The Chilling Rise of Islamophobia in Our Schools

Accusations, beatings, even death threats—that’s life for Muslim kids in America.

Four million Syrians like Nour have fled the brutal civil war. Now she's trying to help other Muslim kids feel safer at school. Photo: Mark Murrmann

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“WHAT DO YOU MISS about Syria the most?” I ask Nour on a rainy December afternoon in 2015, as we board a train after school. The soft-spoken 17-year old has invited me to join her at “I Stand with Arabs and Muslims,” a rally in San Francisco organized in the wake of the biggest spike in anti-Muslim violence in a decade, following deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

“Everything,” Nour answers. Dressed in a black “Youth Power” T-shirt, black jeans, and white sneakers, she hesitates to find her next words. “I miss the sense of community, family togetherness.” She begins to list off details from the life she used to live in the rural town of As-Suwayda, about an hour south of Damascus: the sound of the fire in the small, propane stove in their living room; the smell of hot mate tea; the cracking of sunflower seeds; her aunts’ chatter. She misses the big fig tree in her grandmother’s backyard and all the books they had in their house. They were mostly novels. Nour’s mother and father taught Arabic literature in local public schools. Nour was a carefree, bookish teenager in Syria—one of the top students in her school, stressed out about exams and grades.

“It’s strange for me to think of myself as an activist now,” says Nour. “But there is a growing tension I feel at school, after Paris, especially toward two girls from Yemen who wear headscarves over long, black dresses. Students often ask them, ‘Why do you wear this? Can you take it off? I want to see your hair!’ I want to help them feel safer and more included at school.”

Students ask girls with headscarves, ‘Why do you wear this? Can you take it off? I want to see your hair!’

In recent months, anti-immigrant rhetoric has spiked across the country—and in local and national politics. After the Paris attacks, more than two-dozen Republican governors said they don’t want Syrian refugees in their states. And Donald Trump said that if he were president he would kick all Syrian refugees out of the country; Ted Cruz said Muslims should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries,” but that Christians should be provided with a safe haven in the United States. Cruz made his comments about Christians while speaking at a middle school.

During that same month, harassment and violence against Muslims—and Sikhs who wear turbans or Indian women who wear headscarves and are mistaken for being Muslim—tripled, according to data from California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. A passenger shot a Muslim taxi driver in Pennsylvania after asking him about ISIS. A pregnant Muslim woman was assaulted in Southern California. In Florida, someone shot several bullets into the home of a Muslim family.

The reports of threats and attacks are on the rise in schools across the United States, too. A seventh grader in Vandalia, Ohio, threatened to shoot a Muslim boy on the bus ride home from school, calling him a “towel head,” a “terrorist,” and “the son of ISIS.” A sixth-grade girl wearing a hijab in the Bronx was reportedly punched by three boys who called her “ISIS.” Even before Paris and San Bernardino, a 2014 survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations found that 52 percent of Muslim students in California reported being the target of verbal abuse and insults. That’s double the number of students who report being bullied based on gender and race nationwide.

What’s most distressing to the council is how many anti-Muslim incidents have started with a teacher or a school administrator, as was the case with 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested after he brought a clock to his school in Texas. (The Justice Department is now investigating Ahmed’s former high school.) One in five Muslim students in California said they experienced discrimination by a teacher or an administrator at school. Of all the kids who were harassed, only 42 percent said reporting a problem to an adult made a difference. Muslim teens I have interviewed over the past two months have said many students don’t even report bullying because “students like to call Muslim and Arab students ‘terrorists’ in a joking way,” Nour explained.

As Nour and I emerge from the train station in the light winter rain, we walk toward City Hall in downtown San Francisco. About 200 people have gathered: middle-aged women in colorful headscarves, older men in ties and suits, young men holding signs that read, “ISIS doesn’t belong to us! ISIS is against us!” and “Don’t Ask Me About ISIS. Ask Your Government!” The crowd also includes several Jewish and Christian groups who came out to support the rally and about a dozen journalists. At one point, a burly white man with curly yellow hair interrupts the speaker and yells, “Go home!” before he is ushered away by the police.

