While watching a TV news report on the Paris attacks with her seventh-grade class, Farah Darvesh became acutely aware that she was suddenly the center of her classmates’ attention.
“When they said Muslim terrorists did it, everyone’s heads turned and all eyes in the room were on me,” says 12-year-old Farah, one of only three Muslims at her middle school in Columbus, Georgia.
A few weeks later, a classmate asked Farah point blank: “Why did your people kill those people in Paris and San Bernardino?”
Farah, a highly confident and self-described popular girl among her peers and teachers, had “gotten used to people joking” that she was a terrorist. But even so, she said: “Before the attacks I was mostly treated like everyone else. But now I’m having to answer questions about my religion and the actions of people I don’t even know. It’s a lot of pressure. I mean, I’m only 12.”
She waited for her anger to cool down before retorting to her classmate: “Don’t ask me, ask them. Do I ask you why your people are shooting up schools?”
“That shut him up,” Farah said. She concedes that she may not have the best answer, but she’s doing her best considering the circumstances. “I’m feeling the same way everybody else is – I’m mad at Isis too. They’re killing innocent Muslims everywhere too. The shooting in San Bernardino happened 9 miles from my cousin’s school. It’s very scary that she was so close to danger. But exactly because I’m a good Muslim, I’m not going to take my anger out on anyone.”
Muslim American students, many of whom weren’t even born until after September 11, are coming of age in an era of a protracted “war on terror” abroad, and broad surveillance and profiling of their community at home. In the month since attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have spurred escalating rhetoric from Donald Trump and other politicians, the long-simmering Islamophobia in America has reached a boiling point with a litany of threats, vandalism, and violence against Muslims.
Versions of this anti-Muslim sentiment have also been playing out in the classroom setting.
Muhammad Rahman, a 15-year-old at a Chicago high school, says he gets asked “Is that a clock or a bomb?” at least once a day since the international outcry over the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed. That the uproar was over teachers and police wrongfully assuming Ahmed’s homemade clock to be a bomb – when in fact it was a clock – doesn’t matter to Muhammad’s bullies.
“Even the nicest people, who you wouldn’t expect to be mean, say stuff,” Muhammad says. “I know my friends aren’t racist of course, but the jokes aren’t funny when they’re disrespectful.
“Every day, they make sure to let me know that I’m different from everyone else.”
In Georgia, a school principal apologized last week after a teacher asked a Muslim student if she had a bomb in her backpack.
Words are the most common weapon of school bullies, but in the past month, anti-Muslim sentiment in schools is increasingly manifesting in physical attacks, particularly against girls who wear the hijab. On 19 November, three boys allegedly beat up a sixth-grade girl wearing a hijab, calling her “Isis” . A 2014 study by Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) study found 29% of students who wore hijab experienced offensive touching or pulling of their scarves.
Fear of ‘being judged as either oppressed or radicalized’
Lana Alshahrour is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed 12-year-old Syrian Muslim at a Chicago middle school. Because she does not wear the hijab and has Caucasian features, when Lana was a new student she was privy to Islamophobic gossip about a classmate who wore the hijab.
Lana risked her social standing to defend the girl. “Instead of making fun of her, why don’t you get to know her?” she told the bullies. “But that’s what terrorists wear,” they replied. “No, that’s what Muslims wear. It’s just a piece of cloth,” Lana countered.
Lana appears to be clearing the path for her own future, too – she is conflicted by her desire to wear the hijab out of devotion to God, her fear of “being judged as either oppressed or radicalized,” and the “pressure to represent the hijab for all Muslims without letting it define me”.
Fifty-five percent of Muslim students surveyed by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) last year reported that they were bullied at school in some form because of their Islamic faith. That’s twice the national percentage of bullying reported by all students, regardless of their religion. According to the CAIR survey, verbal harassment is the most common, with non-Muslims calling Muslim students terrorists or referencing bombs. But physical assaults also occur.
