Prejudice on the Playground: When Islamophobia Enters the Classroom
Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year old student from Irving, Texas, arrived at his high school one morning proudly carrying an electronic clock he had made on his own. Yet, after looking at the Sudanese boy and a device built into a pencil box, Mohamed’s English teacher reported him to the principal, who then called the local police about a hoax bomb. Mohamed spent the rest of the day at a juvenile detention facility being interrogated by law enforcement.
The incident provoked national outrage last September, with many decrying the racial profiling and Islamophobia that led to the boy’s being taken into custody, as well as the police’s unwarranted use of intimidation. Shortly after the incident, Obama invited Mohamed to Washington in the form of a tweet: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House?” Even so, many remain concerned about how Muslim students confront anti-Muslim stereotypes and attitudes in the education system—especially now that Donald Trump is sweeping the nation with messages that puts Muslim-Americans under greater scrutiny.
High school can be difficult enough without having to worry about getting one’s hijab pulled off in the hallway, being called “terrorist” or “ISIS” or “towel-head Taliban” on the walk home, or having one’s engineering project confused for an explosive device. Yet that’s exactly what many Muslim-American youth face on a daily basis, in public schools and other educational institutions throughout the country. Mohamed and countless other students are now part of a conversation about Muslims in the United States that extends far beyond the playground. And in today’s political landscape, many argue that it’s a debate that’s only going to get more dangerous.
Anti-Muslim sentiment, whether in schools or other public spaces, is not a new phenomenon. “We saw a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in the immediate wake of 9/11, and it’s kind of gone in cycles since then,” said Corey Saylor, the director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Now, discrimination and harassment targeting Muslims appear to be on the rise yet again. Saylor said that he tracked 34 incidents of hate and vandalism at mosques in November and December alone last year, more than the low 20s that he usually sees in an entire year.
Saylor suggested that the recent attacks in San Bernardino and Paris only partially explain the apparent uptick. “One of the things that’s been observed is that these cycles have more to do with political events here in the United States rather than terrorist attacks,” Saylor said. And this time around, the astounding success of Donald Trump’s presidential bid seems to be the driving force.
Trump, the New York billionaire businessman who first entered Republican politics during the Birther Movement by demanding President Obama’s birth certificate, made waves last last year by proposing that Muslims should be barred from entering the United States. He also suggested that his administration would require Muslims to register in a database. Many observers noted similarities between this proposed system of registration and the one used by Nazi authorities to track Jews.
Trump is not alone with his calls for greater surveillance of Muslim-Americans in the public arena. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also vying for the Republican nomination, shocked many with his suggestion that law enforcement must do more to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.”
These attitudes lie in stark contrast to those 16 years ago. For example, in 2000 then-Governor George W. Bush’s appealed to tolerance during the second presidential debate against his Democratic opponent, Governor Al Gore.
“Racial profiling isn’t just an issue at local police forces—it’s an issue throughout our society,” said Bush, specifically mentioning Arab-Americans as frequent targets. “And as we become a diverse society, we’re going to have to deal with it more and more. I believe, though—I believe, as sure as I’m sitting here, that most Americans really care.”
Even though Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have diminished his legacy for many, and his administration crafted policies that ended up targeting Muslim-Americans in the name of national security, he upheld a standard of discussion that reaffirmed America’s commitment to inclusion and respect. This attitude that seems to have eroded with the latest slate of Republican candidates.
“Clearly this current political season and the presidential candidates often fuel this permission to bully, harass, and insult people of all types,” said Stephen Glassman M.Arch. ’75, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut. He added that such permissiveness “tends to calm down when you have leadership that bring facts and reason into the conversation,” but he worries that the rise of Donald Trump has awakened something that had not really been present during previous election cycles where the discussion has been more civilized. “I think that the psyche of America has been changed,” Glassman said.
As political rhetoric changes, the younger generation is taking notice. Many educators have observed that the political campaign has been disturbing for students, bringing hateful language and new fears into the classroom that detract from learning. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently put out a report titled “The Trump Effect” that examined the impact of presidential campaigns in public schools. More than two-thirds of the approximately 2,000 teachers that participated in the survey reported that their students, mainly from Muslim or immigrant families, expressed concerns about what would happen to them if Trump were to win the presidency.
More than half of the respondents also noticed an “increase in uncivil political discourse” in their classrooms, with about a third specifically identifying an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. Countless accounts described how students mimic the colorful language they see in the campaign or feel emboldened to threaten other students.
“We had a fifth grade student tell a Muslim student that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president,” said one teacher in the report.
Educators are nonetheless divided on how to approach these sensitive topics in the classroom. “I try to not bring it up since it is so stressful for my students,” said one Virginia teacher who was concerned that discussing the election might make students uncomfortable.
Others believe that their role as educators compel them to chime in on a debate where neutrality would violate their conscience, even though pressure from administrators could make speaking out end in termination. One educator from Indiana stated, “I am at a point where I’m going to take a stand even if it costs me my position.”
These concerns are exacerbated by heightened scrutiny over how teachers feature Islam in the classroom. In Williamson County, Tennessee, for example, a curriculum that included modules on core tenets of Islam came under heavy fire by parents who saw these lessons as “Islamic indoctrination.” And as the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident demonstrated, sometimes administrators themselves are the ones perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in racial profiling.
“You basically have a reaction from the school that is unwarranted, that criminalizes the student immediately,” said Zareena Grewal, professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale on how Ahmed Mohamed’s story reflects a disturbing trend in the public school system. “This isn’t an aberration, unfortunately.”
