Students took part in a Texas Muslim Capitol Day rally at the Texas Capitol in Austin earlier this year. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The call by Donald Trump, the presumed frontrunner in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, to ban Muslim immigrants for an unspecified period of time, and recent terrorist attacks by Muslims in Paris and California have put Muslim Americans in an uncomfortable spotlight. Muslims report that hate speech and violence against them are on the rise, though many instances are not formally reported or prosecuted.

The FBI recently released new hate crime statistics from 2014, and an analysis of the latest available data for victims of reported single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:
• 48.3 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias against race.
• 18.7 percent were targeted because of bias against sexual orientation.
• 17.1 percent were victimized because of bias against religion.
• 12.3 percent were victimized because of bias against ethnicity.
• 1.6 percent were victims of gender-identity bias.
• 1.4 percent were targeted because of bias against disability.
• 0.6 percent (40 individuals) were victims of gender bias.

Among the 1,140 people reported to have been victimized because of their religion, 56.8 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias and 16.1 percent were victims of anti-Islamic (Muslim) bias. But again, those figures speak to reported incidents, and many are never reported.

Such behavior does not stop at the school door, with a number of groups of students now targets of aggression, including blacks, LGBT students and some immigrant groups. This post deals with aggression toward Muslim students and what schools can do help relieve it.

It was written by  Thea Renda Abu El-Haj and Sigal Ben-Porath. Abu El-Haj teaches at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. A Palestinian American, she grew up Iran and Lebanon, and her family is from Jerusalem. She recently published the book “Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American youth after 9/11.” Ben-Porath teaches at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is Israeli and grew up in Paris and Jerusalem. In 2006, she published “Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict.”

By Thea Renda Abu El-Haj and Sigal Ben-Porath

A sixth-grade Somali Muslim girl was attacked in her New York City public school. Several boys beat her and tried to pull off her headscarf while calling her “ISIS.” Given the anti-Muslim rhetoric circulating across our nation, many Muslim students confront hostile school climates in which even in the absence of acts of physical violence, they are subject to hate speech and microaggressions. While this is a sad reality that members of other groups face in schools as well, the struggles of Muslim students have been a growing problem since 9/11 and have reached a crisis point for many in the current political atmosphere.

Vicious anti-Muslim sentiment is being fueled by presidential candidates, governors, and other elected officials. Many people have responded by calling these politicians to task for stoking a dangerous fire masquerading as patriotic sentiment. There is a concerted effort by members of both Muslim and non-Muslim communities to rally support for the safety and well-being of American Muslims. Media campaigns such as “Stand with American Muslims” counter the bigoted discourse that blames all Muslims for the violent actions of some, and call for expressions of civic unity in the face of this pervasive climate.

How can these calls be translated into action by teachers and schools?

Schools must act quickly to intervene where there are acts of violence and discriminatory speech directed at Muslim students and teachers. But, perhaps more importantly, schools must reinvigorate the mandate of civic education too often sidelined in contemporary educational policy and practice. This emphasis on academic achievement overshadows the preparation of students to function well in diverse environments as members of American democratic society. Schools must recognize their role as important civic institutions that have a key role in upholding democratic values and introducing students to social and political expectations and possibilities.

Based on our years of complementary research into the lived experiences of Muslim students in American schools since 9/11, and on civic and political education in divided societies, we suggest the following practical steps that teachers and administrators can take in the face of anti-Muslim sentiments and actions:

  1. Commit to teaching about the diversity of Muslim communities and Muslim-majority countries. Work against the tendency to make Muslims either invisible (ignored by school curriculum) or hyper-visible (only discussed in relation to “terrorism”). In these times, the Muslim students in your community can serve as excellent resources. While they may be under attack, they are more than just “at-risk students.” Treat them as individuals, and as people whose knowledge and perspectives can enrich the community, as diverse student bodies so often do.

In so doing, teachers must keep in mind the diversity of Muslim communities within the United States: immigrants and refugees from many countries, as well as families who have converted or have resided in the United States for many generations and identify primarily as Americans. Schools should build on the linguistic diversity, diversity of spiritual and/or cultural practices, and the forms of knowledge that these children and youth bring. Remember not to expect any one student (or colleague) to represent Islam, or the Muslim community — this is demeaning to both the individual and to the community. Would you ask a white or Christian student to represent their race or faith? Both groups are too diverse to be represented by one person.

  1. Beware of treating American students as ‘good Muslims’ (“They are American just like the rest of us!”) while ignoring or demonizing Muslims in other countries. Calls for civic unity suggest that true American democratic values rest on respect for all the peoples that comprise this vast nation. However, addressing anti-Muslim prejudice must confront the tendency to view the “Muslim world” as a shadowy place characterized by violence and oppression.

Supporting fellow American Muslims is important, especially when bigots attack them or their places of worship (a pig’s head was recently thrown into a mosque in Philadelphia, where we both live). However, simply moving the boundary of who is included as a national insider—a person for whom we should feel compassion and concern — stops short of recognizing that many of those now recognized as “insiders” are connected in very real ways to people living in countries that remain demonized in the public imagination.

  1. Educate against anti-Muslim prejudice in your school, even if you believe there are no Muslims represented in your community. The flames of anti-Muslim rhetoric are fueled by ignorance and hatred that need no Muslim presence.

Teachers face the important and delicate task of introducing all their students, of all races, nationalities, ethnicities and faith traditions to the possibilities and perils of open political discourse. We hope that teachers do not shy away from this call to strengthen our democratic public sphere.