By Sabrina Holcomb
Debate team champion, Autena Torbati, lives by her words. So the day a debate teammate announced to the class he would have “liked Hitler better if had he killed all the Muslims, instead of Jews,” Autena’s blood ran cold. “Remember,” says the Oklahoma high school student, “the Holocaust started with words before ending in gas chambers.”
In Autena’s case, bullying has been confined to verbal taunts, threatening gestures, and an anti-Muslim opinion piece in the school newspaper. But for other Muslim students, verbal assaults have escalated into physical abuse, as anti-Islamic sentiment sweeps the nation. In Texas, a Muslim student was brutally beaten and thrown into a dumpster, while in Minnesota, Muslim girls were chased by classmates who shoved raw pork in their faces. Following relentless beatings from middle to high school, a Muslim Staten Island teen finally resigned from school.
Bullying is an equal-opportunity crisis, affecting students of every age, race, and creed. The dimension that makes the bullying of Muslim students particularly disturbing centers around the open prejudices and fears of adults, giving the green light to non-Muslim children that it’s okay — even patriotic — to discriminate. Muslim students report that an administrator at one school screamed at a 13-year old to remove her hijab (religious head scarf) until the girl broke down in tears. A guest speaker at another school handed out literature demonizing Islam in a social sciences class. When adults, especially educators, join in the bullying, it’s not only hurtful, say students, it’s a betrayal of trust. But educators have found that when just one caring adult supports a student, it can make a world of difference, creating a positive ripple effect that goes beyond one student and one classroom.
A Perfect Storm for Bullying
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reports the number of bullying incidents against Muslim students has spiked in the wake of a perfect economic and political storm: severe economic distress and anti-immigrant sentiments, continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflation of Islam with terrorism, even the misidentification of President Obama’s own religion. Add to the mix the tragic memory of 9/11 and a proposed Islamic center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero, and you get children, many just babies on September 11, 2001, indicting their classmates as the enemy.
How do rising tensions affect the nation’s Muslim students, the majority of whom attend public schools? School-related civil rights violations have increased by 31 percent in just one year, according to a 2009 CAIR study. The study also found that a student’s ethnicity/ religion, a “Muslim-sounding name,” or the wearing of hijab were some of the primary factors triggering discrimination. A separate study by Wayne State University in Michigan found that 43 percent of Arab-American teens in the study were depressed. “Although many Muslim students have good relationships with their non-Muslim classmates, almost every child I’ve spoken to says they’ve had a hostile interaction with someone,” says Ibrahim Ramey, Human and Civil Rights Program Director for the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. The most common epitaphs Muslim students hear, he says, are “Terrorist,” and “Go back where you came from!” The irony is their tormentors are often insulting a third-generation American, a scenario painfully familiar to the Omeira family.
“I raised my son to be a proud American,” declares Abdul Omeira, whose son, Hashem, changed almost overnight from a sunny-natured 12-year-old to a grim recluse who stopped eating and socializing and started locking himself in his room. What his parents didn’t know at the time, says Hashem, a native-born Californian, is that after his teacher showed a movie widely criticized for its negative portrayal of Islamic culture, his classmates started a relentless campaign of abuse — cursing Hashem, his religion, even his parents.
Thankfully, Hashem’s high school experience is worlds apart from middle school. The difference? An enlightened school climate, says Hashem. When one of Hashem’s teachers heard some students categorizing all Muslims as extremists, he launched into a lesson on Muslim Americans, informing the class that extremists were a small group who didn’t represent the majority of Islam’s followers.
How Educators Can Lead the Way
“Some teachers do a wonderful job of teaching acceptance to their students,” reports Saadia Khan, Civic Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Kahn is invited to classrooms about a dozen times a year to talk candidly with students about Islamic culture. “I encourage the students to ask no-holds-barred questions — whether they’re about terrorism versus jihad or women’s rights under Islam,” says Khan. It helps to dispel myths and stereotypes when I can give them accurate information.”