What’s most distressing is how many anti-Muslim incidents start with a teacher or a school administrator.

“The Middle East is so complicated right now, and it is the least studied place in school,” Nour tells me. “We need to study about Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and not just about Islam and religion. I want people to learn about our contributions. We are not just people who fight all of the time and deal with religion and oppression.”

As we walk toward the front of the crowd, Nour spots Sharif Zakout, the youth organizer from the local Arab Resource and Organizing Center (and the main sponsor of the gathering). He was speaking about the rise of hate crimes across the country. Nour met Zakout last year when he came to her San Francisco school to talk to the kids about starting an Arab Youth Organizing chapter.

Nour’s high school is one of the most diverse in the Bay Area; more than 40 languages are spoken there. When Zakout came to the school, it already had a Muslim Student Association, but some teachers and students wanted to do more proactive work to try to stem Islamophobia. Students formed a chapter of the Arab Youth Organization, and now every Monday about 20 Arab and Muslim students meet to help each other with homework, college applications, and other academic issues. On Thursdays, they meet to build what Nour calls “social awareness.” Students lead discussions about the complicated political issues in the Middle East, and they talk about issues they can address at their school that would help reduce anti-Muslim bias.

Last year, Nour invited a petite 16-year old student from Tunisia—I’ll call her Mariam—to join the new Arabic youth organization. At first, Mariam tells me, she was shy and reluctant to speak up. But she slowly became more comfortable. “Nour is such an inspiring leader,” Mariam says. “She is brave.” Mariam is wearing a bright blue headscarf over a white sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, and purple high-tops when we meet in a cafe. “All Muslims deal with hearing hateful things,” she says. An older man walking his dog recently called Mariam’s mother “a piece of shit” as she passed him on the street.

Mariam’s father is a limousine driver in San Francisco, and when he can, he gives her rides in the long, black Lincoln. But when she has to walk somewhere in town alone, Mariam walks near strangers pretending she knows them. She chooses to walk near women, whenever possible, following just slightly behind them. Most don’t mind or don’t notice her quiet presence, she explains.

In a poll, 54 percent of Americans didn’t want to accept refugees from places like Syria. They worry the United States can’t screen out potential terrorists.

During one recent meeting, Mariam was talking to the group about a moment in one of her classes, after the Paris attacks, that had helped her: “My teacher facilitated a discussion about it in our class,” Mariam said. “It took away the fear. I was so moved by the respect and understanding our Latino, black, white, and Asian American students showed toward Muslims.” But such open conversations aren’t often the norm. At the meeting, the Arab Youth Organization talked about the ways they could help increase teacher interventions when students use Islamophobic language. Nour told of overhearing several students blame all Muslims for the attacks in a casual conversation with each other during class. She said she wanted teachers not to ignore such comments, and instead to stop the class briefly to explain why they are form of racial stereotyping; teachers could also relate the comments to other forms of abuse that students at their school can identify with, such as anti-black comments or language targeting undocumented Latino students. Another intervention that needs to happen, students suggested, was to have teachers include more Middle Eastern history in their coursework and add more books by Arabic and Muslim authors. “How can American students be prepared for the future if they don’t understand what’s going on the Middle East?” Nour said. At the end of December, Nour and others presented the students’ suggestions to a panel of social studies teachers.

The Arab Youth Organization at this Bay Area school is part of a small but growing group of teachers, researchers, and students across the nation who are trying to find different ways to reduce Islamophobia in schools. Many teachers I interviewed said that so far, efforts to reduce bullying of students are usually after the fact: setting up reporting systems, collecting data, disciplining and suspending students. Most teachers agreed that such approaches are necessary but not enough, and that teachers and administrators need to approach the problem proactively to keep kids safe.

THE CENSUS BUREAU estimates that today there are 1.8 million Arab Americans in the United States, up 51 percent since 2000. The current migration wave from the Middle East and North Africa is also expected to get bigger with the ongoing instability in those regions.

Forty-five percent of high school students have heard racist remarks about Arabs in their classrooms.

