Anti-Muslim racism has intensified in our current political climate – and children bear the brunt of the burden. A 2015 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 55% of school-age children have experienced some form of bullying or religion-based harassment.
As a result of this backlash, children may come to associate their Muslim identity as something shameful or wrong. Given this reality, what can parents do to help empower their children and keep them safe?
Two panels at the 53rd Annual ISNA Conference held early this month in Chicago were devoted entirely to this topic. A panel of experts ranging from an Islamic school principal to a clinical psychiatrist offered insight on how to navigate these challenges.
When a child experiences a racist event, according to Dr. Sawssan Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University-Fullerton and a licensed clinical psychologist, there is a psychological and physiological response. Racism doesn’t just hurt us emotionally; for growing children, it can also have a negative impact on their development. “The more times you experience [racism], the more it puts a burden on your system,” she said.
Children as young as 3 and 4 identify with the dominant group, and whatever negative stereotypes they witness, they will come to regard as true. Dr. Saba Maroof, a Board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, added that a child who is bullied may suffer from anxiety, headaches, stomachaches, and even depression, which alarmingly can last well into adulthood. Children may come to avoid social situations entirely.
“Once bullied, [this] can further them into social isolation [which will] limit their exposure to positive peer interaction. This hinders the development of interpersonal skills […and] the opportunity to build positive peer influences. It’s an endless cycle, which causes more avoidance and loneliness and depression,” she said. Perhaps most startling: Victims of bullying are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than those who have not been bullied.
Anti-Muslim racism and bullying is clearly a serious matter that parents cannot afford to take lightly. But what is the appropriate manner in which parents should act? All the speakers agreed – creating a safe and welcoming environment at home is essential. Here are some tips:
- Start a discussion. Don’t ignore the problem and pretend it’s not happening to your child. Parents need to create an open environment for children to freely discuss issues. If parents tell their children not to discussion certain topics, Dr. Ahmed warned, children may develop a “double consciousness” and over time, shut off from their parents completely. Your child has to trust that they can trust you.
- Foster a strong Muslim identity – this includes a religious identity as well as a cultural one. Encourage your children to be proud to be Muslim.
- Always Model Good Behavior. Every possible situation with your child is a teachable moment. Children pick up on their parents’ behavior. If parents exhibit racist attitudes themselves, children will regard these as true and may even begin to internalize when things are said against Muslims or Islam. Good behavior however extends beyond our attitudes or the things we say; our actions are just as important. If your child sees you yell at the driver who cuts you off on the road, your child will learn that this is an appropriate way to react. Always be calm!
- Expand your child’s social network and help increase his or her self-esteem by encouraging hobbies in which he or she can succeed.
While these tips should Insha’Allah empower your children to be proud of who they are, parents cannot always control what goes on outside the home. If you come to learn of your child being bullied at school, according to Habeeb Quadri, Principal of the Muslim Community Center Full-Time School in Morton Grove, IL, there is a right and a wrong way to act. Be sure to:
- Praise your child for bringing up the issue. Don’t let the first thing that comes out of your mouth be, “What did you do?”
- Ask questions – try to find out as much as you can about what happened.
- Document – make sure to write down dates of incidents, names, etc. If you document what happened, you will be taken much more seriously.
- Talk to a school official – but first go to your child’s teacher to make sure you have all the facts before you get administration involved. This shows you’re willing to work towards solutions and be part of a team.
During both sessions, the importance of reporting incidents of bullying – this includes name-calling– was underscored. “If you don’t report it, it means nothing,” Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR-San Francisco, reminded. The Department of Education does not have data on faith-related bullying and the problem cannot be properly addressed by our civic leaders without it.
But what if the bullying cannot be so easily documented and doesn’t even take place at school? Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, explained that of the different types of bullying, cyberbullying is the most pervasive and insidious because it occurs when school is not in session. Though there are on-going legal discussions regarding the extent to which schools have jurisdiction to interfere in cases of cyberbullying, school administrations may push back against interfering at all.
Officials, Madihha said, have the responsibility to ensure that schools are safe zones and that students are not targeted on the basis of their religion or race. To help keep your child’s school accountable, log onto the Muslim Advocates website (muslimadvocates.org/stopbullying/), download the letter they have prepared, and give a copy to your school’s officials.
Whether at home or in school, both panels made it clear that parents should not wait until a problem occurs before they take action. “Do not wait for an issue. It is critical that Muslim students, families, and communities are involved proactively with the broader community,” Zahra said. “Don’t wait for there to be a problem before you go to a PTA meeting.” Our responsibility as Muslims, as parents especially, is to be proactive – not reactive – and this is truer now more than ever.