Donning his NASA T-shirt, young Ahmed Mohamed walked into his ninth grade class Monday morning, proudly holding the clock he had meticulously assembled at home. The 14-year-old Muslim American student, with a zeal for assembling, disassembling and fixing radios, computers and go-karts, hoped to draw the praise of his teacher. Instead, Dallas police were called in, Ahmed’s hands were cuffed, and the stunned high school student was removed from the premises.
Schools routinely reward innovation, creativity and hard work. However, Mohamed was Muslim, which drove his teacher and school administrators to first, view the homemade digital clock as a bomb; and second, relate his electronic handiness to terrorist activity.
More than merely a case of individual bigotry or institutional negligence, Mohamed’s case manifests the spread of anti-Muslim bigotry, or “Islamophobia”, into the most formative and vulnerable spaces of American society – schools.
Muslim American students are increasingly targets of student bullying.
Islamophobia is an American psychosis that sways popular views and formal policy. But it must also be understood as a form of racism that is penetrating American schools, and endangering Muslim American youth in the very spaces where their bodies, intellect, and ingenuity should be nurtured, not punished.
Criminalised Muslim youth
Muslim bodies, both politically and discursively, are frequently linked to terrorism. The menace posed by Muslims, even while engaged in innocuous activity, spurs fear or suspicion of a national security threat. Established policing programmes, in addition to recent initiatives including “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), illustrate how Islamophobia is more than just popular perceptions and misperceptions of Muslims, but also a tool for local officials.
Muslim American youth are not spared from Islamophobia and its policing dragnet. Although an excellent student, with no record of insubordination, Mohamed’s otherwise pristine record was instantly extinguished by the threat his Muslim background posed. Reality was trumped by the school’s imagined threat of terror, converting a loved student into a perceived radical. Ahmed is also Sudanese American, raising the likelihood that anti-black racism overlapped with Islamophobia to cast him as suspicious and threatening.
Certainly, a non-Muslim student with a passion for fixing electronics, who presented a teacher with a homemade clock, would have not ended up in handcuffs. However, reality is not reality for Muslim students, whose bodies, talents and interests are vulnerable to the irrational fears of the very people entrusted with their intellectual and personal development.
Between bullying and fear
In addition to policing and profiling from school administrators, Muslim American students are increasingly targets of student bullying. The ideas and images linking Muslims to “terrorists”, “extremists”, and “subversives” is permeating across school boundaries, and arming students with the hateful fodder to direct at their Muslim classmates.
In addition to these harmful stereotypes being overrepresented in news media and record-setting films, youth and adolescents are consuming them at an ever-higher rate through social media channels. Younger demographics are, after all, dubbed the “social media generation” for a reason.
In a 2013 poll, 50 percent of surveyed Muslim American students claimed they were subjected to bullying “because of their religion”. The threat of bullying was more menacing for Muslim American students that express their faith conspicuously, particularly young girls that don the hijab (or headscarf). However, 35 percent of the polled students claimed that reporting the bullying (to school administrators) “never, rarely, or sometimes”, helped. Only 17 percent stated that reporting “often” or “very often” helped. This illustrates a low level of confidence, and very likely, a belief among these Muslim students that school administrators themselves subscribe to Islamophobic views.
Between classmate bullying and administrative suspicion, Muslim American students are interlocked between two fronts of animus. The policing and bullying is taking place within the very place Muslim American students are expected to develop skills and perspectives that steward them into adulthood. Hours after the incident, President Barack Obama intervened, affirming this core educational mission.
The harm inflicted on Muslim American students, from both sides, derails their growth in the short term. But also, as indicated by the “Doll Test Study” made famous by the landmark Brown v Board of Education of Topeka case, which ended school segregation in the US, institutionalised racism within schools breeds inferiority complexes and internalised racism among other students.
This is especially true for Muslim American students today, who are exposed to damaging representations of their faith, families, and physical appearance at every turn. Most damagingly, within the walls of their classrooms, where self esteem and confidence are as important as reading and mathematics.
If school administrators and classmates are taught to fear and hate Muslims, this societal pedagogy may gradually instruct Muslim American students to fear and hate themselves. Al Jazeera