“Radical Islamic terrorism is the problem. It just is, and it’s something that we have to accept.” My attending physician made this remark rather matter-of-factly as he continued typing his medical note on the computer. The patient, a middle-aged blonde Caucasian woman, was sitting at the edge of the exam table, and upon hearing his comment, immediately looked over at me, both of us somewhat surprised by his candor. I was a fourth-year medical student at the time, and I stood awkwardly in the corner, unsure of what to say. In most patient encounters, the patient is the most vulnerable person in the room, but at that moment, both her and I could feel that it was probably me: the son of Muslim immigrants from India.
The reality is that I don’t even practice religion—I consider myself a curious agnostic. But who I am is secondary to what I look like in todays racially, religiously charged environment, and I am conscious of this. It has led me to keep my Muslim middle name off my college and medical diploma, to be extra conscious of having facial hair and to think twice before talking about topics that may come across as “religious.”
Having heard such comments from my own senior physicians, it will be hard for me to come to terms with the thoughts and opinions that some of my patients may have about me because of my name or how I look. In a short medical encounter, there is little space for unnecessary discomfort due to differences in culture, religion or ethnicity.
This was not the first time a comment related to religion had been made in the clinical workplace while I was in medical school. Months earlier, on my first day on my surgery rotation, a senior physician asked how I pronounce my name. When I said, “Ah-braar,” he responded, “Ahmed?” I repeated my name, and he retorted, “Ahmed, Abraar—you’re all the same.” The irony of the situation was that he, himself, was of an ethnic minority group, yet did not show any empathy for our similarity. He was too focused on how I was different—more specifically, on how he thought I was Muslim.
As physicians, we are continuously reminded of the necessity for tolerance and understanding. Many of us have taken care of openly racist patients—I distinctly recall being in the operating room next to the lead surgeon, who was Jewish, as we were about to operate on a heavy-set white man. As we pulled the drape back from his body, we revealed an array of several Nazi tattoos. We operated anyway.
Colleagues who have cared for patients that are incarcerated often know that the person they are treating may have been a murderer or a rapist or a terrorist. They treat them anyway. As physicians, before anything else, we see patients. Not “Muslim” patients. Not “immigrant” patients. Just patients.
To be clear, I don’t believe there is any religion that supports the killing of innocent people, period. Thus, to use a religion as a descriptor for a type of terrorism is inherently a misnomer. This has become more than political semantics, because it is part of a driving force behind Islamophobia in the United States. This matters more than ever, given the recent religious immigration restrictions that are separating innocent people from their families, and notably keeping physicians away from their patients.
As a physician, I am certain that Islamophobia will be a point of concern for some of the patients that I care for in my career. It may make colleagues hold different opinions of me. It may affect who wants me to be their physician, and this is not an easy pill to swallow. It won’t be insurmountable—physicians are constantly on a journey to close the gap between themselves and their patients—but it will indeed be real. And I am certainly not alone: this will likely be the case for thousands of doctors in our country who are Muslim or who “look” like they might be, and this is unfortunate. Medicine is an art that is beautiful because of the differences among us all. Please, let us not allow religious intolerance to come in the way of that.