Six ways to combat anti-Muslim bullying in schools

WIth Islamophobic threats and violence on the rise - and the anti-Islamic rhetoric of Donald Trump's presidential campaign - schools must make sure they are protecting their Muslim students

Leah Shafer

How do we get more Muslims into Oxbridge?

This piece first appeared on Usable Knowledge, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Islamophobia in the United States has become rampant. Reports have shown that acts and threats of violence and vandalism against Muslims from March 2015 to March 2016 were at the highest levels in 15 years, and the recent presidential election was filled with hateful and fearful anti-Muslim rhetoric. This prejudice has extended to young people, with some studies showing that more than 50 percent of Muslim students in the U.S. report experiences of being bullied.

But combatting this harassment in schools — and by extension, working to end broader acts of Islamophobia — requires an approach that’s different from other anti-bullying initiatives. Educators should understand Islamophobia as both a type of bullying and a consequence of bias and of misinformation that is perpetuated by the media, public figures, and local community members.

Six ways to stop Islamophobia

Fighting Islamophobia in schools will lead not only to healthier and happier Muslim students, but also to more cooperative classrooms and more welcoming and equitable communities. Mariam Durrani, an expert on Islamophobia and Muslim youth and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), says that even if there are no Muslim students in a class, “changing educational and society-wide demographics suggest that as young people come of age, we’ll have even greater need for conversations about learning across difference and about addressing systemic inequalities,” whether about religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identifiers. 

Durrani offers six suggestions on how schools can begin to combat Islamophobia. 

  1. Design a specific anti-bullying policy that is comprehensive of all vulnerable students. Rather than adopt a general “zero tolerance” bullying policy, schools should clearly state that they won’t tolerate harassment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or immigration status. This explicit announcement can help teachers and students alike remain aware of what behavior is uniformly unacceptable.
  2. Understand bullying as an act that’s tied to larger social issues — not just an interpersonal problem. Targeting Muslim students is different from bullying that’s based on personal characteristics, such as a peer’s weight, clothes, or academic standing. Kids who harass their Muslim peers are likely influenced by a pervasive stereotype that Muslims are terrorists or that Islam is a violent religion. Educators need to teach students to consume media with a critical eye, and to understand how the news might color their opinions.
  3. Use academic coursework to fight bullying. Teachers can incorporate lessons on the importance of being an “upstander” in the face of mistreatment. Students should understand the historical consequences when people, just like them, have blindly followed stereotypes or haven’t stood up for those who are targeted and vulnerable.
  4. Focus curriculum interventions on human rights and inclusivity. To work against stereotypes and a widespread lack of knowledge about Islam, schools should educate students about Islamic history, traditions, and current affairs. But teachers should keep the curricular focus people-centric, not faith-centric, and don't single out Islam or Muslim students. For example, younger students can learn about Islamic dietary customs within broader lessons about culinary traditions around the world, nutritional needs, food allergies, and other faith-based dietary rules. Older students can learn about Islamophobia within larger conversations about how power is distributed in America.
  5. Ensure that faculty and staff are aware of their own implicit bias. In all interactions with students, educators should continually double-check to ensure that their words are inclusive and do not conform to stereotypes. Durrani suggests teachers think about “radical hospitality” — overtly welcoming all students, faiths, and cultures into their classrooms.
  6. Involve parents and communities, inviting everyone to get to know each other. School leaders can use PTO/PTA meetings for families to learn about cultural and religious differences in their communities, inviting Muslim families to participate. School leaders can also use these meetings to highlight why they think it’s important to use curriculum to prepare students to live in heterogeneous, egalitarian communities.

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Leah Shafer

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