Individuals resist Islamophobic subtleties

Maddy Ruos, asst. features editor

Ahmed Mohamed- a young Muslim student from Texas who was suspended and arrested recently when his teachers assumed the homemade clock he brought to school was a bomb- is not, as some may suggest, a rare case in which Muslim students experience prejudice against them. These traumatic events for Muslim students pose a serious question to the nation: just how rampant is Islamophobia in today’s school system?

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, about half of all Muslim-American students in California reported experiencing some type of “social bullying” in school. Western religions teacher Terrence Jozwik has made a point of abolishing any sterotypes that students may have prior to taking his class. He has students read “The Domestic Crusaders” as a part of the cirriculum, a play telling the story of a modern Muslim family and the struggles they face after the tragedy of 911.

“[The book] dispels a lot of the stereotypes that we [have existed] with since 911 where we tend to see Islam and Muslims as one-dismensional, and they’re not,” Jozwik said.  “Just like every other religion, every other faith, and they’re multi-dimensional.”

Freshman Hafsah Shahzad says she has experienced discrimination because of her ethnicity and faith. She feels that most of the stereotyping against Muslims is rooted in ignorance and misunderstanding, which prompts people to say things they may not realize are hurtful.

“When I was in third or fourth grade […] I was walking to my friend’s house and someone said [to me] ‘Hey you terrorist’,” Shahzad said. “Also, the day Osama bin Laden was taken and killed, this [person] came up to my sister and said, ‘Are you sad that your dad died?’”

Some schools nationwide are attempting to prevent Islamophobia by promoting a safe, respectful environment within the system. Nora Flanagan, an English Teacher at Northside College Prep in Chicago, has been involved in activism and research work specifically against Islamophobia for a number of years. She has taken steps in her own classroom to help influence positive change regarding students’ attitudes towards Muslims.

“One of my projects over the last five years has been to at least make available, and teach in my own classes, one major work by a Muslim author,” Flanagan said. “That’s the first step I can take […] to reduce the otherization of that group. It really makes them seem less abnormal if they’re part of our everyday learning structure.”

Flanagan believes that intolerance of Muslims can be tied to decades of hate and insensitivity that has created a deep and institutionalized form of Islamophobia in the United States today.

“Like any kind of discrimination, it can show up in a really broad range of forms,” Flanagan said. “It can show up as microaggression, but if you stand back a bit and look at it as a whole, it’s really the purest form of ignorance. We wouldn’t tolerate treatment like that of any other group in America, [but] we are much more tolerant of it for Muslims.”

Junior Saarah Bhaiji has also experienced Islamophobia, but feels that for the most part South has done an effective job of not tolerating student discrimination toward Muslims. However, she does express concern that sometimes when learning about events Muslims participated in, the information can be skewed or biased so that it comes across as anti-Islam.

“There have been times where a teacher could be saying things against Islam and I don’t really have the authority to say anything,” Bhaiji said. “I’ve felt like sometimes we are getting the wrong information about Islam and they never talked with the Muslim Students Association beforehand [about it].”

While Shahzad also agrees that South has a firm policy of prohibiting prejudice against Muslims, she knows that not all school systems have such a progressive atmosphere. Last year at Springman Middle School, Shahzad says she chose not to wear her hijab out of concern that she might get bullied.

“I started thinking about it towards the beginning of May, so I talked to my mom and she told me to not wear [my hijab] at Springman because of incidents in the past with kids yelling out [slurs], but she knew GBS is a bigger and better school,” Shahzad said. “The environment here is a lot more accepting, so I started wearing [my hijab] just this year and I really didn’t feel like I changed. I’m still the same person.”

Although Hussain recognizes that the discrimination she has faced in the past has had some obvious detriments, she still acknowledges that it’s been one of the best lessons she could have ever learned in her youth.

“I try so hard to make sure that I’m never purposefully hurting anyone,” Hussain said. “As a kid I’ve grown up losing respect because of my last name and [my religion] so I always go out of my way to make sure that I start with respect. If I don’t know you at all, I start by respecting you as opposed to not.”

According to Flanagan, the majority of prejudice against Muslims is rooted in ignorance and contempt that clouds the perception people have about Islam. However, she realizes that school systems have an important responsibility to counteract those negative attitudes by creating an environment in which students are more tolerant of differences and change.

“School is the place where students are supposed to get that exposure,” Flanagan said. “It’s not a substitute for the rest of your life, but it’s supposed to normalize different parts of our culture and make less exotic and scary places in world.”

Hussain, like Flanagan, believes Islamophobia is mostly caused by a general misunderstanding and insensitivity about Islam, which is then exacerbated by media slander that taints the attitudes of many unknowing Americans. She hopes that those intolerant of Muslims think first about how their words will impact others.

“They may have been raised to have a certain feeling towards Muslims and that can always be hard to break out of, but I really challenge those people to think about who they’re hurting when they say those things,” Hussain said. “They have to realize at the end of the day that [those people] are all just humans on the same planet they are.”

Bhaiji also agrees that the media plays a large role in influencing the negative stereotypes surrounding Muslim society by portraying Muslims in a negative way. She thinks that if the average person were more educated on what Islam actually looks like, they would be less likely to discriminate and marginalize Muslims in the first place.

“I think if I started talking to someone [about Islam] their entire viewpoint would change because the media portrays [Muslims] so badly,” Bhaiji said.

Flanagan believes that despite the adverse condition for Muslims today, the changing attitudes of young people in the nation provide a sense of hope and reassurance that the issue of Islamophobia is moving in the right direction.

“I feel like we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Flanagan said. “Young adults and students [today] have no patience for intolerance, hate and injustice. Which is just beautiful.”