Image: Imane Boudlal
Jae C. Hong  /  AP file
Imane Boudal covers her face as she leaves Disney's Grand Californian Hotel with civil rights coordinator Affad Shaikh, left, in August. Boudlal claims Disney, her employer, sent her home without pay after she refused to remove her head scarf in front of customers.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/13/2010 2:23:55 PM ET 2010-09-13T18:23:55

The anti-Muslim sentiment seen across the nation in opposition to mosque building and even a Florida pastor's threat to burn the holy book of Islam, the Quran, increasingly is showing up at the workplace.

Claims of discrimination against Muslim workers — which spiked immediately after 9/11 and then dissipated — are showing signs of resurgence.

“There is a hatred, an open hatred, and a lack of tolerance for people who are Muslim,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the Phoenix district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She said she has seen an uptick in discrimination complaints among Muslim workers in her region, which includes Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

“I think the mosque in Manhattan seems to be a flashpoint, but it taps into feelings that preceded it,” she said. “The feeling among people in the workplace,” she added, is “not only are we not going to accommodate your practices and beliefs, we’re also going to ridicule you and call you names.”

Claims of bias against Muslims in the workplace rose to 1,490 last year from 1,304 in 2008 and just 697 in 2004, according to EEOC figures. Last year's total was even higher than in the year after the 9/11 attacks, when bias claims hit 1,463. Figures from this year are not yet available.

Video: Panel on ‘tumultuous’ week leading up to 9/11 anniversary (on this page)

A poll released last month by the Pew Research Center that shows that the public’s view of  Islam has deteriorated, with only 30 percent of Americans expressing a favorable opinion of Islam, compared with 41 percent in 2005.

“One can easily conclude that since the general situation is so unfavorable when it comes to Muslims that this negative idea is carried into the workplace,” said Shams Inati, a professor at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at Villanova University.

O’Neill said the bias against Muslims in the workplace is the worst she has seen in her 30-plus years working for the EEOC and described it as “chilling.”

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One particularly disturbing case O’Neill is involved in is an EEOC suit against meatpacking company JBS Swift & Co.

The suit claims the company discriminated against Somali and Muslim employees at its headquarters in Greeley, Colo., and another one of its facilities in Grand Island, Neb.

The suit alleges a pattern of discrimination and a failure to accommodate the workers’ religious requirements for prayer breaks. The charges also include a series of abusive behavior among JBS employees.

“Managers, supervisors, and other employees regularly threw blood, meat, and bones at the Somali and Muslim employees,” the EEOC suit alleges. “There was offensive anti-Somali, anti-Muslim and anti-Black graffiti present in the restrooms."

JBS officials did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

“I keep thinking we’re making strides and then we go through bad periods like this,” said O’Neill. Making matters worse, she said, is the bad economy. “With hard economic times scapegoating goes on. If we had full employment and plenty of jobs, this gets buried a little bit.”

Another case making headlines involves a Disney hotel hostess in California who supposedly was sent home last month because she refused to take off her hijab, an Islamic headscarf.

Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said the worker, Imane Boudal, 26, was offered the option of working away from public view or wearing headwear the company thought would more appropriately fit in the theme of its hotel.

“She’s chosen, over and over again, to reject all the options presented to her,” Brown said.

“Disney has apparently worked to hide Imane's hijab, fearful the sight of hijab would adversely impact its guests,"  Boudlal’s lawyer Ameena Mirza Qazi wrote in the Orange County Register. "Imane, on the other hand, has worked in good faith to show up to work eight times and try on their options, as demeaning and contrary to their agreement as they were, and was consistently sent home without pay.”

Hiding a worker’s religious displays from public view because an employer is fearful how customers will perceive them is not allowed under the nation’s labor laws, legal experts said.

“You can’t say to a receptionist, ‘I don’t want you wearing headgear because it drives customers away,’” if the attire is religiously based, said Danielle Urban, an employment attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Denver.

Decisions on what an employer can legally forbid are based on whether the request from an employee is reasonable and can be accommodated, she explained. If wearing a headscarf is a safety issue on a production line, for example, then an employer may be allowed to bar such scarves.

