Published March 22, 2022 By Amna Salameh
“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
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.
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?