In a recent poll, though, 54 percent of Americans said they didn’t want to accept refugees from places like Syria, worrying that the government doesn’t have the ability to screen out potential terrorists. Yet the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meissner, reminds people that such fears aren’t based in evidence. “The vetting of Syrians is the most intensive of any group that comes to the United States,” Meissner told NPR. “None of the people who have come through the American refugee program, Syrian or other, since 9/11—and that’s close to 800,000 people—have been the source of terrorist activity in the United States.”

California is among the few dozen states where Syrian refugees have been embraced by the governor. Many Bay Area public schools are a safe haven to hundreds of immigrants from all over the world, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t susceptible to internalizing anti-Muslim stereotypes they hear, says Nour. And even in the more progressive Bay Area schools, a 2012 survey of high school students by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center found that 45 percent of students have heard racist remarks about Arabs in their classrooms.

“When teachers hear racist or anti-Islamic comments, most freeze,” Zakout said. “They don’t know how to intervene. There need to be regular trainings on how to recognize racist language and practice constructive responses. Silence is not neutral.”

In 2010, the Department of Education did a study looking at programs aimed at reducing conflict in young kids and found that prescribed “one size fits all” approaches didn’t work. Boston University’s professor of education Scott Seider argues that schools have to work hard to create their own, homegrown systems designed to serve the individual needs of its unique student body. At Nour’s school, experienced coaches and students help teachers learn how to recognize racist, sexist, or homophobic language and respond appropriately.

A 2016 Stanford study found ethnic-studies students improved their grades, attendance, and the number of course credits they earned.

Most recent anti-bullying research that has looked at the impact of student-run groups in countering harassment toward gay students has found that such clubs can act as a powerful proactive buffer against bullying. (LGBTQ students are still bullied at higher rates than any other subgroup, including Muslim students.) At Nour’s school, there is a strong Gay Straight Student Alliance that holds ongoing meetings to facilitate conversations between kids and teachers about changes that could help LGBTQ students feel safe.

Teachers and administrators tell me that the success of any anti-bullying initiative depends on the degree of student involvement and engagement in crafting solutions, which is why educators at Nour’s school support dozens of multicultural and political student clubs. Teachers here also work hard to add content in the standard curriculum that reflects the culture and heritage of their students, as 92 percent of the student body are students of color. This approach seems to be paying off. A district-wide 2013 student survey showed that a significantly higher percentage of 11th graders at the school, compared with their peers in other schools, reported that their school encouraged them to understand how others think and feel, and to identify and stop bullying. But this approach is an outlier. Dozens of teachers I’ve interviewed in schools across the country told me that neither the programs they took to get their credentials nor the districts where they worked provide these kinds of trainings or promote diversified curriculum.

This needs to change, argues Christine Sleeter, a professor of education at California State University-Monterey Bay who is known for her research on curriculum. Last year, for the first time in history, the number of students of color in our nation’s schools surpassed the number of white kids, yet the curriculum the kids learn is still overwhelmingly focused on a Euro-American perspectives, said Sleeter.

In 2011, Sleeter reviewed dozens of studies and research reviews on the impact of ethnic-studies classes, finding that in all but one, students’  attitudes toward people of other races improved—and so did their grades. A 2016 Stanford study of three high schools in San Francisco that implemented an ethnic-studies pilot program found that students in the course improved their grades, their attendance rates, and the number of course credits they earned. Sleeter found that the best results came from classrooms that allowed students of different racial backgrounds to interact and discuss widespread stereotypes, and from those whose teachers included coursework that reflected the realities of students’ lives, including war, racism, and poverty.

Sleeter and others point out that when taught effectively, an ethnic-studies curriculum can help students understand forces that are working against them—including racial stereotypes. Effective ethnic-studies curricula also give students strong role models and tools to change their own situations.

ABOUT EIGHT YEARS AGO, the price of food and gas and heat in Syria began rising sharply, fueled in part by the war in Iraq. Nour’s parents didn’t have enough money to cover the higher costs, so in 2009 her father left Syria for the United States. A friend in California helped him get papers and settle in San Francisco, where he started working seven days a week in a local liquor store and sending as much money home as possible.

