Twenty years after 9/11, Muslim students still need our help

Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource

It has been more than 20 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and although almost all Muslims despise the violent and militant Islamist group to which the attackers claimed allegiance – Muslims are still viewed with suspicion and face significant challenges when it comes to feeling safe and welcome in American schools.

This includes K-12 schools and universities in California, where a recent survey by the Council of American-Islamic Relations recently discovered that Muslim students are bullied and harassed at twice the national rate of other students. The organization’s 2019-2020 study found that 40% of Muslim students in California K-12 schools and colleges report abuse for being a Muslim.

As California schools prepare to welcome thousands of Afghan refugee students over the coming months, it is imperative that educators take seriously the task of providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for Muslim students.

Policies fail

Some, including one coalition advocates who called for the inclusion of Arab-American history hoped that California’s new ethnic studies curriculum would reduce anti-Muslim sentiment. Although this lobbying effort was initially successful, the State Board of Education decided to to delete the Arab-American section.

In 2019, the California Department of Education developed anti-harassment guidelines distributed to all educators and staff. However, Muslims as well as other faith groups are not specifically mentioned. Some say that these guidelines, while well intentioned, are simply not enough to fight against the Islamophobia experienced by Muslim students.

Enter programs such as Training of young lecturers, offered by the San José-based nonprofit Islamic Networks Group, which helps Muslim teens deal with bullying, educate classmates about their beliefs, and create more supportive school environments. A graduate of the program then made presentations to hundreds of students at her high school.

As impressive as it may be, the responsibility for combating anti-Muslim prejudice should not lie with them. Muslim students also need the ally of educators, who play an important role – for better or for worse – in making Muslim students feel safe and supported in school. Disturbingly, nearly 30% of Muslim students report teachers and administrators make offensive comments about Islam, according to the Council on US-Islamic Relations.

Here are some suggestions for educators and staff when considering approaches to support Muslim students:

Official statements and public demonstrations of support will not do the heavy lifting

In 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Safe Place to Learn Act to combat bullying of Muslims and other South Asians in California schools, while in January 2021, California State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond joins the leaders of the Islamic Networks Group for a learning session on understanding and combating Islamophobia.

These high-level actions are commendable. However, this does not mean that young Muslims believe that these top-down interventions produce noticeable changes on the ground. A recent study by Springtide Research Institute found that 58% of young Muslims between the ages of 13 and 25 rate their confidence in public schools at 5 or less on a 10-point scale, behind Buddhists (61%) among major religious groups.

To combat the tropes on Muslims on the ground, Amaarah DeCuir of American University suggest that educators teach culturally diverse stories highlighting the positive contributions Muslims make to their communities.

“While it is common for people to remember how ‘Islamic extremists’ carried out the 9/11 attacks, it is also true that Muslim immigrants … lost their lives as first responders,” he said. declared DeCuir Explain. “These stories can help counteract the negative feelings that flow from the accounts blaming Muslims that sometimes accompany lessons on 9/11. “

Be a mentor

California educators should find ways to dignify and celebrate American Muslims. Research shows that young Muslims are more likely to express anti-violence attitudes and university graduate better equipped to prosper and welcome others in a pluralistic society than their peers from other belief systems.

Yet Springtide Research find that young Muslims are less likely than their peers of other faiths to believe that their life has meaning and purpose. This is probably the result of internalized Islamophobia. The cure? Springtide found that with every adult mentor in a young person’s life – including teachers, coaches, and even employers – feelings of meaninglessness and lack of purpose have dramatically diminished.

Forty percent of our country’s Afghan refugees have resettled in the Sacramento area of ​​California in recent years, making it the fastest growing ethnic group in some districts. Soon, thousands more will be enrolling, where they will have to navigate American cultural norms and communities where Muslims are a small minority. California educators have the opportunity to be the caring advocates and mentors that Muslim students, including Afghan refugees, need to feel safe and welcome at school.


Kevin singer is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University, responsible for media and public relations for Springtide Research Institute, and professor of world religions at two community colleges.

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