“But it’s not a reasonable request to honor someone else’s bigotry,” she added.

Urban said she has been getting calls lately from employers asking about worker attire, including things like tattoos and piercing that workers claim are part of their religions or national origin.

She also got a call from a car dealership last year asking about an employee who had converted to Islam and started wearing a hijab.

“They wanted to move her to the back. They were worried about what their customers would think,” said Urban, who advised the employer not to move her.

The Muslim community is taking steps to quell some of the bias.

A coalition of Muslim Americans, under the name MyFaithMyVoice, produced a public service announcement this month including average Muslim Americans in a cacophony of voices asking Americans not to fear them.

“Our hope is the PSA will address the general fear that people have about Muslims and Islam in America,” said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the group. “We hope it will help when people deal with colleagues, students and neighbors.”

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To Villanova’s Inati, the PSA shows how desperate American Muslims are to do something to stop the escalating bias.

“What I have found is sad,” she said . “In the Muslim community, many are confused and don’t know what to do. They want to be more accepted, and some wonder if changing the way they’re dressed will do it. They want to try their best to prove that they are good.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Video: Panel on anti-Muslim sentiment

  1. Transcript of: Panel on anti-Muslim sentiment

    of the best-selling book "No god But God: The Origins , Evolution , and Future of Islam ," Daily Beast contributor Reza Aslan ; editorial director for the National Journal Group , Ron Brownstein ; Republican strategist Mike Murphy , all the way in from L.A. ; and former Clinton White House press secretary and contributing editor to Vanity Fair , Dee Dee Myers . Welcome, all of you. I want to talk politics, I want to talk the economy, but I do want to talk about 9/11 and this tumultuous week, a surreal week in many ways, with the threats from the Florida pastor and this ongoing debate about what's going on in lower Manhattan . And, and we look at this, the views of Islam in The Washington Post poll, unfavorable now at 49 percent. Look at that, eclipsing even the unfavorable rating in October of 2001 . And you look at the, the flag burnings, some of the reactions that we've seen to the debate we've been having here going on in the Middle East , in Afghanistan , in Pakistan , burning flags, you see this kind of thing. This is a hearts and minds campaign that General Petraeus is waging in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Pakistan , and there are setbacks to it. Reza , you wrote this as part of an NPR commentary at the end of the summer , "The fear is that this [ Islamaphobia ] may lead to the same kind of radicalization among Muslim youth in the U.S. that we've seen in Europe. It has already played into the hands of al-Qaeda , which has for years been trying to convince American Muslims that the unfettered religious freedoms they enjoy is a mirage. ... Are we in danger of proving al-Qaeda right? I am a liberal, progressive, secularized American Muslim. But when I see that bigotry against my faith my very identity has become so commonplace in America that it is shaping into a wedge issue for the midterm elections, I can barely control my anger. I can't imagine how the next generation of American Muslim youth will react to such provocations." What's behind this?

    MR. REZA ASLAN: Well, look, I think part of it has to do with the controversy surrounding the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan . And while it's true that there are those who oppose the project because they do believe that it will disturb the sensitivities of some 9/11 victims -- though I, I, I do want to remind everyone that in this country we do not define our constitutional rights by how they disturb people's sensitivities -- you only had to spend a few minutes at Ground Zero yesterday and to take in this international cabal of anti-Muslim zealots that had gathered together to spout the most vile racist bigotry to know that this is about something more. Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country is at unprecedented levels. We all know this. But what's truly disturbing is how mainstream it's becoming with politicians on both sides -- and I would have to include the former mayor in this, in this category -- openly and explicitly associating American Muslims with al-Qaeda . I mean, what I'd like to know from, not just the former mayor but from, you know, the people who, who keep talking about this Islamic community center , is that what is it that this multifaith, multistoried community center being led by an American imam that two presidents, Republican and Democrat, have used as a -- as an ambassador to the Muslim world , cultural ambassador to the Muslim world , what does that have to do with al-Qaeda ? The answer is kind of simple, actually: Islam . But let's call a spade a spade for a moment. If you are painting 1.5 billion people with the same brush of violence and, and, and extremism, you're a bigot. And I think what's, what's disturbing is the way that that's become part of the, the, the natural discourse now.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, and it's become, Ron , it's become politicized, 9/11 has...

