Feature                                                       Pages 32-35


Muslim Students in Post-9/11


Interventions that can stem stereotypes and bullying that accompany Islamophobia in schools


I vividly remember what it feels like to be harassed for my faith and to comfort my own school-age children when they experienced similar slights. But this doesn’t lessen the surprise and hurt I feel when I hear about such incidents from Muslim students today.

“Terrorist,” “son of bin Laden,” “camel jockey,” “raghead,” “towel-head” — variations of the same epithets resurface in each generation with the same painful impact. While Muslim students in public schools were objects of derision and harassment long before 9/11, the situation in the past decade has become markedly worse.

Bullying and harassment may go unreported by students out of fear of making a bad situation worse. Educators may themselves harbor their own misconceptions, making intervention and prevention less likely and even more challenging. 

Ameena Jandali
Ameena Jandali 

Insult to Injury
A story in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 titled “Suffer the Little Muslims” captured the typical challenges faced by Muslim students, particularly girls who wear hijab, the head scarf used by Muslim women. A Muslim student named Laila who wears hijab recounted how another student approached her and started screaming: ‘”Her father is bin Laden! She’s going to blow up the school; she’s going to blow it up! She has a bomb under her sweater! Everybody run, this jihad girl is going to kill us!’”

While the boy and his two friends doubled over in laughter, other students walked quickly as they passed. When Laila, a high school student, complained about the incident to her teacher, the teacher merely added insult to injury, telling Laila she had heard the whole thing and she shouldn’t make a big deal out of it because the other student had the right to express his opinions. When Laila told her teacher she didn’t think that was fair, the teacher responded that her people had caused a lot of problems in the world, and she should understand if people were frustrated with her.

In March 2010, a group called Muslim Mothers Against Violence surveyed 78 Muslim male and female youth between 12 and 17 years of age in Northern Virginia about their experiences in school. About 80 percent responded they had been subjected to bigoted taunts and epithets and harassment, with three-quarters indicating the epithets had occurred more than once. Fifty percent reported being called names in front of teachers and school administrators. This mirrors similar numbers cited in March 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle where a local imam asked 100 Muslim Boy Scouts how many had been called a terrorist, even in jest. Eighty hands went up.

While students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds suffer from bullying, the situation for Muslim students is somewhat distinct in that it has grown increasingly worse due to a post-9/11 surge in Islamophobia along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Pia Rebello Britto, author of a policy brief for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding titled “Global Battleground or School Playground: The Bullying of America’s Muslim Children,” the primary reason for bullying is the geopolitical situation, which the students “cannot control and are often hard-pressed to even understand.” She adds: “Growing up Muslim in post-9/11 America is probably one of the most challenging tasks in human development.”

Combating Islamophobia
In addition to the problem of bullying are the less obvious issues of classroom topics, textbooks and curricula that relate to Muslims, as well as the impact of discussions about religion, politics and foreign policy or current events on students of Muslim background.

These issues aren’t new. I can remember when my 5th-grade teacher asked our class after watching a film that mentioned Muslims if anyone knew what that word meant. I did not raise my hand out of fear of being ostracized. I noticed a similar reticence in my youngest son, who is 11, during a recent classroom discussion about Pakistan. During my daughter’s high school years, she was continuously placed in the position of the “enemy” during classroom discussions about foreign policy in the Middle East. Being the topic of study rather than part of the group studying the topic is challenging enough; when the group being studied is one that has been constantly and emphatically demonized in popular culture and during classroom study itself, the experience can be excruciating.


Additional Resources

Common Accommodations for Muslim Students

The organization I work for, Islamic Networks Group, did not begin as a provider of education about Muslims and their faith to address harassment of Muslim students. However, with the rise in Islamophobia over the past 20 years, ING’s presentations have become an important resource for educators who want to provide an authentic and alternative narrative to the one that has become common fare in popular culture. Similar to past ethnic and religious groups that have suffered from stereotyping and demonization, including Japanese Americans, African Americans, Catholics and Jews, American Muslims are not unique in being misunderstood and targeted as objects of prejudice.

 ING believes students and educators will benefit from a better understanding of Muslims and their faith. The organization delivers presentations to middle and high schools students about Muslims in the context of social studies and world history. The presentations, frequently as part of interfaith panels, are meant to supplement content standards relating to the study of history, while giving a real face to a religious group that is often misunderstood.

Humanizing Effects
Students and teachers alike welcome opportunities to learn directly from a faith practitioner. Students can ask questions, which often reveal some of the most common and pervasive stereotypes relating to women, violence and Muslim practices. By the end of these presentations, students express a comfort level and ease in their interaction with the speakers that demonstrates the important humanizing impact that meeting a live speaker can have. Subsequent student comments directed toward interfaith speakers often reveal the students’ surprise that practitioners of divergent faiths are able to communicate cordially with each other.

Through follow-up surveys of students, we’ve seen how Muslim presenters are successfully challenging common stereotypes. Here are two reactions:

  • “We’ve been seeing Islam through non-Muslim eyes and hearing about it from non-Muslim people our whole lives. … This is the first time I’ve heard a Muslim talk in depth about Islam, and I think just by virtue of being a part of it, [the ING speaker] has more authority on the topic than any documentary we watch or textbook we read.”
  • “Your presentation really surprised me because it was so different from what I thought typical Muslims would act or be like. I didn’t think they would be so similar to Americans. Though we may dress differently and have varying views on some issues, our personalities and thoughts besides religion were very congruous.”

Even the most effective presentations aren’t going to put an end to Islamophobia. Muslims surely won’t be the last religious or ethnic group to be stereotyped in popular culture. But as educators responsible for guiding the next generation, it is important that our efforts ensure every student and citizen in America, regardless of background, is given the opportunity to study, grow and thrive.

Ameena Jandali is director of content for the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, Calif. E-mail: ameena@ing.org


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