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Muslims in America: When Bullying Meets Religion


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.

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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 

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 

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 

“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 

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 

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.


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  1. ANMB

    December 13, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    I have found these psychologically based resources both helpful and practical for preparing to teach my young children how to deal with bullying situations they will encounter as they get older:

  2. AnonyMouse

    December 13, 2011 at 3:09 AM

    How depressing… alHamdulillah I have no bad memories of bullying from when I went to public school; of course, times change (and these days for the worse).

    I think it’s extremely important for Muslim parents, as well as masaajid and Islamic centers, to hold workshop for Muslim kids who may be/ are a target of bullying and discrimination in school – by giving them support and teaching them how to address these incidents as and when they occur (by being confident and not backing down to the bullies; reporting the issue to a teacher/ principal/ supervisor; being pro-active in discussing Islam in the classroom).

    And it is especially important for them to report any teacher who deliberately shares misinformation about Islam or attempts to propagate hatred against it (like Hashem’s middle school teacher) – such an individual cannot be allowed to teach children! Parents need to be aware of what their children’s teachers are like and to keep an eye on the school situation.

  3. Umm Sulaim

    December 13, 2011 at 4:06 AM

    Bullying of American Muslims or Muslim Americans or mostly Americans or predominantly Muslims.

    I should add youngsters to the description; my reaction would have been MUCH different without that addition, considering the posts I read here.

    One thing bullies count on is the inability/ reluctance of the recipient to act in his defence. As I stated on another post on racism, answering them back usually reduces the bullying.

    Umm Sulaim

  4. Johnathan

    December 14, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    I think Muslims need to enroll their children into Karate classes so that if they ever feel threatened by someone, they will not become afraid or lose self esteem. It will be their choice in that situation to physically defend themselves, or just ignore the person but feel confident that they could have defended themselves. This is very important for the young Muslim brothers out there, and also for the sisters, especially in urban environments where even young girls have to face threats of fighting on a daily basis in school.

    In regards to Muslim institutions or Masjids organizing bullying events – I doubt the majority of Masjids will do that. In the mean time, parents themselves need to cut the CNN and FOX News playing all the time in their house which can create anxieties in children, give their kids confidence, and raise them up to defend themselves under any situation. This is not just the case with Islam or Muslims. If you have ever grown up in an urban environment, you learn very quickly to protect yourself from others. At the same time, Muslims should teach their children the character of Syedna Musa, peace be upon him, who never stood by while injustice was taking place in front of his eyes. Don’t just teach them to defend themselves, but teach them to sacrifice for other kids and defend others who are being picked on.

    I would NEVER, EVER, leave it up to the chance that teachers will teach tolerance. If most people are not aware of this already, I would remind everyone that the US public school system is a horrible institution of education and is failing and falling behind all of the developed countries around the world. I know many teachers and hear horror stories of the characters of the teachers teaching at these places. DON’T leave the self esteem and protection of your child’s identity to teachers who are underpaid and who might have bias of their own. We live in a society where most “educated” people think religion is backwards – don’t be surprised if your child develops the same attitude after attending public school 6 hours a day for 12 years of their life.

    • Aida

      December 16, 2011 at 10:55 AM

      As a muslim woman, I’ve often felt I benefit from taking a few self-defense classes (Karate, tae kwon do, judo) myself.

    • Rawann

      April 26, 2014 at 11:17 PM

      I’m sorry, a karate class will just make it worse. Then they will say that muslims are violent. I swear, people are rude as hell

  5. DetroitDebbie

    December 16, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Good article. People of different races and religions have been bullied for many decades, depending on where you live. My children were bullied in Different areas of Detroit because we were white, by African-Americans, Middle-Easterners and Hispanics. I taught my children not to stereo-type others because of a few. I am friends with many different types of people. I have always treated others with respect. There will always be those who only know what they are taught by others including the media.

  6. Olivia

    December 19, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    With the advent of homeschool out of the box programs like K-12, bullying would be a reason to consider it. One of two minor incidences may be dealt, but for a child who is constantly being bullied, I personally think he or she should not be forced to go to school in an environment that would make them feel anxious and depressed. Some will say it will make him “stronger” to deal with it, but he may just become depressed, perform poorly, or even become suicidal. Unfortunately these things aren’t addressed until it’s too late.

  7. Abdulmujeeb

    December 20, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Everyone does not travel to America but America travels everywhere. The issue of Islamophobia occurs every where even in SAUDI ARABIA (check articles on SAUDI LIFE) . I recommend we read this book, THIS IS WHERE I NEED TO BE. It’s a collection of true stories of Muslim youths living in the US.

  8. chuck hird

    December 25, 2011 at 11:23 PM

    I will stick my neck way out to ask this question. First I want Muslims, Christians, and Jews to live in neighborhoods peacefully and as friends. A friend of mine lives in a neighborhood that is quite cosmopolitan. Anglo s predominate, but there are Jews, Koreans, Japanese, and one Muslim family in one compartmentalized block. Every few months the neighborhood has a block picnic or get together of some kind. Always the Muslim family is included with an invitation. There never has been any kind of response. I do understand families should be able to have their privacy, and not ever have to attend the get to know functions. But how can we overcome our suspicions if we never associate? The Muslim family is very conservative, several of the females wear Burka. Maybe they are so different that it is embarrassing to associate with others. Please give me some answers. If we do not interact we will have real future problems.

  9. Rifaie

    December 26, 2011 at 1:40 AM

    There are probably a few issues at work here that conspire to give an impression that does puzzle someone not familiar with them. It is no doubt very nice for you to ask it , rather than just assume that they mean you no good.

    A block picnic , I assume , will likely have among the list of food items meat of all sorts, and perhaps even alcohol(not sure). In addition there might be music as well as no segregation of the sexes.

    Given that you mention that these particular Muslims appear to be very conservative, they will likely not be able to partake of the meat ( since it has to be slaughtered a certain way ) and also will not like to be around alcohol.

    Music is also something that they will want to avoid and much more so the free intermingling of the genders.

    In addition , if these are more recent immigrants they might be a bit afraid or unable to socially relate to their neighbors.

    As you have seen, one of the reactions in this case is to withdraw to the degree that they appear to be antisocial.Surely they mean no harm by it, but maybe they will open up over time. I have been in this boat myself and felt at times that I must be coming across in a bad way, over time though, I like to think that the inevitable interactions over the years with people who constitute the dominant culture in this society has helped me to convey that we are rather more normal than the strange people we may initially appear to be.

  10. Pingback: Cultural Hegemony: Islamaphobia | winnietheblog

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