Teaching

For Muslim Students, Life Changed After Sept. 11

September 08, 2011 5 min read
Shayreen Izoli plays with her kitten in West Warwick, R. I. The junior says 9/11 spurred her to become an ambassador for her faith.

While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reshaped the lives of many Americans, then-6-year-old Shayreen Izoli didn’t know at the time how much that event would change hers.

In middle school, this daughter of Syrian immigrants—raised without many of the Muslim traditions of her parents’ native country—was old enough to understand the largely negative public perception of followers of Islam. By then a devout Muslim, she began wearing a head scarf, the only one in her family to do so. She felt she had to become an ambassador for her culture and faith.

“The feeling that I have about 9/11 is betrayal. I feel very betrayed by [those] people who called themselves Muslim,” said Ms. Izoli, 16, of West Warwick, R.I. “As a Muslim in America, I’m paranoid all the time. I have to set an example.”

Since 9/11, the lives of some Muslim students, and those perceived to be Muslim, have changed across the country, shaped in part by the distrust and harassment Muslims have endured from fellow Americans. In the months immediately following the attacks, accounts of harassment of Muslim students mounted in the news media, as did efforts by Muslim advocacy groups to track and prevent such aggression.

Shayreen Izoli, sits on the stairs of her Rhode Island home. Unlike the rest of her family, Ms. Izoli, whose parents are Syrian immigrants, chooses to wear a headscarf. She also belongs to a network of Muslim speakers who visit schools, colleges, and churches to talk about Islam and she writes for a blog aimed at dispelling stereotypes about Muslims. “I feel it’s my responsibility as a Muslim to be a positive role model,” she says. “I see a negative energy toward Muslims in the media.”

Now, as the 10th anniversary of the attacks nears, some fear the occasional incidents of harassment of Muslim students at school could increase. Earlier this year, one Minnesota school district was reprimanded by the federal government for its unequal disciplining of groups of white and Somali students, some of whom were Muslim, who brawled after the white students taunted and insulted the Somalis. Other federal investigations are in progress.

Uphill Struggle

Although a decade has passed since 9/11, “I’m not sure things have reached an equilibrium in any sense,” said Maureen Costello, the director of the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala.

“Just look at the situation in Norway,” she said, referring to the July terrorist bombings and shootings in that country. A right-wing extremist upset by the growth of multiculturalism in Norway confessed to the killings.

“People inflamed and concerned by rampant multiculturalism are responding in very dangerous ways, and economic anxiety sure pushes us,” Ms. Costello said. “Whenever you have that kind of misinformation and anger in society at large, it’s going to flow into schools.”

While national tragedies might be a teachable moment, Ms. Costello said, teaching lessons about tolerance and acceptance in the case of Muslims has been an uphill battle—one made especially difficult by media references to radical Islam, al-Qaida, the Taliban, or incidents such as a Florida pastor’s burning of the Quran last spring.

Often bullying or harassment of Muslim students—and other bully victims—isn’t so overt, said Melanie Killen, the associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. It may take the form of exclusion, which can be equally harmful.

“If you’re a teacher in the classroom and this is going on unchecked, it can disrupt classroom functioning. Children who are socially excluded for reasons they don’t understand are at risk for academic problems: They don’t want to go to school,” she said. “I think 9/11 is an opportunity to teach children about culture heterogeneity, prejudice, bias, and relationships about the global world. You don’t just have to be the social studies teacher or the world history teacher.”

Ms. Costello said, however, that while episodes of bullying or harassment against Muslim students do come up, they may occur only in some parts of the country because the overall population of Muslim students remains small. The Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Muslims account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population.

In addition, a recent survey of more than 600 members of the youth auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, based in Silver Spring, Md., found that fewer than one-quarter of them had ever been treated negatively at work or school because of their faith. Nonetheless, groups like theirs are working to deflect some of the rage they expect against Muslims around the 9/11 anniversary.

For example, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has organized a blood drive to commemorate 9/11 victims, said Sardar Anees Ahmad, the chairman of the Muslim Writers Guild of America, part of the youth auxiliary.

“What better proof that you don’t represent the Taliban or al-Qaida than that you are encouraging people to go out and save lives?” he said.

After 9/11, Laura Fokkena, a doctoral student at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., interviewed Muslim high school students around the country about their school experiences as part of her work toward a degree in international and comparative education.

See Also

Teenagers from predominantly Muslim countries spent a year in the United States, during which they lived with American families and attended U.S. high schools. Watch the students discuss their experiences in this 2008 package, U.S. Life From Muslim Students’ Viewpoints.

“More than one kid would tell me the teacher would say: ‘You’re Muslim. Why don’t you give the Taliban viewpoint?’ The students were like, ‘I had never heard of the Taliban before 9/11,’ ” said Ms. Fokkena.

Ms. Fokkena said it’s still daunting for many teachers to talk about Islam and the Middle East. She created a blog called Wait, What? about Muslim stereotyping and asked girls, Muslim and not, to participate.

Ms. Izoli is one of those writers. She’s also in a network of speakers who visit schools, colleges, and churches to talk about Islam.

“It’s been 10 years since [9/11], and people are still not educating themselves about Islam,” she said. “I’m not saying they have to like it,” she said, but she does believe education should precede the insults. Her work on the blog, she hopes, helps provide some of that knowledge.

Another blogger, Emma Wiley of Hingham, Mass., posted a political cartoon on the blog, one that showed a Muslim woman covered but for her eyes and a Western woman wearing only a bikini and sunglasses. Thought bubbles over each figure showed both thought the other was oppressed.

“That’s such a perfect example of the prisms with which we look through society,” said Ms. Wiley, 17, who is not Muslim. “We make an assumption without understanding the other person’s culture.”

She is optimistic the world will change, she said, and she hopes she is contributing to that change.

“My kids will look back and say, ‘Why were people like that?’ ”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as For Muslim Students, Life Changed After Sept. 11

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