How often have you been the only Muslim student in your class? In those situations, how often have you seen your teacher or professor write something on the chalkboard or put up a slide that depicts an Islam that is completely unfamiliar to you? The slide could have said something like, “Women in Islam are like a ‘pearl in a shell,'” or your textbook might read, “Moderate Muslims do not share the prejudices of radical fundamentalists.” Yet you notice that the term “moderate” is never used to describe Christians, Jews, or people of other faiths. If this isn’t blatant enough, perhaps you’re in high school and your History teacher shows the Islamophobic, anti-Iranian film Not Without My Daughter to “teach” the class about Islam. Each time Islam, Muslims, or “the Muslim world” is mentioned, the slides, lectures, or textbooks are filled with oversimplifications.
How often – if the class knows you’re Muslim – do people treat you like a spokesperson and expect you to speak for 1.5 billion of the world’s population? How often are you expected to explain the actions of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other violent groups? Do you speak up or stay quiet? If you speak up, do teachers or classmates challenge you and behave like they know your religion and community better than you? If you bring up U.S. imperialism, are you accused of “hate speech” or told to “go back to (insert Muslim-majority country here)”? In many cases, it can be difficult for Muslim students to speak up and challenge the curriculum, regardless of how problematic or inaccurate it is. There are legitimate concerns about professors getting defensive and hostile; about jeopardizing your academic career; about being ostracized or bullied by your peers, etc. In addition to these concerns, there is the internal dilemma about wanting to speak up because you hate the thought of your classmates thinking that everything taught in class about Islam is true.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not pro-ISIS, yet I’ve spoken to Muslims who have been in classrooms where teachers spend more time talking about ISIS than the racism and Islamophobia many Muslims are experiencing. Too often, non-Muslim teachers and students mention nothing about current events, except when Muslims are the perpetrators of violence. In the past semester, Black people were being murdered by police officers, a Black teenage girl was beaten by a white security guard at school, a 14 year-old Somali Muslim student was arrested in school, an armed protest was organized outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, a self-described conservative Republican opened fire at an Oregon community college, a white Christian man killed 3 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, and Black students at the University of Missouri were protesting racism on campus and received death threats from white students.
Despite all of these incidents (which should not be understood as “isolated incidents”), a friend told me that none of these attacks were mentioned or brought up in classrooms. However, after the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, suddenly the professors and classmates decided to talk about current events. These discussions in class were accompanied by conversations about religious extremism, particularly “Islamic” extremism. Muslim students I spoke with told me about bigoted remarks they received from classmates or read on their social media pages. Some chose to deactivate their Facebook accounts altogether because of the Islamophobic comments, the emotionally draining racist commentaries, and the double standards of showing solidarity for France and yet none for Beirut, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, or victims of racism, imperialism, misogyny, etc.
Even when Donald Trump called to ban Muslims from entering the United States, nothing was said in the same classes that brought up ISIS. Often times, nothing gets mentioned about Islamophobia unless a student brings it up (and usually, it’s a Muslim student who does). However, even after a student raises concerns about Islamophobia, the professor has no idea how to talk about it and resumes to ignoring the issue in future lectures. In worse cases, the professor gets defensive and accuses the Muslim student of calling him/her racist or Islamophobic. The professor may eject the Muslim student out of class or even resort to harsher disciplinary action.
If you’re in a class that does not focus on addressing racism, you are unlikely to hear anything about racism or Islamophobia. Violence and discrimination against Muslims and people of color are not tragedies, unless they’re cases where the West believes it can exploit Muslim victims of violence committed by other Muslims (e.g. Malala Yousafzai — read Beenish Ahmed’s “The World’s Obsession with Schoolgirls as Victims and Why It’s Putting Them in Danger”). We see this reinforced in the media: Stephen Colbert will interview Malala, but would he ever bring Nabeela Rahman on his show, the young Pakistani girl who traveled to Washington D.C. with her family to demand accountability for a U.S. drone attack that murdered her grandmother? Nabeela and her family’s visit to the U.S. was not covered by mainstream western media and only 5 of 430 Congressional members were in attendance to listen to her. In classroom discussions, the victims of U.S. wars and Israeli military occupation are just as devalued and omitted.
As stated by Haque and Kamil, studies have found Muslims reporting “decreased self-esteem and increased psychological stress post 9/11” as a result of Islamophobia. Based on a 2013 California statewide survey of almost 500 Muslim students, between the ages of 11 and 18, nearly half reported to have experienced some form of bias-based bullying. Experiences of bias and Islamophobia didn’t just come from classmates, but from teachers as well. In a journal article, “Subtle and Over Forms of Islamophobia: Microaggressions toward Muslim Americans,” Nadal and colleagues conducted a qualitative study with Muslim American participates of diverse racial, gender, and age backgrounds. Emerging from their interviews and responses were several themes, including “Endorsing Religious Stereotypes of Muslims as Terrorists,” “Pathology of the Muslim Religion,” “Assumptions of Religious Homogeneity,” and “Exoticization.” It is not difficult to imagine these themes surface in classroom discussions and lectures about Islam. What is always overlooked is the impact Islamophobia (in all of its forms and intersections) has on Muslims.
It is important to emphasize that the effects of Islamophobia on mental health are not merely a result of interpersonal bigotry, but rather stem from the system of white supremacy that condones and fuels hostility against Muslims and people of color. Regardless of how unintentional educators are in committing microaggressions against Muslim students, the responsibility still falls on them to hold themselves accountable and actively challenge Islamophobic discourse. Educators should reject any textbook that treats Islam and Muslims as monoliths. Furthermore, they should reexamine their own lectures and be proactive in challenging any potential statements that generalize, stereotype, or vilify Islam and Muslims.
Most importantly, teachers need to work towards creating a learning environment where all students, especially Muslims and people of color, feel safe and valued for sharing their thoughts. Educators should not get defensive if a Muslim student raises critiques about the material that is being taught about Islam. These critiques are not personal attacks against the teacher or professor — they are specifically addressing what is being taught. The best thing educators and other potential allies can do is listen to Muslim students and work in solidarity to challenge Islamophobia.
There are no simple solutions to these problems, unfortunately. I would like to see more universities supporting events that not only address racism and Islamophobia, but also provide Muslims the platform to speak for themselves. Hiring more Muslim faculty may sound like a step in the right direction, but it should not stop at visual diversity. If you hire a Muslim faculty member that isn’t going to be supportive of Muslim activists on campus, then how is that benefiting efforts to confront Islamophobia? How does that amplify the voices of Muslims on campus?
I don’t know how many people will read this post, but I would like to hear from fellow Muslims and their experiences in schools. If Islam is mentioned in your classes, what is being taught about it? What are your coping strategies? Have you ever challenged a professor? What was that experience like? Did you receive support from other faculty members or students? I plan on writing more about this topic, so it would be great to hear from people!