“I’ve just blocked that day out. All I can remember was walking down the hall and hearing a boy yell, ‘The Mozlems are gonna be rounded up now!’ Then kids started snickering and chanting, I didn’t look up, I just ran and hid in the bathroom before anyone could see me cry … No one told them to stop. I don’t feel safe there (at school). You can’t make me go back there.”
-(Male Student, 9th grade, personal communication)
Muslim youth are increasingly experiencing religious-based bullying similar to the story described above. A bullying survey of Muslim adolescents in California conducted by The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 53% of Muslim students have experienced religiously-based bullying in school—nearly twice the national average of bullying reported in 20171. Many studies show that Muslim youth are reporting rising rates of depression, anxiety, problem behaviors (e.g., smoking, drinking), and decreasing rates of academic engagement as a result of bullying.2 At the same time, these studies show that many Muslim youth respond to bullying with increased community engagement and civic participation.3 As an educator, you are in a unique position to significantly influence the trajectory of Muslim youth’s outcomes in the face of bullying.
How can you promote resilience among Muslim youth?
Most importantly, it’s crucial to realize that Muslim youth are a diverse group and vary in their racial, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. For example, a young Black Muslim male may experience different challenges than a young white Muslim youth, a refugee youth, or a third-generation immigrant female who wears a hijab (head covering)—despite all sharing the same faith. These differences are all important to keep in mind as you interact with all kinds of Muslim students in the school setting.
What does bullying look like among Muslim youth?
Just like youth of other religious backgrounds, Muslim youth experience verbal bullying as the common form of bullying, which usually includes derogatory comments about their religious practices and beliefs, and statements which perpetuate negative stereotypes about Islam. Unfortunately, physical bullying is also on the rise—increasing from 9% to 19% over three years (CAIR, 2017). Bullying also takes on an indirect and hidden form, which may miss our radars but is equally detrimental to youth’s mental health. Microaggressions are brief and everyday slights or insults that communicate negative messages towards individuals of color and may or may not be intentional (Sue, 2010). Among Muslim youth, these look like:
- asking Muslim children questions such as, ‘Where are you really from?’
misinformation and misrepresentation in the school curriculum content that portrays Islam and Muslims as inherently villainous and in direct conflict with western civilization.
- asking Muslim students to speak on behalf of all Muslims (i.e. calling on them for topics related to Islam which puts them on the spot)
- school practices or policies that fail to accommodate Muslim students, such as:
- the lack of support for Muslim student organizations,
- requiring fasting Muslim students to participate in strenuous physical activities during Ramadan, or
- the subtle exclusion of non-Christian holidays on school calendars
- the explicit celebration of Christian holidays (i.e. sending Muslim children home with drawings of Christmas trees)
Bullying among Muslim youth does not occur simply in classrooms or amongst peers—it occurs while under adult supervision, such as in classrooms, in the cafeteria, and afterschool programs. It also occurs in unsupervised settings such as in the hallways, on the bus, and in the bathrooms. The online world is equally unsafe for Muslim children, who are increasingly experiencing cyberbullying in the form of anti-Muslim rhetoric on all social media platforms. Ultimately, research illustrates the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim bullying that Muslim youth experience as they move in and out of various social settings during their daily lives.
What can educators and schools do to support Muslim students in their classrooms and schools?
As an educator, you can engage in the following strategies to support your students:
- Check your own implicit biases so that you do not engage in any microaggressions as described above
- Create an inclusive learning environment in your classrooms which promotes anti-bias learning:
- Incorporate the experiences, perspectives, and words of Muslims into the curriculum through social studies and current events instruction and children’s books.
- Do your homework: check the content of textbooks and lesson plans to make sure they are not biased towards Muslim students—use alternative curriculum
- Intervene quickly and effectively when you see Muslim students being bullying.
- Build rapport with students so that they feel comfortable coming to you when incidents of bullying occur
- Teach students about bias and discrimination using current events—doing so can help students challenge biases and build empathy amongst all of your students
- Support students in their attempts to engage in Muslim-specific afterschool activities, such as the Muslim Student Association
- Encourage and teach your students about how to be an ally in the face of bullying. Teach students that being an ally can mean other things that “standing up” to the bully, which are equally effective and supportive to the target of the bullying
Schools can engage in the following prevention and intervention efforts to support Muslim students:
- Explicitly mention protected groups (which includes religion) in the school’s bullying policy
- Conduct culturally-sensitive staff training to ensure that adults and students are prepared to recognize and respond appropriately to religious-based bullying
- Offer educational material to increase staff, student and parents’ knowledge about Muslim students’ religion and culture to increase religious tolerance and culturally responsive school environments
- Document all incidents of bullying so that there is objective and specific tracking of Muslim-based bullying
- School psychologists and counselors should work with Muslim students to help them recognize the effects of discrimination on their identities and identify ways to deal with their struggles in a proactive manner.