When a truck careened down a sunny Manhattan bike path and mowed down eight people on Halloween, the horror left the whole city reeling. But some communities had to brace for a second wave of fear to follow the initial trauma: the collective suspicion that Muslim Americans have come to expect in the wake of Islamist-inspired terror attacks, as racial hatreds and public panic reignite over “homegrown terrorism.”
The impact of this distrust starts early, as Muslim American children have come to expect a range of hostility from their own neighbors. An advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has catalogued the types of anti-Muslim hate facing California’s Muslim students, revealing a pervasive culture of bigotry and anxiety from the schoolyard to the principal’s office.
According to surveys of 11-to-18-year-old students in the Greater Los Angeles, Sacramento Valley, San Diego, and San Francisco Bay areas in 2016, “Fifty-three percent of respondents report that students at school are made fun of, verbally insulted or abused for being Muslim.” A quarter of the respondents—the vast majority of which were students of color, mostly Arab or South Asian—said they had been victims of anti-Muslim cyberbullying, and “a shocking 57 percent of students view their peers making offensive comments about Islam and Muslims online.” A third of girls “reported having their Islamic head scarves tugged, pulled or being offensively touched,” an increase of 7 percent since 2014.
One of the most disturbing trends is an apparent backslide in the level of school engagement and the concomitant rise in isolation children feel as they become increasingly uncomfortable about displaying their identity. Fewer than 70 percent of respondents reported that they “feel welcome and respected in school,” down from more than 80 percent in 2014. A similar pattern of decline was seen in students’ saying that they “feel comfortable engaging in class discussions about Islam and Muslims.” More than a third say they simply do not participate in discussions on Muslims or Islam. This discomfort points to an underlying trend across American society in recent years: an atomization and fracturing of communities, in which demographic diversity expands, yet the divides of race, ethnicity, class and culture widen. The erosion of the relationship between Muslim students and their peers and educators is fraying the one environment in which diverse groups have a chance to interact in many regions.
The survey results may foreshadow harmful mental-health impacts in adolescence, since bullying is associated with issues like depression and risk of substance abuse, along with poor grades and attendance.
The students interviewed for the study, which covers the period leading up to Trump’s election, expressed both anger and resignation. “They call me terrorist and when I get frustrated they say ‘you’re going to bomb us’ and laugh,’” said one student. Another got smeared with Trump’s classic combination of racial and xenophobic invective: “Last month a kid called me a terrorist. And another kid called my parents refugees. I was called the N word multiple times.” Discouraged or fearful about challenging the attacks, some students said they tried to ignore the abuse.
Adults are hardly immune to the toxic atmosphere stoked by Trump’s rhetoric. About four in ten respondents reported experiencing “offensive comments from school educators” in 2016, up from (the still shockingly high) rate of one in five two years prior. And even when not the direct target of teachers’ prejudice, negative attitudes toward Muslims have colored their responses to students’ struggles with racism.
Of the students who reported on their teachers’ response to complaints of bullying or abuse, fewer than one-third “felt their problems were resolved by an adult,” down from 40 percent in 2014. Some four in ten students do not feel comfortable even approaching educators about everyday religious requests, such as seeking accommodation with school meals or prayer sessions.
According to CAIR advocacy manager Masih Fouladi, the reports of abuse by school staff CAIR has received in recent months suggest that “Teachers are just as susceptible as students to the misinformation they are being fed by this administration and by many media platforms. They have become more emboldened. This is very concerning considering the individual impact that will have on each student in the classroom.”
As a recent example of “teacher bullying,” Fouladi cited a “worksheet” reportedly distributed by a teacher listing supposed rules of “Sharia Law,” presented as a lesson plan to students in language and clearly aimed at presenting Islam as alien to Western culture. It’s especially dangerous when such messages are coming from authority, Fouladi adds, since “children are extremely impressionable, and that is one of the main reasons schools have a constitutional duty to neither promote nor hinder any religion in the school setting.”
But CAIR insists that school districts can also be part of the solution. Instituting programs to train teachers to intervene in racial attacks can put a school community on a path toward greater inclusivity.
Direct engagement and mobilization of the surrounding community is also crucial in tackling Islamophobia in schools. Schools need to partner with parents and community groups to monitor and prevent anti-Muslim bullying and bias. Sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing strength in numbers when there is a sizable but underrepresented Muslim minority in the school community. “It seems that a larger number of Muslim students and parents within a school often results in school administrations taking much swifter action to resolve issues of bullying,” Fouladi adds. “Whereas schools with smaller populations of Muslims are less responsive.”
Speaking at a press conference for the report, local parent Noshaba Afzal recounted her daughter’s experience of repeated bullying after she began wearing the hijab. School tensions were exacerbated when she discovered some Islamophobic articles had been used in English classes for years.
Although the family found the school initially unresponsive, Afzal then partnered with CAIR to collaborate with school administrators to institute an anti-discrimination intervention program. When the school set up community assemblies to proactively address racial tensions, she recalled, “We could see that once intervention happens, positive results were almost instantaneous.” Through the community-led programs, “we began to see positive dialogue among the students immediately. So we know that there can be a difference made…. It’s not always easy to speak up, but it’s important.”