    MR. RON BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely.

    MR. GREGORY: ...in these debates in a way that, I mean, 9/11 has been politicized in different ways, you can argue, since then, but in a different way now.

    MR. BROWNSTEIN: We have a lot of threats tangled together here. Both President Bush and President Obama , for the reasons you cited in your article, have said that -- have viewed it in our interest to make clear, and no one more forcefully than President Obama in the last few days, that the U.S. is at war with terror, but we're not at war with Islam . That has been viewed as essential to send that message to the world . I think the, the lesson that we're seeing in this controversy over the mosque is that not all Americans agree. And, in fact, with President Bush out of office, Bush expressing those sentiments sort of suppressed that kind of argument in the Republican Party . If you look at polling that came out recently by Time magazine , a plurality of Republicans said that a Muslim should not be allowed to run for president. Now, the flip side of this is that to some extent this sentiment is being driven by what you're describing perhaps already happening. The successor to the Kean-Hamilton group, the 9/11 commission, the National Security Preparedness Group , came out with a, a powerful study this week that talked about these individual, one-off cases of terrorism really being part of a new pattern in terms of becoming the major security threat to the U.S. , and that in many cases it is radicalized American Muslims. Still a fringe element of the, of the overall population, but nonetheless real. And things like the Times Square and the, and the Texas shooter, those kinds of things fuel the sentiment on the other side , which may, in fact, produce kind of a downward spiral here.

    MR. GREGORY: But, Dee Dee Myers , is some of this the demonization of the other because of what the country 's going through right now? I mean, we are in an economic situation, as I pointed out, it's on the cover -- front page of The New York Times , more and more families going into homeless shelters. I mean, this is just not a policy debate about taxes and spending, this is about real impact on real lives around the country . Is that in part what's fueling this? And can President Obama make a gesture like going to a mosque, saying he -- that's something he admired about what President Bush did, saying that it's not a war against Islam . Can he do something like that?

    MS. DEE DEE MYERS: Well, there's no question that throughout our history when times have been bad and economic declines and depression or in times when we're -- we've been at war we've been susceptible to vilifying some group of people, whether it's, you know, interning the Japanese -- Japanese-Americans during World War II , or many other instances across our history. So that's no question that there -- that that's fueling it. The other thing that's fueling it and that is so disturbing is that certain people saw political opportunity in fueling it. People are economically uncertain. But there's political opportunity, and that's why we're seeing the politicization yesterday for the first time in nine years of the commemoration of 9/11. And so, you know, you have sort of economic downturn meets political opportunity, and it's created this really unfortunate...

    MR. GREGORY: Isn't it true, Mike Murphy , though, that, you know, Rudy Giuliani , in the past several months, has been so critical of this administration's orientation toward fighting the war on terror , and yet now he's agreeing with President Obama when he says it can't dominate our foreign policy ? There's no substantive opposition to what the Democrats are doing right now in terms of fighting terrorists.

    MR. MIKE MURPHY: No, no. I -- look, I think the country 's united in fighting terror. You can argue about the tactics, you can argue about foreign policy emphasis because there are a lot of other problems in the world, rise in China , many things.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. MURPHY: But yeah, Islamofascism is something there's a national consensus on. And I think that's part of the problem with this debate now on, on Islam . The elections aren't about Islam . But one of the problems is, I think there becomes a phony moral equivalence that sometimes we hold ourselves on a nutty standard to. Many of our enemies are places where the state, they're theocracies. So religion is a weapon to them. We're trying to still be a civil society. And so I, I think we have to be careful to keep our consensus of, of no bigotry. Some nut in Florida with a press release and a Bic lighter becomes a moon launch. I blame the media for some of that. There ought to be control on the oxygen on all this. But I think we are still a very tolerant country , and we're the good guys in this.

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