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How educators can help students navigate anti-Muslim bias — and counteract it in their schools
Imagine being afraid to rummage in your backpack on a crowded bus, or worrying about how to explain your holidays to your classmates, or wondering if your friends are whispering about your head scarf — and then imagine trying to keep your focus on your schoolwork.
These anxieties, and many more, are all too real for many Muslim American students, explains Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, the Harvard Chaplain for the Harvard Islamic Society. As political leaders grapple with how to handle the threat that ISIS and other terror groups pose to the United States, Muslim American children, teenagers, and young adults are left to contend with that confusion and fear in their everyday lives.
Educators, always working to create inclusive spaces, can serve as important allies in encouraging empathy and modeling support for Muslim young people — and the peers of those Muslim students can do the same.
How to Build an Inclusive Community
Students of any appearance and any background can identify as Muslim, says Abdur-Rahman, so educators should “just assume there’s always a Muslim in the room.” The challenges Muslim students face may not be apparent to their teachers and friends, however. They might have a constant internal dialogue about how to handle social situations with non-Muslim peers, and concern over how classmates perceive them might make them wonder how best to demonstrate their civic integrity. And too many have encountered upfront discrimination.
To counteract these anxieties and prejudices, Abdur-Rahman offers five tips for educators, drawn from the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works with college students to promote interfaith cooperation and leadership.
- Use imaginative empathy. Imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim American student hearing prejudiced comments made by politicians and peers. Student affairs offices at many colleges already do an admirable job empathizing with minority students who face a variety of struggles, Abdur-Rahman says. These efforts can be encouraged and expanded.
- Seek appreciative knowledge. Beware of the dangers of “availability bias,” or stereotyping a group of people based on small pieces of knowledge. Ask yourself: Can I name three books written by Muslim authors? Can I explain any Muslim holidays? Educators should make an effort to learn more about Islam and its contributions to our world, in order to better connect with their students.
- Strive for active solidarity. “Befriend a Muslim and be honest,” says Abdur-Rahman. It’s better to tell a peer, “I don’t know much about Islam, but I’d love to take some time to chat,” than it is to avoid that student. Just remember to be “authentically engaged” — to treat each student as an individual, and not as the official voice of his religion.
- Don’t trivialize small things. There’s a thin line between joking about stereotypes and demoralizing people, and it’s important not to cross it. It’s better to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any form of teasing. Educators need to create communities where Muslim students — and all students — feel comfortable coming to them with concerns.
- Facilitate interfaith social service. Educators and students can build camaraderie by gathering diverse groups of students to contribute to the greater good. When students of different backgrounds work together to serve at a homeless shelter or tutor neighborhood children, they may be more likely to find connections with each other and build friendships.
- Read one teacher's story of how she encouraged her Muslim students to find their voices — and how that effort wound up reaching the desk of President Obama.
- Read advice on how to foster inclusive, caring schools through peace education.
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