Haider Javed Warraich

Recently, my wife and I have been searching for what could be our first home as we move from Boston, Massachusetts, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, trying to figure out what’s important to us - hardwood floors, a second garage or an updated kitchen. The killing of three Muslim students on Wednesday added a new wrinkle: which neighbourhood offers the best chance of me not being shot in the head for my religious beliefs?

While these events have given me great pause about our move, I also know that I am not immune from prejudice in a city as diverse as Boston.

A few days before Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were gunned down in their apartment, I walked to the bedside of an elderly woman just admitted to the cancer ward and, as I started taking her medical history, I led with my tried and tested opening: “Sorry to see you here but it’s nice to meet you.”

Midway through her story of how she was admitted, she stopped abruptly, looked me straight in the eye and asked “Tell me where you’re from?”

“I am from Pakistan”, I said without hesitating.

Her face immediately contorted, “Oh, Pakistan? A good Pakistani usually blows things up.”

Though the stereotype is that doctors are accorded a certain amount of dignity in American society, it’s not always true for doctors who happen to be Muslim; for many Americans, they remain Muslims who just happen to be doctors. For instance, a Canadian-Muslim medical student was making rounds with a surgical team at a hospital in New York the day after a gunman killed a guard outside the National War Memorial in Ottawa when, at 5:00am, her attending physician pulled her in front of a television, pointed to the gunman and said, “Look, this is what your people are doing.”

Another medical graduate interviewing for residency training in Tennessee, days after a recent school massacre in his hometown of Peshawar, Pakistan was asked by his interviewer, “Do you think the perpetrators of those killings are good Taliban or bad Taliban?”

In the years since 9/11, and with each international act of violence committed by a Muslim, being Muslim in America gets harder each day.

And while the Chapel Hill police have claimed that the triple homicide of these young Muslims was the result of a parking dispute, the friends and family of the victims claim that their deaths were the latest gruesome manifestation of Islamophobia - and it comes on the heels of close-by Duke University reversing a plan to have the Muslim call to prayer being recited from the historic chapel after coming under pressure from Christian groups.

Muslims aren’t the first group in America who have been targeted for being different, whether because of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or the god to which they pray. Not too long ago, there was a time when Jewish doctors were refused jobs at any hospitals in Boston, big or small - the hospital in which I trained in and currently work at was founded to help offset that discrimination.

In the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings in 2013, Americans in general and Bostonians in particular showed great restraint by not painting all Muslims as terrorists. However, the media’s portrayal of Muslims (which is how many Americans form opinions about Muslims) is doing real harm to real people. It is seldom noted that groups such as Isis or al-Qaida are more efficient at killing Muslims than followers of any other faith; entire societies in Islamic countries have been uprooted by terrorism, yet ordinary Muslims are more likely to be seen in America as collaborators rather than victims. Tensions around the world - when magnified by the media and portrayed as strictly part of a religious binary - sow suspicion in the hearts of even the most open-minded.

A poll by the Pew Research Group showed that Muslims are the most disliked religious group in America - but that, when respondents actually knew a Muslim personally, they felt less negative about Muslims as a group.

The Muslim community in America need not respond to other Americans’ suspicions by excluding themselves from society, but by demonstrating that there is more to each of us than just our faith.

As for my patient who thought that “A good Pakistani usually blows things up” - she wasn’t a bad person; she was actually a wonderful human being who quickly realized that she had said something wrong. She apologized as soon as the words finished coming out of her mouth and, even as I tried to change the subject by talking about her medical issues, I could tell that she was still thinking about it.

Many days later when we met in the middle of the night after she became acutely short of breath - on the verge of requiring a ventilator to breathe - she held my hand and told me, “Doc, I trust you.”

What made that moment special was that, in it, I was just her doctor - no one else. I hope to be the same for the lovely people I will meet in North Carolina.–Guardian