In 2011, as uprisings spread across the Middle East and into Syria, some of Nour’s classmates started openly criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—an act that was strictly forbidden. One morning, Nour found the mandatory portrait of Assad in her classroom crumpled, its glass frame broken. Syria slipped into civil war, and ISIS gained traction in the northern part of the country. The extremists were now executing thousands of people from religious and ethnic minorities, including Muslims they don’t consider true adherents of their hardline teachings. Nour and her family are Druze, an offshoot of Islam practiced by about 700,000 people in a country with a pre-war population of 24 million. Nour’s father was finally able to get political asylum for his family, and in 2012 Nour, her mother, and her two siblings joined him in San Francisco.

Nour says some of her favorite moments in her ethnic-studies courses come when her teachers help her see the connections between what the Syrian refugees are experiencing today and other mass migrations in American history—from the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the waves of undocumented immigrant students who have come to California from Central America. “Learning about these similarities makes me feel less alone and more hopeful about the possibility of positive change in the future,” Nour explained.

Sleeter and other experts like education psychologist Claude Steele argue that mainstream American curricula should include non-white history, art, and literature. The channeling of this kind of material to special anniversaries and designated days, months, or classes, Steele wrote in The Atlantic, “carries the disturbing message that the material is not of general value. [A]nd it excuses in whites and others a huge ignorance of their own society.”

But still today, the reality is, Sleeter says, the designation provides practical ways to increase funding for ethnic-studies curriculum development and teacher training.

In 2014, the San Francisco Unified School District approved a resolution that extended ethnic-studies classes to all 19 high schools in the city. At least eight other districts in California have adopted or are debating similar options. Arizona and Texas are also looking at expanding their school curricula to include more ethic-studies courses, according to Sleeter.

In Virginia, a district shut down all schools after a teacher gave out an assignment on Islam that caused a revolt by some parents.

But it’s hard to imagine such work scaling up in significant ways nationwide without increased federal-, state-, and district-level support. In some states that are considering increasing ethnic-studies courses, educators and policymakers remain locked in a bitter debate about the merits of such curricula. In 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed a statewide ban on Mexican American ethnic studies arguing that such curricula promoted “resentment against whites” because it included a high number of black and Latino perspectives on systemic racism that didn’t view American history in flattering ways. A federal appeals court ruled Arizona’s ban was stifling intellectual freedom. The battle continues.

Meanwhile, most teacher training dollars are tied up in the redesign of new tests and the implementation of Common Core standards. Most changes, for now, will likely be driven by small groups of dedicated students and educators who will organize their own groups and work directly with their districts or nonprofit partners like the Arab Resources and Organizing Center, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and Teachers for Social Justice.

And there is the hurdle that including more content about the Middle East and Islam can itself get caught up in Islamophobia. In Augusta County, Virginia, the district shut down all schools after a teacher gave out an assignment on Islam that caused a revolt by some parents. As part of a class on world religions, the geography teacher at Riverheads High School in Staunton asked students to use calligraphy and copy an Islamic statement of faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” The homework assignment was meant to raise students’ appreciation of the artistic complexity of Arabic calligraphy, school district officials explained. But when students took the assignment home, some parents staged a rally and flooded the district with complaints arguing the school was converting their children to Islam.

A WEEK AFTER the deadly attacks in San Bernardino, Nour and Salem are having a hard time concentrating on their college applications. “I’m worried about the refugees,” Salem says. “Every time an attack happens, it will make it harder for people to escape war.”

None of Nour’s cousins, aunts, or friends have been able to get political asylum in the United States so far—many are now scattered in Egypt, Brazil, Lebanon, and Germany. Her cousin Hazem immigrated to Cuba. Salem and Nour’s close friend recently spent his parents’ life savings to pay for seats in a rubber dinghy that was crossing the Aegean Sea bound for Europe.

Nour tells me she hopes President Barack Obama will keep his promise to accept 10,000 more refugees in the next nine months. “I want more Syrian children to have access to good education like me and Salem. They can then contribute to peaceful solutions in the Middle East when they grow up. It is my conviction that I will go to Syria after college and do that.”

For now, Nour’s friends at the Arab Youth Organization are preparing to welcome more refugees at their school next year.


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