Khan cautions that “misinformation contributes to misconceptions about groups, which in turn, can lead to bullying.” To help counter the negative narratives, she says, schools should facilitate conversations among educators, organizations like MPAC, students, and parents. “We have to teach children it’s okay to have disagreements as long as you engage in respectful discussion, and educators can be responsible facilitators of these discussions,” says Khan, who believes that cultural awareness training for educators should be required by all school districts. Khan also proposes using social media as an educational tool to counter cyberbullying, “Students with blogs can tag each other on positive news items and YouTube clips. It’s a nuanced and cool mechanism for teaching students how to exercise free speech responsibly.”
Public school demographics are changing so quickly, say community activists, cultural misunderstandings are unavoidable. The harassment of Muslim students, for instance, is often fueled by multiple factors: language and race, as well as religion, can make students a target. Darker-skinned Somali students comprise 10 percent of the student population in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Mocked as “sand n-gers” and “camel jockeys,” they reportedly face more discrimination there than other Muslim youth. Still other students are discriminated against because of their perceived ethnicity or religion: many Sikh Americans, though not Muslim, are targets of anti-Muslim bias.
Taking the extra steps to educate students about other cultures can ease cultural tensions and curb bullying, says California teacher Ari Jacobs, who’s seen the benefits at his own school. (According to one CAIR study, California leads the nation in the percentage of anti-Muslim civil rights complaints.) Jacobs designed a World Issues unit for his 11th-grade students, examining various aspects of world religions and human behavior, and a special unit for his seventh-grade social studies class, who explore bullying and Islamaphobia through the lens of “upstanders versus bystanders.”
The study of medieval Islam is required curriculum for 7th-grade students, says Jacobs, “but ancient history doesn’t allow them to process what they see on Fox and CNN,” so Jacobs extends the unit to explore current events, drawing modern-day connections between the curriculum and students’ lives.
Not long after the school year started, Jacob’s class watched news clips of Florida pastor Terry Jones threatening to burn Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11. A discussion about the role of book burnings and bystanders during the Holocaust led to the focal question of the entire lesson. “Are you an upstander or a bystander?,” Jacobs challenges his students, whom he’s just shown a 60 Minutes story about a teenager who peered over a bathroom stall while doing nothing to stop his friend from killing a young child. “I tell my students at some point in our lives — in a cafeteria line, riding a school bus, or on Facebook — we’re all peering over that bathroom stall,” with the power to say, Stop!”
But the most insightful moment for his astonished students, says Jacobs, was absorbing the tale of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. A visibly emotional Muslim student told her classmates, “This is exactly how we felt about the people that brought down those planes on 9/11. They don’t represent me or Islam, just like Timothy McVeigh doesn’t represent all White people or Christians.” They got it,” says Jacobs. “You could just see the light go on.”
An Eye-Opening Lesson
Jacobs’ students say the lessons they’ve learned have made them realize that appreciating other cultures requires work and doesn’t happen on its own. The combination of frank discussion, role playing, and powerful media images is opening students’ eyes: parents have sent thank-you letters, and students being picked on have told Jacobs their schoolmates are no longer silent bystanders.
Yet, most Muslim students, having internalized the message that “Muslims are fair game,” suffer in silence, bearing the brunt of anti-Islamic fervor in an adult world. Although the overall number of reported anti-Muslim hate crimes has decreased in the last year, school-related incidents have soared. The recent spate of “bullycides” has focused national attention on the ease with which harassment can slide into tragedy, leading a Muslim educator to ask, “Do we have to wait for a Muslim-American child to commit suicide or be killed by a bully” before we take the bullying of Muslim students to heart?
Many Muslim families still believe in the power of education to change attitudes and the potential of public schools to teach tolerance on a national scale. The lessons can come from teachers, from students, and sometimes from the ones being bullied, say Hashem and Autena, who, having been targets themselves, speak from personal experience. They found that speaking up — educating other students — brought unexpected consequences.
After Autena took a classmate to task for making obnoxious comments about “sand people,” the classmate publicly apologized, telling everyone who had heard his remarks, “What I said wasn’t cool.” As for Hashem: Not long after he started high school, a cocky kid got in his face and told him to go “back where he came from.” “I told him I was born in the U.S.A.,” says Hashem. “That I have nowhere to go. So here I am.”
Now they’re friends.