These incidents are taking a psychological toll on Muslim youth. “At a crucial time in their identity development, they’re suffering from chronic trauma,” says Dr Halim Naeem, a psychotherapist and president of The Institute of Muslim Mental Health . Dr Naeem says that in the past few months alone, he has seen increased cases of depression, anxiety, image issues, paranoia, and substance abuse among Muslim American youth. In the short term, the constant stress wreaks havoc on students’ immune systems and destroys their focus, disrupting learning ability.
The role of teachers
Most kids don’t report any Islamophobic harassment to their teachers. “I don’t think they’d do anything that would make a difference, because they probably wouldn’t take it seriously,” says Farah. Her fear may not be unfounded, as she reports that even some of her teachers recently asked her questions about Islam “in a way that wasn’t just curious.”
The CAIR survey found that the sentiment that teachers don’t take Islamophobia seriously is shared by a majority of Muslim American students, and it goes beyond the typical adolescent fear of being labeled a tattle-tale. “I was afraid they [teachers and administration] would have their own opinions and give priority to the others,” reported one California student when asked about reporting Islamophobic bullying to teachers.
One in five Muslim students reported being discriminated against by school staff. Recently, a California teacher asked her class “Who thinks Muslims should die?” and called a Muslim student in class a terrorist . The school board disciplined the teacher, but he is still teaching. Students discriminated against by teachers often transfer classes or schools in order to feel more comfortable, as Ahmed Mohamed ended up doing .
How parents respond
Muslim parents are grappling with how to respond appropriately to protect their children while maintaining a sense of normalcy. Some have reluctantly kept their children home from school, fearing reprisals after the Paris and California attacks.Many are sitting down to give them “The Talk,” much like African American parents do with their children, about how to avoid raising suspicion and avoid physical harm or arrest. “I told Farah that it’s not wrong to be Muslim, but it might not be a good idea to be vocal about it right now,” says Mrs Darvesh. “It’s sad because I want my kids to be proud of who they are, and that’s what this country is about.”
I’m having to answer questions about my religion and the actions of people I don’t even know. I’m only 12
Others, such as St Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan , call for engaging kids instead. “Part of raising your child when you’re a minority is showing them and modeling through your own confidence and advocating for them non-confrontationally without shame, and without fear.”
Experts say addressing the problem requires the cooperation of non-Muslim parents and teachers to educate their kids.
“This is where teachers and parents of all faiths need to come up with a plan together to talk to kids about Islam and current events both at home and at school,” says Naeem, the psychotherapist. “When you teach racism and incite hatred in a developing brain, you actually alter its structure.”
Shaheen Pasha, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and mother of two, says that she sees too many students come into her classroom unaware of what’s going on in the world. “Non-Muslim student awareness and allyship can play a big part in resolving this issue.”
Islam in the curriculum
On Friday, tensions boiled over in Augusta County, Virginia, when schools were closed after a lesson in Arabic calligraphy elicited an uproar from the community. Students in the world geography class were presented with an Islamic Statement of faith written in Arabic to demonstrate the artistry of the calligraphy, but a community forum that night blasted it as an “indoctrination” of faith.
The incident sparked a fiery social media debate that reinforced the fears many students have about expressing their religion at school.
But while Lana ponders the consequences of appearing visibly Muslim through the hijab, she can’t help herself from using her own background for reference when the subjects of Islam, terrorism, and Arab refugees come up in her eighth-grade classes. In a recent debate about refugees, her classmates argued that Middle Eastern refugees should not be allowed into the US “because they could be Isis”.
Lana laughs. “They think if we don’t let anyone in here, then the terrorism stays overseas. But Isis doesn’t need to send fighters to America – they can recruit from the internet. Besides, Isis is not the root of the refugee problem.”
When someone suggested bombing the entire country of Syria to eliminate all threat of terror, Lana realized that her classmates didn’t see them as individual humans. “They think all Muslims and Arabs are scary. So I shared my family’s story: My uncle was a student in Syria but he is now a refugee living with us in Chicago after he had to escape being captured by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The root of the problem is Assad, not Isis.”