.

“Perhaps the most common verbal harassment is that people say ‘bloody Muslim’ and ‘bloody terrorist’. Many Muslims who work in the service industries have experienced this,” says Banafsheh.

These young Muslims also described the experience of riding public buses, and have somebody get up and move to another seat when when they sit next to them.

They also shared stories about threatening body language and being pushed.

Three common strategies

The Muslims in the study had different strategies for reacting to these experiences.

However, there were some recurring patterns, the researchers found.

One of the strategies is to talk back.

This strategy involves responding briefly and pointedly to insults or accusations about Islam. It can also provide an opportunity to share what you know about the religion.

Ahmed, 26, believes it is important to offer good arguments as well as information about Islam to counter the bullying and "win the arguement" over the attackers.

Another is to enter into dialogue.

Researcher Azin Banafsheh believes that many Muslims are unable to ignore verbal assaults and hatred, even if they try.

The Muslims in the survey emphasized how important it was for them to be open and positive towards people who behaved hatefully. This allowed them to counteract prejudices and try to turn negative events into something positive.

Amina (19) said that she had had several encounters with people who bullied Muslims, but that she had a positive experience when she treated them with kindness:

"Many people start by attacking everything about me, whether it’s my religion or that I’m wearing a hijab. But the more effort I invest in them, the more I engage them in dialogue, the more often they actually end up saying that I am open and generous."

A third way to respond is to set a good example with your life.

This means following religious role models and showing that Islam is a peaceful religion. In this way, the young Muslims also tried to disprove the negative prejudices that trigger much of the bullying.

Sara, 24, said she thought about stories about the Prophet that she knew from childhood.

"Even if a person acts like a bastard towards you, you should never drop to that level. You must rise above it. It's the same as with Islam: No matter how bad other people are, you should be a good person back. "

Desribed serious incidencts as insignificant

The researchers found that the young people had a high threshold for identifying different behaviours as discrimination.

When they were asked if they had experienced bullying or verbal assaults, quite a few said no. But during the interviews, these same young Muslims described serious incidents that were clearly expressions of islamophobia and muslim-bashing, Ellefsen said.

Many of the participants also described relatively serious incidents as insignificant, and in that way tried to tone down the gravity of the experience and limit the amount of space it took up in their lives, he said.

Many of the participants said it was very tiring to be bullied all the time. It requires extra energy to defend yourself from the prejudices people have against Islam and Muslims.

Women who wear a hijab and men with beards are even more vulnerable as they are so visible.

“Some have consequently stopped wearing a hijab or have shaved off their beard. They find it stressful to be constantly compared to a terrorist,” says Banafsheh.

Society should protect minorities

Strandmyr from the Anti-Racist Centre is very happy that the researchers did the study.

“This perspective has been missing in research into this topic, as in what people should actually do when they experience hatred towards Muslims and racism. This makes this study very interesting, and it is very much in keeping with the image I have of how these kinds of assaults affect people,” she said.

Strandmyr believes that it is the responsibility of society at large to protect people from islamophobia and racism.

“It’s very stressful to bear this responsibility yourself. It’s a big responsibility to put on young people,” she said.

But society can’t protect us from everything, she adds.

“Ultimately, it's you the individual who has to deal with these feelings when you go to bed at night,” she said.

Racism hurts

The strategy of pushing the hatefulness away and downplaying it is very understandable, Strandmyr said.

But in the end, it’s not helpful or healthy.

“Discrimination and racism hurt. They affect you whether you choose to recognize it or not. That’s why it’s important that these young people talk to a psychologist, public health nurse or teacher about it. If you take it to heart, it takes up more space than you think,” she said.

On the other hand, she believes it can be constructive to understand what causes people to discriminate or become racists.

“It is important to understand that this is not about you as an individual. It's about some people being so incredibly superficial that they put you in the category of ‘other people’. This can be comforting to know. Then you can disengage from it,” she said.

Translated by: Nancy Bazilchuk


Banafsheh, Azin, Rune Ellefsen and Sveinung Sandberg: Jævla terrorist!”: Hvordan unge muslimer opplever og reagerer på muslimhets. ("Bloody terrorist!": How young Muslims experience and react to Muslim hate). In Ung i Norge You 2021, edited by Guro Ødegård and Willy Pedersen, Cappelen Damm.


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