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Islamophobia In American Public Schools

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There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social justice that includes an understanding for ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” -Bell Hooks

Islamophobia in American Public Schools

In Ridgefield, New Jersey, a high school Arab-American student, Zubi, was told by his teacher, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” when he asked a question about finishing his math homework at home. Zubi was shocked, but the classroom had mixed reactions to the incident – some students were shocked, while others laughed.

Zubi is not the only Muslim who has been targeted in school. Not long before that, a Muslim girl, Ekran Mohamed in Fairfax, Virginia high school had her hijab ripped off and was beaten up by another student. The school took both students to the office, and when Ekran asked to call her mom to tell her what was happening, they did not call, and nor did they end up punishing the student who attacked her. Instead, hundreds of students in her school walked out in protest to stand up for her.

Image Credit: Getty/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

Image Credit: Getty/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

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Zubi’s and Ekran’s stories are far too familiar in the Muslim community. A CAIR report on Muslim bullying details that nearly 50% of Muslims in California schools are being bullied by students, teachers, and other school personnel, and more than 55% of Muslim students feel unsafe as at school. The unfortunate reality is that administrators are not taking these matters seriously like in Ekran’s case, and not reacting properly or implementing policies that will help mitigate some of these issues that affect both Muslim students and students of other faith backgrounds.

Most times, the Muslim community is only thinking of how Islamophobic tropes of otherization, not belonging in the U.S., Muslim women being called “towel heads,” boys being called Taliban, and other claims that label both males and females as terrorists impact the Muslim psyche – but bullying is not the only impact. Dr. Sawsan Jabr’s research suggests that as a result of Arab students experience in schools, they are having to adopt a dual identity of choosing to be Muslim or American at school. These are some of the consequences of Islamophobia on Muslim students, but we are often not asking the question of how Islamophobia impacts students of other faiths, too. I do not mean the obvious impact of Islamophobia of prejudice and bullying against Muslim students – I mean that if non-Muslim students never learn anything about the facts about Islam, the Islamophobia industry, and never hear Muslim voices, then what kind of society are we systematically creating?

It’s important to understand that schools often replicate what is happening in society.  Muslims are often dehumanized, blamed, and dragged into stories that have no basis in Islam itself-  the case that comes to mind is the Virgina State Senator Amanda Chase who made an argument for not masking by attacking Islam and Muslims and claiming that when people mask, it’s similar to wearing the niqab and that will “break their will and individuality”. These outrageous and false claims make me further question what people are learning in schools and what the purpose of school is.

Schools should be a place to learn accurate information and model correct, respectful behavior in dealing with a diverse body of students.  By teaching about the wide range of religious beliefs and cultures, students can learn proper ways to stand up for one another in the same way the students stood by Ekran and walked  out in protest.  This begs the following questions: What are teachers being taught about Muslims? Do they have any training? What are they learning that they should teach their students in class? Do teachers have resources to be able to counter Islamophobia? If so, how are they going about implementing these changes, and how are they being supported?

I have done my research on these questions, finding out what the challenges are for teachers when it comes to teaching about Islam, Muslims, and the Islamophobia industry. What I found is that most teachers in America do not get proper training on Islam, Muslims, and Islamophobia. I also found that often not only are teachers not getting any training, but they are also teaching from books that further Islamophobic stereotypes like The Kite Runner, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, and Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Not only is curriculum a problem, but like my high school friend who is a teacher of social studies commented: all her students are only introduced to Muslims in her class in the context of the 9/11 attacks, and this only gives Muslims the antagonistic narrative that is repeatedly being taught for future generations.  Often times Islamophobia in schools is treated as a peripheral topic, as opposed to mainstream issues in school, thus, feeding back into the cycle of Islamophobia.

Professional Development for Teachers

“Professional Development (PD) generally refers to ongoing learning opportunities available to teachers and other education personnel through their schools and districts.” Teachers normally have training in their areas of specialty at least once a year, depending on school funds and district priorities.

In the context of our topic, PD involves training teachers on Islamophobia and all that it entails in terms of its impact in society and on students. PD becomes an important initiative for the Muslim community to partake in because many teachers do not get the proper training in their teacher credentialing programs. In fact I remember when I was at the University of California, Sacramento, doing my research and many of my professors were really happy that my research involved designing a curriculum to train teachers on Islamophobia. After I completed my masters, the university would contact me to train their future teachers and active teachers who were attaining their graduate degree. It was great that the university was making this effort and we always had some great conversations to better understand what Islamophobia looks like and ways to remedy it in school.  Teachers say, we haven’t heard of the term, or we really think that Islam is violent. Thus, it becomes even more important for non-Muslim students to know fact from fiction.

The Importance of Teacher Networking

Perhaps the most effective means to combat Islamophobia in schools is through education. Whether it’s through professional development trainings or through personal interactions at schools, exposure of others to Islam is the best approach. These conversations, while not always guaranteeing a solution, are the starting point to learning how pedagogical methods can also address Islamophobia in schools.

