Bullying, bias and harassment are prevalent in the lives of many American Muslim young people

Adults have a responsibility to learn more about these issues and ways to ensure that Muslim youth feel safe, valued and affirmed within youth settings.

Did you know that Muslims currently make up about one percent of the total United States population? According to a study from the Pew Research Center, there were about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in this country in 2015. Muslims are people who follow the religion of Islam, and American Muslims are extremely diverse in terms of their race, national or ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, and being native-born or an immigrant. Michigan is home to a large Muslim population that reflects this rich diversity. For example, both the cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck have large numbers of Muslims, and many who live in Dearborn are people of Arab descent, while many Muslims in Hamtramck have family roots in Bangladesh, Yemen and Bosnia.

Were you also aware that there have been increases in the numbers of American Muslim youth who have been targets of bullying, harassment and discrimination? The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently provided a webinar titled “Helping Educators and Counselors Prevent Bullying of American’s Muslim Youth.” The webinar featured experts who shared research about ways that Muslim youth are being affected by these issues, as well as information about federal civil rights laws that are designed to protect students.

Although the webinar was designed for people who work within educational settings, parents and other adults who care about the well-being of young people may also be interested in the issues that were explored. Some of the highlights from the webinar include the following:

  • Although research specifically focusing on the bullying and harassment experiences of American Muslim youth is limited, there are some studies that have explored these issues. For example, in a 2014 survey of Muslim students aged 11 to 18 in California, 55 percent reported being subjected to some form of biased-based bullying related to their religious identity – a rate that is twice as high as national statistics for students who report being targets of bullying at school. Muslim students have reported being spit on, being taunted as a terrorist or unpatriotic, or having rumors spread about them and their families related to terrorist activities. Some girls who wear a hijab, the head covering that is worn by some Muslim girls and women, report that they’ve had other students pull off their hijab or tease them as being uneducated or oppressed for wearing it. One of the presenters stressed the importance of recognizing that Muslim youth are being negatively affected both by overt bullying and harassment behaviors and by microaggressions – those intentional or unintentional everyday slights that send negative messages to people based on their marginalized group membership.
  • Young people also report that teachers and other adults within school settings have made offensive comments related to their religion or that adults have allowed other students to make offensive comments. Some Muslim students have reported feeling marginalized during class discussions on topics such as Islam, the Middle East or terrorism, adding that they’re often put into the uncomfortable position of having to defend their beliefs or to correct misconceptions that may be shared by both adults and other young people.  
  • When thinking about these issues, it’s important to consider differences between bullying and harassment. Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on a protected classification (including race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion) and can include things like hate speech, name-calling and slurs, threats, physical assault, and other conduct that can be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating. Harassment and other forms of discrimination that target Muslim students may fall under several protected classes (such as race, color, religion and national origin), and schools have a responsibility to take immediate and appropriate action to address these issues. Muslim parents can learn more about the laws that protect children’s civil rights by contacting their child’s school or by exploring the resources of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or the Educational Opportunities Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Helping to ensure that all young people – including Muslim youth – feel safe, valued and affirmed at school and in other settings is an important role for adults. If you’re a Muslim parent, experts stress the importance of looking for signs that your children may be experiencing bullying and harassment, as well as knowing how to assert young people’s rights to learn in a bias-free setting. Non-Muslim adults have a responsibility to recognize and challenge hurtful language and behaviors related to these issues, whether they’re taking place in the classroom, in a youth group setting or in the family setting. This might involve exploring resources that can help deepen your understanding about the lives of American Muslims. For example, one resource is the Islamic Networks Group, which is a nonprofit organization designed to counter prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions. Another resource is a publication titled What Is the Truth about American Muslims? Questions and Answers, which was produced by the Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center.

Many adults – particularly those who work in education and youth development – may also be interested in reading the State of American Muslim Youth: Research and Recommendations report, which was produced by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and The Family & Youth Institute. Those who work in youth settings may also be interested in resources provided by Michigan State University Extension related to issues of bullying, bias and harassment in the lives of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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