By Tessa Beazley
Saman Zaman, a Muslim student at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, has only known a post 9/11 America. According to Zaman, her 17 years have been marked by Islamophobia.
She became aware of the existence of Islamophobia around seven years old when her friend’s mother stopped wearing the niqab, an interpretation of the traditional hijab, out of fear of being attacked.
Since then, Zaman and her friends have piled up increasingly more stories starring themselves as the victims of hate crimes and discrimination. From Islamophobic comments to prejudice in schools to people yelling for them to leave the country, Zaman said she and others at her mosque have felt the constant onslaught of hate directed towards them.
“Islamophobia is easiest to see in the way people treat you when they find out you’re Muslim,” Zaman says. “They might not even realize they’re Islamophobic, but they are. You’ll walk into a store and get stared at. It’s not always hate crimes.”
One of her brother’s friends told him, “I know you’re not a terrorist, but I think all Muslims are terrorists.”
Because of the intolerance, Zaman says some Muslim teens may keep their religion a secret.
“At school, some kids just don’t want to say that they’re Muslim,” Zaman says. “They might hang out with friends that are racist, and those are the only friends they have. So it’s hard to be like, ‘Oh, those people you hate, I’m one of them.’”
Zaman believes many teenage Muslim girls she knows want to start wearing the hijab but don’t, or have worn it and don’t feel comfortable wearing it anymore because there is so much fear surrounding it.
“Kids who aren’t Muslim and only get information from the news get scared too,” Zaman says. “These poor kids are being told that Muslims are terrorists. They have no other news source oftentimes.”
Zaman and her friends are not alone. Thousands of Muslims nationwide have been on the receiving end of Islamophobia. The effect it has had on children is perhaps the most profound.
Experts say part of the problem is the way American schools treat Islam. “Expelling Islamophobia,” an article by Sean McCollum, an award-winning children’s author, describes the various ways in which schools are failing.
According to one survey, which was sent to over 600 participants, 55 percent of Muslim students reported religion related bullying. Twenty-nine percent of girls wearing a hijab reported being touched offensively in school. Twenty percent of Muslim students reported discrimination by staff.
There is also a lack of education pertaining to Islam, experts say.
One school featured in McCollum’s article emphasized the importance of integrating Islam in order to foster cultural literacy.
“Teachers of younger students or other subjects can also help with developing religious and cultural literacy that includes Islam,” the article states. “Math teachers can share the formative role of Islamic scholars in the development of algebra, while art instructors can compare and contrast the design elements in religious art and architecture among different faiths.”
The other side of the coin is how media portrays Muslims. White people who commit terrorist acts, such as mass shootings, are rarely ever labeled as such, though the media is quick to label anyone that appears to be Muslim as a terrorist, according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information.
The center published an article written by Goleen Samari, a professional researcher, titled “Islamophobia and Public Health in the United States,” which detailed the increasingly negative media portrayal of Muslims in America.
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, U.S. media coverage of Muslims began to sway public perceptions, according to Samari. Middle Easterners were being labeled as terrorists starting in the 1980s.
“In a poll taken directly after 9/11, 60 percent of Americans reported unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims,” Samari writes. “Americans often associate Muslims with fear-related terms such as: violence, fanatic, radical, war, and terrorism. Any media exposure to Muslim-related issues is associated with a spike in negative attitudes towards Muslim Americans.”
Experts believe children are affected by the image of Muslims they see in the media. Muslim children see themselves represented as villians, and children who aren’t Muslim learn to believe that is what Muslims are, which only intensifies Islamophobia.
One study by the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research took an in depth look at the impact of Islamophobia on 30 American Muslims age 16 through 20. This study examined how prejudice against the religion has turned into internalized Islamophobia: adoption of overall negative stereotypes within the Muslim community.
According to the study, one in three children did not want to tell others they were Muslim. One in two children did not know whether they could be both Muslim and American. One in six children would sometimes pretend not to be Muslim.
The study identified six main factors in this decreasing religious pride: identity confusion, bad experiences with other Muslims, media portrayal and stereotypes, biased therapists, paradoxical beliefs about Islam, and the belief that Islam inhibits them. All of these are perpetuated through the actions of those outside Islam.
Zaman agrees with the research. She has noticed that terrorists in movies are always Arab, but characters that are actually meant to be Arab or Middle Eastern are played by white actors.
In the classroom, it’s not much better, Zaman says.
“My friends always tell me stories about how in their social studies classes, they’ll have things about Islam that are not accurate to actual history,” Zaman says. “They’ll make Muslims in history look really bad, or they won’t highlight things that Muslims have done. They pick and choose what they like.”
Zaman also believes America in general is more rampant with hate than ever.
“When Trump became president, the racists came out of their holes,” Zaman says. “Even if they weren’t racist before, people were more willing to say mean things to other people — whether you’re black, whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re an immigrant. Everyone.”
According to Zaman, the parents of one of Zaman’s friends are just as scared now for their daughter to go outside wearing a hijab as in the direct aftermath of 9/11.
“People will wear Trump hats and have Trump stickers on their car,” Zaman says. “And it’s like, I’ve talked to you before, you’re not mean, you’re not trying to hurt me, but their actions make you doubt.”
At the same time, Zaman says she believes it is a more hopeful time than ever. The current climate has encouraged Muslims to do good things to show people Muslims are nothing to be afraid of, Zaman says.
As far as progress goes, she cites the two Muslim women just recently elected to congress. Maroon 5’s “Girl Like You” music video featured Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, editor of MuslimGirl.com. Even though Muslim actors still aren’t prominent, Muslims are at least being represented in TV shows, Zaman emphasizes, adding, “We still have a long way to go, though.”
Zaman calls on the media to re-evaluate the way they portray Muslims and the school systems to rethink the way they treat Islam.
Beyond that, she appeals to the public to help. “We as Muslims need to be more willing to not get upset,” Zaman says. “As frustrating as that is, the way to fight ignorance isn’t to throw hate right back at them. The way to fight it is to be kind.”
And she has advice for non-Muslims.
“If you’re not Muslim, learn about Islam,” Zaman says. “Do your own research. Look at the beliefs behind the people. We can talk to the news media all we want [but] they’re not going to listen to us, so talk to us yourselves.”
Contact Tessa Beazley at firstname.lastname@example.org