To the teens watching the presidential candidates debating on TV, something seemed oddly familiar.
“They think he’s rich, he’s successful,” Henna Chiknawari said about Donald Trump. Frohar Alemi chimed in, “I see Donald Trump more as a comedian.”
Hushna Saleh said, “The reason people watch a debate nowadays is they want to hear a joke, or one candidate firing at the other.”
And then Gazwa Tarar declared: “They’re like high school girls!”
Tarar should know. She is one.
To these girls at Al-Qalam Academy in Springfield, Va., and to so many other children, this presidential election cycle is reshaping their ideas of how grown-ups act. Candidates running for president
sometimes talk about each other’s private parts, they’ve learned. Sometimes they insult each other’s wives, jest about violence and sling playground-style sobriquets.
Among all the parents and teachers struggling to explain this campaign to their children, Muslim Americans have perhaps the hardest job.
What do you tell your child when the Republican front-runner says on TV, “I think Islam hates us”? What do you say when another challenger says police should be patrolling Muslim neighborhoods?
“They are frightened by this language. They’re puzzled by it. It’s destabilizing the emotions of these young children who are trying to fit in and to be proud,” said Salahuddeen Abdul Kareem, who teaches at the Muslim private school Alim Academy in Potomac, Md. “They’re troubled. How can adults act in such a way?”
Educators at Muslim private schools and at mosques across America say they strive to inform students about the election, not shield them from it, even when debate touches frequently on their own religion in a way that might be painful.
And so at Al-Qalam Academy, an all-girls secondary school, on a recent morning, beneath drawings of some of the traditional 99 names of Allah in girlish polka dots and pastels, nine teenagers in headscarves scribbled intently in their journals. The topic on the whiteboard: “Is voting a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?”
Tarar was one of two real high schoolers in the room who will be 18 years old and thus able to vote in November. But all of them feel strongly about participating in politics.
“If we lived in any other time, we wouldn’t have been able to vote because we are women or we are people of skin color. If we lived in any other country, we wouldn’t be able to vote,” said Ramisa Resha, a 14-year-old freshman. One of her classmates applauded, and another softly whooped, “Speeeech!”
After months of watching the campaign closely, the teenage students in this civics class already seemed world-weary. Shortly after Ted Cruz said on the campaign trail that police should be monitoring “Muslim neighborhoods” in the United States, 15-year-old freshman Maryam Mian said, “To me it’s disappointing. It’s not offending anymore.” She’s used to it, she insisted.
When Donald Trump repeated his pledge to prevent all Muslims from entering the country, Mian said she didn’t take it personally. It’s not just Muslims. “He doesn’t like the Spanish people. He doesn’t like black people.”
But Resha said to her, “There are a lot of people who agree with him. That’s pretty disturbing.”
Kareem said he encourages similar discussions among his middle and high school students. He asks his students to watch or read the news at home, and starts every class with a five-minute discussion of current events.
“I don’t want them to look back at age 30 or 40 or 50 and say, ‘How come I didn’t know?’ They need to know these ideas hurled around,” he said. “I think it’s better if reasonable adults process that information with them and help them figure it out.”
For instance, when then-candidate Ben Carson said a Muslim couldn’t be president without rejecting sharia law, Kareem asked the students how that held up against their own knowledge of Islamic teaching.
“He hasn’t had lesson 101 in sharia law,” Kareem said about Carson. He helped the students reach their own conclusion, that a Muslim could indeed be president.
When the Southern Poverty Law Center polled 2,000 teachers about their students’ impressions of the election, they collected hundreds of accounts of fear and anxiety particularly among Muslim students. One fourth grade teacher wrote in their report, released this month: “One of my students who is Muslim is worried that he will have to wear a microchip identifying him as Muslim.”
Another teacher said students have made discriminatory comments about Muslims in the past, but the current climate is different. “Before the campaign, when they said hurtful or disrespectful things and I called them out on it, they would stop,” the teacher wrote. “Today, when such things are said, they question me why I think it is not appropriate to say when their parents and the future president of this country is saying it…. I don’t know what to say.”
Several educators said that their Muslim students had been called “terrorist” and had found “death to ISIS” notes in their lockers and backpacks. Girls who wore headscarves told their teachers that they were taunted by passing drivers as they walked to school, or in one case physically assaulted by an adult man.
“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,” one teacher wrote. Another said, “A boy brought a knife to school to protect himself against ‘the Muslims.’ His teacher had to move her Muslim students away from him for their safety.”
Even the very youngest students were included in the report. “All Muslims are bad,” one first-grader told his teacher.
“A child of Indian heritage introduced himself to me, all in a single breath, ‘Hi, I’m Fharid but I’m not a terrorist,'” a teacher wrote. “He was six.”
Talib Shareef, an imam at the D.C. congregation that calls itself “the nation’s mosque,” said members have told him lately that their children have been picked on in their public schools by other kids who picked up anti-Muslim sentiments they heard on TV.
Shareef has started a two-pronged education campaign — first, to teach members of his congregation how to discuss the election with their own children. And second, to teach non-Muslim children that his religion is more than what Trump or Cruz has to say about it.
He has led tour groups of students from sixth grade through college to Masjid Muhammad DC.
One student asked him during a tour, “Why do Muslims hate us?” Shareef said. He tried to convince the child that that idea was wrong.
“They surprise some of the parents that they’re so aware of these things,” he said. “They’re hearing this stuff. It’s in the air. I had 25 sixth graders here. You should hear the kind of things they have to say.”
When they leave his mosque, he sends them with a homework assignment: Go read the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. And if you think our founding documents, which Shareef strived to uphold during his 30 years in the Air Force, don’t condone anti-Muslim rhetoric, write a letter to Trump or to your congressman about it.
The girls at the Springfield high school say such education campaigns are badly needed. Resha said she knows other children think differently about Muslims now than they did before the presidential campaign started. “When we hear everyone around us saying ‘Oh, Muslims are terrorists,’ they’re going to believe it.”
Leaning forward in her school desk, Alemi agreed. “Me personally, if someone is running for president, I believe they should not only have good policies, but good manners,” she said. “Kids are like, I want to be like Donald Trump now.”