Countering Islamophobia Through Education

Schools and communities must work together to counter Islamophobia, bullying and hate in all its forms. This curricular resource can help. 
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In February, two men originally from India chatted after work at a bar in Kansas. Asking them about their legal status and yelling at them to “get out of my country,” Adam Purinton opened fire, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding his friend Alok Madasani as well as Ian Grillot, who was at the bar and tried to help the men who were being attacked. 

Such forms of hate and anger that we see in society at large also take root in schools. A student had her hijab ripped off while other students called her a “terrorist” at her New York City high school. Classmates asked a Sikh American high school student in Georgia if he had a bomb in his turban and then proceed to pummel him to the ground and break his nose, an injury that required multiple surgeries. A middle school teacher wrote in her Muslim American student’s yearbook, “Thanks for not bombing anything while we were [on our eighth-grade field trip]!” In all of these instances, school leaders remained silent—and therefore complicit—while failing to interrupt and address xenophobic bullying. 

There is a direct line from geopolitical power relations and Islamophobic discourses that circulate at the macro level to school-based interactions at the micro level. For a macro-level example, see President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” seeking to stop immigration from several majority-Muslim nations. At the micro level in schools, think examples such as those described above, which paint anyone perceived to be Muslim (namely any inhabitant of a brown-skinned body whether they are actually Muslim or not) as “foreign,” “enemy” and “a threat.”

With colleagues Karishma Desai and Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, I co-created a curriculum that seeks to interrupt the increasing occurrences of xenophobic bullying post-9/11 and, most recently, the spike in hate crimes after the 2016 election. It’s a 100-page, open-access curricular packet titled In the Face of Xenophobia: Lessons to Address Bullying of South Asian American Youth.

We did this because we recognized the potential of schools and educators—despite many accounts of teacher indifference to or participation in such acts—in promoting understanding and respect for difference. 

In 2012, our team came together after the massacre at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh temple, which was rooted in Islamophobia (the shooter, a known white supremacist, believed he was killing Muslims). We identify as educators and researchers of South Asian descent and felt particularly called to do this work. South Asian Americans number more than 3.4 million, hail from diverse countries (e.g., India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, among others), represent many religious identities (e.g., Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian and Jewish), and have had a presence in North America since the 1700s

In our curricular project, we focused specifically on South Asian Americans because we found a gap in materials to address bullying and violence directed at this community. We collaborated with South Asian Americans Leading Together and the South Asian American Digital Archive.

In this project, our guiding questions included:

  • How can schools interrupt instances of xenophobia and hate that can spur racist violence?
  • How can deeper understandings of complex and diverse community and individual histories help educators and students build empathy and act as allies?
  • How can educators constructively engage with families and communities suffering from trauma induced by racist policies and violence targeting them?
  • How do we build more inclusive schools and communities?

We spent many months culling insights from scholarship and our own experiences. Through In the Face of Xenophobia, we offer educators concrete resources, lessons and tools for raising awareness about South Asian American history, xenophobia past and present, and insights for how to productively interrupt bullying and racism in and around schools.¹

Educators must better understand the roots of xenophobic bullying and develop actions and strategies to counter it. Schools and communities must work together to counter Islamophobia, bullying and hate in all its forms. Indeed, the task before us as educators is more urgent than ever.

1. We also discuss our process of developing this curricular resource in a recently published article in the Harvard Educational Review titled “Brown Bodies and Xenophobic Bullying in U.S. Schools: Critical Analysis and Strategies for Action.”

Bajaj is an associate professor of international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco. She has authored numerous books, articles and curricular resources related to education for human rights, peace and sustainability. 

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