At the Islamophobia Education Collective, we have partnered with the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project (IRDP) at U.C. Berkeley, and consult with well established educators such as Alison Kysia, writer of the Islamophobia Education Project curriculum, and Nagla Bee, Founder of Teaching While Muslim. Our goal is to connect academia to the classroom, provide sustainable professional development training, resources, and a network for educators to counter Islamophobia at schools while meeting the classroom standards they need. Our approach is to create engaging materials that allow teachers to read articles and do activities ensuring them to critically think and challenge themselves to come up with solutions, along with the ones we offer as well. We also go a step further and follow up with teachers to see how the lesson plans went in the classroom and look to provide improvements based on research and feedback.

Research shows that creating a collective community that provides peer-to-peer support can help empower teachers to ask questions and share ideas on classroom progress, rather than relying on the trainer themself.  This includes training teachers and school personnel either through online or in-person sessions, then providing them with critical thinking tools and resources on Islam and Islamophobia in the classroom.

I am constantly asked by teachers where they can find resources about Islam or Muslims for the classroom. Of the recent efforts to discuss Islam and Islamophobia in schools, much of the work has been directed to student engagement and classroom instruction.  By taking the approach of networking and engaging with teachers through professional development trainings and resources, educators will be empowered to design their own lessons, have access to a depository of information, and provide support to each other when addressing such topics.

Because Muslims make up such a small fraction of American demographics, we can’t depend on in-person professional development trainings to accomplish our goals of providing resources to teachers and educators across the country.  But by creating a network for educators to help one another, making the recorded trainings accessible online, and providing interactive resources, we can reach educators who normally would not have access to in-person trainings. Additionally, a push for including Muslim stories and information on Islamophobia in the school curriculum can be complemented by such access to resources for educators. The goal is if teachers  are committed to social justice and are learning about Islamophobia, then we allow teachers to make decisions for themselves and critically think of issues that are happening as a result of Islamophobia by reading articles and engaging in professional development that will allow them to serve as a guide in teaching students about Islamophobia too.

What Can Parents Do?

Many Muslim parents internalize Islamophobia and fear that their child is, or at risk of being, bullied and mistreated, and there is nothing they can do as parents.  However, parents are one of the most influential outside sources of change at any school. By demanding that your childrens’ teachers undergo professional development trainings, such as the ones offered to learn about Islam and combat Islamophobia, you can ensure that those teachers receive appropriate trainings from subject-matter experts qualified to speak on Islam. As parents, you can propose and direct your childrens’ school to the appropriate organizations to receive these trainings and resources, as we’ve seen that many educators simply do not know where to turn.

Personal experience from serving on various committees in the Elk Grove Unified School District years ago taught me that direct involvement in your local school district is key to any change.  Parents and community members are often welcome to come and share their experience and concerns directly with educators and administrators.  Rather than taking a back seat to your child’s education, your involvement as a parent should be multi-faceted.  From meeting with teachers directly, joining the PTO/PTA, and introducing relevant books to the school library, the grassroots efforts by parents will bring on much-needed change and impact.

At the recent MAS ICNA Conference in Chicago, Dr. Sawsan Jaber explained that the most-impactful change in schools is parent involvement and engagement with their child’s educators. In his book Power of Parents, Edward M. Olivos narrates the involvement of bi-cultural parents in public school. He explains that at first there was some backlash towards these parents, but with time they became powerful and organized stakeholders in the education system, albeit at the surprise of the school.

Established Efforts to Countering Islamophobia Through Education

Over the past years, many organizational and individual efforts have been made to combat Islamophobia in different capacities. Some efforts focus on research and publishing books related to Islam, Islamophobia studies, and express Muslim narratives, while others offer curricula and trainings in school. Some examples of books that have been published are Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest by Edward E. Curtis IV, Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Social Justice by Yusuf Salaam, We Are Not Here to be Bystanders by Linda Sarsour, The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West by Todd Green, Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, The War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience since 9/11 by Maha Hilal, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear by Khaled A. Beydoun, and The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammed and S. K. Ali.  Organizations such as the Islamophobia Studies Center, Islamic Network Group, Muslim Anti-Racisim Collaborative, CAIR, Teaching While Muslim, Unfiltered Education, The Challenge Islamophobia Project through Teaching for Change, ISPU, and also the University of Pennsylvania, Teaching Beyond September 11th, and other efforts were made as well, and recently we officially started the Islamophobia Education Collective.

Conclusion

The need to spread awareness about Islamophobia and correct the understandings of educators is a collective effort, and everyone should be a participant in order to make the changes we need for a more just and informed society.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Amna Salameh is a Co-Founder of the Islamophobia Education Collective (IEC). She completed her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from Louisiana State University, and finished her Master of Arts in Education, with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction, from California State University of Sacramento (CSUS). Her master’s project was titled “Professional Development on Islamophobia: A Multicultural Framework for Secondary Public School Educators.” With a background in education, she has served on both the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports committee and the Office of Educational Equity committee at the Elk Grove Unified School District. She has also served as an Education Consultant with the Counsel on American Islamic Relations’ Sacramento Valley Chapter where she designed and developed diversity-training presentations and educational materials for public and private employers. Amna is a frequent presenter and lecturer on topics surrounding Islam and Islamophobia at CSUS’ College of Education. She is currently a part-time lecturer at California State University of Sacramento and Southern University.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Carole Crawford

    April 17, 2022 at 3:38 AM

    Very good article

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