Step-by-step: how to handle an Islamophobic bully


What do you do if you see a bigot hassling someone because of her faith, specifically her Muslim faith? You don’t agree. You want to step in. But you don’t want to get hurt.

Marie-Shirine Yener, a 22-year-old French illustrator based in Paris, has come up with an answer – a handy illustrated guide that outlines a scientifically tested method to sideline the antagonist and support the target, all the while reducing the chance of violence.

Yener, who publishes her work online as “Maeril”, came up with the idea after hearing from Muslim friends about the rise in Islamophobia they have experienced since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. Yener is not Muslim herself, but says her Middle Eastern origins – her father is Armenian and her mother French-Iranian – mean she often comes under the same scrutiny as French Muslims.

“I noticed a rise in Islamophobia”

I noticed a rise in Islamophobia after the attacks in Paris and Nice and the ridiculous burkini ban.  I started to hear stories from friends. They told me their headscarves had been taken off by force, they’d been insulted in the street, with people telling them: “You’re a terrorist, you’re provoking us with your headscarf,” that kind of thing. It was mostly people making sure they knew they weren’t welcome. I also heard a lot of stories from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. All this persuaded me that it was really necessary to create the guide.

I wanted to propose something not likely to put the aggressor or the target in danger. So I based my guide on using something called “non-complementary behavior”. It’s a proven psychological technique to interrupt the antagonistic behavior the aggressor is trying to trap their target in. The idea is that you completely change the subject. You shift the atmosphere to something else entirely. You exclude the aggressor from the conversation, because it’s the technique most likely to defuse any possible violence. The technique is often suggested as a way of handling sexual harassment. It can also be used against people you see on the street and who look like they might be aggressive. You can ask them for the time. It cancels their aggressiveness because it’s not what they expect.

“It made all the haters come out”

The reaction to the guide has mostly been good. Muslims were very happy to see all the support. But unfortunately it also made all the haters come out. I got a lot of Islamophobic messages – people telling me I was being naïve because I wanted to help Muslims. I deleted them from my Facebook page because I don’t want any hate on my page.

It’s important to help Muslims because they are vulnerable right now. People often try to dilute the impact of racism, saying everyone can be targeted. But a white person won’t be forced to uncover herself in public; a white person won’t be followed in a store. When I go into a store, for instance, my bag gets searched like everyone else’s because of the Vigipirate plan [Editor’s note: this is France’s national security alert program, which has been on maximum level in Paris since the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015]. But when I come to the checkout to pay I get additional questions – “Has your bag been searched?” It’s because I don’t look white. I’m Arab. I’m Middle Eastern. I look like a terrorist to them.

After the attacks here in France, Islamophobia is going to happen. I can’t stop it. I just wish that everyone would understand that Muslim people living in France were as horrified by the attacks as everyone else.