Research Stories

Anti-Muslim Bias

Counteract stereotypes and discrimination with knowledge

Leah Shafer
February 21, 2017
Photo illustration of Muslim girls in casual conversation

While bullying prevention programs typically focus on fostering empathy and/or adopting a zero-tolerance policy, combatting anti-Muslim bullying in schools requires a specialized approach. Schools need to both increase religious literacy and foster an understanding of how anti-Muslim racism is part of a broader set of discriminatory practices that target people based on race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Students who tease, intimidate, harass, or abuse their Muslim peers may be fearful and angry because they lack knowledge about Islam. They are likely influenced by pervasive stereotypes that Muslims hate the United States, that Muslims don’t belong in the United States, or that Islam teaches violence. These students are probably also unaware of how such behaviors are connected to, and result from, systemic racism. 

Here, we provide strategies and resources for educators to deconstruct these stereotypes and combat Islamophobic/anti-Muslim bullying in schools. These suggestions come from Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, the Harvard Chaplain for the Harvard Islamic Society, and Mariam Durrani, an expert on Islamophobia and Muslim youth and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Suggestions also come from a recent paper by Monisha Bajaj, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, and Karishma Desai on xenophobic bullying in schools.

Use academic coursework to fight anti-Muslim bias and bullying

  • Educators should understand Islamophobia as both a type of bullying and a consequence of bias and of misinformation.
  • They can lead discussions on how movies and news reports generally portray Muslims or discuss Islam. Make a point that these negative contexts are not the whole story. Teach students to consume media with a critical eye.
  • To counteract the negative narrative, and to position Islam alongside other world religions and cultures, teach students about Islamic history, customs, holidays, and current affairs.
  • Discuss the history of Muslims in America. Students should know that Muslims are not outsiders to the United States; they have lived here for more than a century. They should also know that America has a history of discrimination against Southeast Asians, and they should be able to draw connections between that prejudice and the discrimination directed against Latinos, African Americans, or other minority or “new” immigrant groups. It can be enlightening for students to understand the relationships between historical and contemporary examples of discrimination.
  • Incorporate lessons on the importance of standing up and speaking up for their peers. Students can understand the historical consequences when people just like them have blindly followed stereotypes or haven’t stood up for those who are targeted and vulnerable. They can also understand those times when people have reached out to help.

Teach students to empathize with Muslim peers

  • Have students role-play examples of xenophobic bullying. Discuss how it feels to be both the harasser and the victim, and how students can stand up for others when they see bullying happening in school.
  • Assign family history projects in which student research and tell their own families’ stories of immigration. These projects can show students that nearly everyone in America was at one time treated like an outsider.

As a teacher, make sure you are aware of your own biases

  • Ensure that your lessons and interactions with students are inclusive and do not conform to stereotypes.
  • Practice “radical empathy,” openly welcoming all students, faiths, and cultures into the classroom.
  • Make an effort to get to know Islam and its contributions to the world. Familiarize yourself with Muslim authors, politicians, and artists.

Additional Resources

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Our country is polarized: How is that showing up in your school? What are you doing to protect students, confront discrimination, prevent bullying, and foster inclusion? Usable Knowledge would like to hear from you. Join us on Facebook and Twitter, using #OneAllHGSE. Send your advice and resources to uknow@gse.harvard.edu, and we’ll share as much as we can. Read more at One and All.

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Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion K-12

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.