Engy Abdelkader: Islamophobic Bullying in Our Schools
by Engy Abdelkader
“You boys were so much fun on the 8th grade trip! Thanks for not bombing anything while we were there!” read the yearbook inscription penned by the middle school teacher.
The eighth grade yearbook was littered with similar remarks by classmates linking Omar to a “bomb.”
“To my bomb man!” read one note. “Come wire my bomb,” read another.
“What is this?” asked Omar’s mother incredulously. He had handed the yearbook over to her moments earlier when he arrived home that afternoon.
Omar answered quietly, “I know, Mom, I know.” He stared down at the kitchen floor. His eyes could not meet his mother’s but he began to tell her what had happened just one month earlier.
In May 2009, Omar joined his classmates on a school trip to Washington, D.C. As they toured the Washington Monument, visited area museums and passed by the White House, the kids repeatedly told Omar they hoped he wouldn’t “bomb” any of the sites. A teacher chaperoned the children, heard the comments and responded by doing… well, nothing, except leave a denigrating remark in Omar’s yearbook a month later.
It was clear to Omar’s mother that her American born and raised son was harassed because of his Muslim faith and Arab ancestry.
Unfortunately, this was not the first bias-based bullying incident involving Omar that school year. Only several months earlier a peer was intimidating Omar, calling him a “terrorist,” during an elective trade course. Omar finally told his mother about the bullying when his report card indicated that he was failing that same class, while acing the others where he was not subjected to such humiliating treatment.
Omar’s mother had addressed the bullying with the school Vice-Principal immediately afterwards.
But, when she spoke to her son’s school Principal regarding the D.C. trip and subsequent offensive yearbook comments (by a school teacher), the Principal was shocked to learn that Omar had been a prior victim of bullying earlier in the academic year. He had no knowledge of that incident in his school.
While the Principal assured her that he would take proper action against the offending teacher, nothing actually happened. The teacher denied hearing the bomb-related comments during the field trip to D.C. and excused her yearbook note as a “joke.”
Omar’s incensed mother took her case to the school Superintendent who in turn suggested scheduling a cultural sensitivity training about Arabs and Muslims for faculty.
That never came to pass, however.
In a written complaint Omar’s mother filed with a state government agency (with jurisdiction over such bias-based bullying incidents as the one involving her son) she observed:
“[O]ne day, there will be a child who is pushed beyond their limits, as we have seen in tragic events throughout the country, like Columbine and suicides of children being picked on for no other reason than being “different.”
What will we do then?
Must we wait for tragedy to create a safer and more open society for our community?”
By now Omar was a freshman in the public high school where the bullying continued, unabated.
In school, Omar was frequently referred to as “faggot.”
Omar never told his parents.
The verbal harassment culminated into physical “touching.”
A male student rubbed Omar’s shoulder while calling him “faggot.”
Still, Omar said and did nothing seeming paralyzed by his fear and shame.
Then, during a fire drill at school a group of boys yelled out to Omar, “Call off your tribe so we can go back into school!”
That was it.
Omar told his parents what was happening. He explained to his mother that he tried to keep the bullying a secret because he did not want to “hurt or upset” them.
Omar’s mother complained to the Principal, Superintendent and state agency… again.
This time, the high school held a cultural sensitivity training focusing on American Arabs and Muslims and geared towards faculty members, only.
Some mistakenly believe that bullying is a rite of passage which children must endure. It is worth noting the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify school bullying as a “public health problem.”
In fact, bullying has been recognized as a form of child abuse when perpetrated by other children. Studies have shown that victims of bullying may suffer school phobia, increased truancy and reduced concentration and classroom achievement. Bullying victims may also suffer sleep disturbances, bedwetting, abdominal pain, high levels of anxiety and depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and heightened fear for personal safety.
While anti-bullying legislation plays a critical role in protecting bullying victims, proper implementation and enforcement of those laws is key. Case in point: over 45 states have such legislation in effect (including Omar’s home state) yet bullying — and bias-based bullying — persists in epidemic proportions.
And, what happens when a disappointing report card or offensive inscriptions in a child’s yearbook does not tip off a parent that his or her child is a target of such bullying conduct? Many children refrain from sharing such details with family members sometimes out of a sense of shame and embarrassment but often because they are attempting to shield parents from being hurt or upset, as we saw in Omar’s case above.
Preventative measures geared at faculty, students and administrators are necessary to stop bullying from occurring in the first instance. Indeed, evidence suggests that bullying behavior can be significantly reduced through prevention curricula.
According to a new report published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) titled, “Global Battleground or School Playground: The Bullying of America’s Muslim Children,” bias-based bullying against American Muslim children (or those perceived to be Muslim) is on the rise and such school bullying is largely attributed to cultural and religious misunderstanding.
The report finds that a primary factor underlying the persistent harassment, ridicule and discrimination against American Muslim children is the American mainstream’s general misperception of Islam and Muslims.
The ISPU paper calls for intensive and pervasive efforts to educate American society about Islam and Muslims. It suggests that such cultural information should be provided to libraries, knowledge bases, teachers and school administrators.
Such facts and figures about Muslims and Islam — compiled with the assistance of diverse community groups and advocates — should also be featured in educational materials and resources, school curricula, popular Internet sites, television and films.
Not surprisingly the report identifies the media as a problem source for stereotyped images of Muslims as terrorists and the outside group in the “us” versus “them” dichotomy.
Perhaps it is time for “Hollywood” to consider positive associations for the Muslims it portrays on the big screen and in our family rooms. American Muslims are doctors, lawyers, engineers, make-up artists, photographers, engineers, information technology specialists, law enforcement agents, teachers, professors, bankers, community advocates, humanitarians, etc. — isn’t it time we portray them that way?
Children’s programming can also play a critical role in addressing this issue.
Note the influence of Sesame Street, for instance: a 1996 survey found that 95 percent of all American preschoolers had watched Sesame Street by the time they were three. More recently, in 2008, an estimated 77 million Americans had watched the program as kids.
In my view, Sesame Street should feature more American Muslim, Arab American and South Asian celebrities, children and characters in its regular programing.
The children’s show has made great strides in promoting diversity and multiculturalism and recently introduced its first South Asian character to the regular cast. To further promote increased diversity, it could throw a party with authentic Middle Eastern food and music for its American viewing audience, for example.
Musicians could play the tabla — an Arabic percussion instrument which produces a great beat — while guests enjoy pita chips and hummus. Mangos, a popular fruit in the Arab and Muslim world, could also make an appearance where celebrating children learn how to count all the mangos.
And, during ‘The Word on the Street’ segment, Murray could imaginably interview a young Sikh man with a turban or a young American Muslim girl or woman who wears a hijab or headscarf. This may help address the growing phenomenon of “hijabophobia.”
Further, The Daily Show‘s Asif Mandvi, who happens to be an Indian-American Muslim in addition to being funny, could make a cameo appearance to help define and explain a new word (e.g. the word jocular) to the young viewing audience. I am willing to offer my consulting services free of charge to help realize progress in this way.
The answer does not lie with Sesame Street alone, however. Countless other children’s programming could help as well and impact continued positive change. For instance, in addition to Dora, Diego and Ni Hao, Kai-lan, perhaps Nickelodeon could consider adding similar programming with Arab, Muslim and South Asian heroes and heroines.
You may be wondering about Omar and his family. His mother organized and conducted cultural competency training on American Muslims and Arab Americans for her son’s school district. It was well-received.
As for Omar — with the help of his family he has a great new attitude towards bullying which prompts him to stick up for other children targeted in the way he was.
Please note that names have been changed to protect the child’s identity according to his parent’s wishes.