In such cases, students who face anti-Muslim bullying feel like they have few places to turn.
“This is the first time we ever felt it necessary to write something for parents to help address [this issue],” said Saylor, referring to a guide that CAIR posted on its website in January to help parents talk about Islamophobia, religion-based bullying, and the political campaign with their kids when there seem to be few willing to confront the rhetoric head-on.
Sensing the fears brought on by the election, the U.S. Department of Education circulated a letter last December urging educators to ensure that schools remain free of harassment and discrimination. The letter specifically mentioned “the potential challenges that may be faced by students who are especially at risk of harassment,” including those who are routinely misidentified as Muslims, such as Sikhs who wear turbans. The letter suggested classroom discussions and other activities to promote discussion of current events. Yet in an age where the leading candidate vying for the nomination of a major political party rejects calls for a return to civility, it seems unlikely that the plea will do much to block Trump’s rhetoric from making its way into classrooms.
One doesn’t have to look very hard to find stories of anti-Muslim bullying or discrimination. Although many see Connecticut as ahead of the curve when it comes to supporting and including marginalized groups, it’s not without its own issues.
“It only takes one or two students to bully and harass, even if the whole school is progressive. That can dramatically affect the life of a single student,” said Glassman, who was cautious to say that “progressive” states such as Connecticut have been much more successful when it comes to protecting Muslim students.
“Generally, we see Connecticut as a more welcoming and inclusive state and we are more responsive to the needs of immigrants and minorities in general, but I think that we are not without these problems.”
“We’re enormously fortunate to live in a city with a history of welcoming people from other places,” said Tanya Kimball Genn, the Education and Youth Services Coordinator at a New Haven agency that resettles refugees called Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). Late last year, Connecticut welcomed a family of Syrian refugees that were diverted from Indiana after that state’s governor, Mike Pence, raised concerns about their threat to national security.
IRIS brings about 110 new students, mostly from Syria or Iraq, into New Haven’s public school system every year. Although Genn could count the number of religion-based school incidents she’s had to respond to on just one hand, they have all been relatively recent.
One elementary school girl was approached by students who demanded that she take off her hijab. When she reported the incident to her teachers, they were deeply concerned and took immediate actions to rectify the situation. Although it’s hard to discern whether the children were deliberately targeting the girl because of her religion or simply due to their curiosity, the event was nonetheless troubling for the parents, school administrators, and IRIS.
Even in tolerant New Haven, where Muslim students manage to integrate well into already-diverse schools, anti-Muslim sentiment exists and has been emboldened. Students still worry about what they hear on TV or from their classmates, while parents fear that bullying—which has long been an unfortunate part of school culture—will become more violent, particularly against Muslims and new arrivals.
However, Glassman notes that there is leadership in Connecticut on every level of government that seeks to foster a welcoming and more inclusive environment. This sets it apart from states like Indiana, where Pence and other state officials use language perpetuating the notion that all Muslims harbor the potential for terror and must therefore be handled with greater scrutiny.
Grewal is quick to point out that Trump didn’t single-handedly create anti-Muslim sentiment, even if he’s emboldened those who hold such views. Instead, she thinks that Trump’s rhetoric illuminates the discussions and progress that must still occur in American society.
“This is the moment when kids realize what it means to be a racial minority,” said Grewal, who sees this election as a sort of baptismal moment for minority students who have suddenly found themselves under greater fire. “I don’t really see Trump as a problem in and of itself. I think the main problem is the racism, and he is just one symptom of that.”
Some schools are becoming more proactive with broaching issues of race and ethnicity. The San Francisco Unified School District instituted an ethnic studies curriculum last year in the city’s 19 public high schools after a pilot program yielded positive reactions, with one school board member saying that classes about marginalized racial and ethnic communities taught students to love each other when they are “so bombarded in how to hate themselves.” A Stanford study found an added perk: students who took an ethnic studies class also improved their GPA in other classes.
However, many ultimately see person-to-person conversations as the best way to foster a more inclusive discussion when other safeguards fail.
“I think that you really are dependent upon leadership of principals in schools and teachers in classrooms, and those are really one-on-one relationships,” said Glassman of the special responsibilities these leaders have to condemn divisive rhetoric and promote mutual understanding.
“We try to see it here as an opportunity to discuss and educate,” said Kneerim of how IRIS views this election as a chance to better explain who the Syrian and Iraqi immigrants settling in Connecticut really are.
After one incident in an elementary school, the organization’s director spoke to the faculty at a school-wide meeting about the challenges that their students face. Kneerim also noted that while he routinely gets calls from people with concerns about refugees, they’re often satisfied once they understand the facts and make connections.
“That kind of exchange of information, along with answering questions, goes a long way,” said Kneerim.
Muslim students everywhere in the United States struggle to succeed in an environment where larger narratives obscure their individual accomplishments and experiences. Although it’s hard to measure how Trump’s campaign has affected students’ well being, many agree that the political winds are changing and infusing today’s national conversations with a level of vitriol that few young Americans have ever seen.
The challenge for Muslim students and those who advocate on their behalf is to dismantle the narratives that transform a 14-year-old Sudanese boy interested in engineering into a potential bomb-wielding terrorist. However, Donald Trump’s stunning popularity and the way his message has resonated with Americans throughout the country suggests that Ahmed Mohamed probably won’t be the last to get caught in the fray.