Anti-Muslim School Bullying: Sometimes, It’s Even the Teachers Doing It

“Oh no, the rag-head Taliban is here.” “We all think you are a terrorist.” “Is that a bomb in your backpack?”

That’s a small sample of the types of comments Muslim American students have been subjected to recently. But the worst part is that these comments were not made by students. They were made by their teachers.

We have all heard of “Flying while Muslim,” the frustrating adventures of being Muslim when you head to the airport. But sadly a new, far more concerning challenge appears to be emerging for Muslim American children. Let’s call it “Studying while Muslim” or simply being a student while Muslim in America today.

Another example of this alarming trend came last week when 17-year-old California high school student Bayan Zehlif, a hijab-wearing Muslim, was identified in her yearbook not by her own name but by the words, “Isis Phillips.” Imagine the joy of receiving your senior high school yearbook only to see that you have been labeled in it as a terrorist.

Zehlif posted in response on Facebook, “The school reached out to me and had the audacity to say that this was a typo. I beg to differ, let’s be real.”

Why did she think this was likely not a mistake? Well, as she explained at a press conference last week coordinated by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), there were other anti-Muslim comments made at the school in the past.

She explained that a fellow student had posted on Twitter that “all Muslims are terrorists.” And in a far more distressing incident, Zehlif noted that one of her teachers on the anniversary of 9/11 said, with Zehlif sitting in the classroom, that “the people who caused 9/11 shouldn’t be here today.”

Zehlif said that she has received a great deal of support from her fellow classmates. But she added, “Seeing my schoolmates hate me hurts a lot,” explaining that she had been in tears after seeing her name replaced with the word “ISIS” in her yearbook. (The school has vowed to investigate why this occurred.)

Muslim students being bullied or harassed for their faith is increasingly becoming the norm not the exception in America. A 2015 study by California’s CAIR chapter surveyed over 600 Muslim students in California and shockingly found that 55 percent had either been bullied or discriminated against. To put that in perspective, that’s more twice the number of student reporting being bullied on a national basis.

“This disparity is a reflection of how Islamophobic rhetoric by certain media and public figures has become normalized in our society,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s Los Angeles Office, explained to me.

And disturbingly the CAIR study found that 20 percent of Muslim students say they have experienced discrimination by a school staff member, the very people charged with protecting them from this type of hate.

We have seen an alarming increase in these type of incidents as of late. For example, just last month in Fort Bend County, Texas, 12-year-old Muslim student Waleed Abushaaban was watching a comedy movie with his classmates that caused him to laugh. His teacher told him, “I wouldn’t be laughing if I was you.” When the Muslim student asked why, the teacher responded, “because we all think you’re a terrorist.” After the teacher’s comment, Waleed’s fellow students then followed her lead and ridiculed him by making jokes about him having a “bomb” and other hateful stereotypes.

Last year in Florida a teacher called a 14-year-old Muslim student in front of classmates a “raghead Taliban” for three days in a row. A Georgia teacher jokingly asked a Muslim student in front of the class if she had a bomb in her backpack. And last April another Texas teacher apparently wanted to teach students to hate Muslims by giving out an unapproved homework assignment that contained false claims about Muslims wanting to kill them.

Sadly there have been, and likely will always be, bullies in schools. When I was a kid I had to deal with it as well but it was never for my faith or ethnicity. It was more run of the mill bullying because someone didn’t like my face or thought I was a “dork.”

But what’s happening to these Muslim students is far worse. These young people are being in essence told they don't belong in this country and that they are less than fully American simply because of their religious faith.

Distressingly this will likely get worse during this year’s presidential race given Donald Trump’s despicable ginning up fear of Muslims. When young people (and even adults) hear a person like Trump demonize minorities, they think it’s acceptable to follow suit, as we have seen recently with white students mocking Latino high school students with chants of “Build a wall.”

Concerns over the rise in the bullying of Muslim children have become so acute that Saturday in Philadelphia, local Muslim organizations are holding the city’s first-ever “combatting anti-Muslim bigotry” youth conference. Kameelah Rashad, the Muslim chaplain for University of Pennsylvania, explained on my SiriusXM radio show Saturday that this event was needed to help Muslim children cope with “rampant anti- Muslim bigotry present today” and provide them the skills and strategies to deal with it effectively.

Bullying can’t be dismissed as just kids being kids. The impact of bullying has been well documented, often leading to students having increased instances of depression, anxiety, and decreased academic achievements.

Teachers and school officials desperately need to set an example that there’s no place for this bullying of any students. The problem for many Muslim students, however, is whom do they turn to when it’s the school administrators doing the bullying?