Nearly 7,000 miles separate the U.S. west coast from Christchurch, New Zealand. But the attack on two mosques that left 50 dead and 20 more injured during Friday’s afternoon prayers feels close.
It feels close because we, too, have witnessed the tragic consequences of violent Islamophobia in the United States. We remember the two victims stabbed on a Portland train. We remember the man who was shot and killed in Olathe, Kansas. We remember Nazma Khanam, Maulama Akonjee and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein.
It feels close because we, too, have witnessed the horrors of white supremacy entering a house of worship. We remember the 11 victims gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We remember the nine worshipers killed in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It feels close because we, too, are reckoning with emboldened hate toward Muslims, immigrants, refugees and people of color.
And it feels close because the killer wanted it to. He live-streamed his rampage and posted his manifesto so that, in a sense, the shooting was everywhere in real time. We do not recommend you engage with either, but it’s possible your students have.
So, while this incident happened 7,000 miles and 17 time zones away, it hits close to home. And there are ways educators can be there for students.
For educators with Muslim students, today is not about educating them. It’s about embracing them. They are probably all too familiar with the forces that mean them harm; actively model a force that means them love and respect. Listen. Give them space. And speak up against those who might use today’s news to intimidate or tease them.
For all educators, there is much they can do going forward.
Educators can counter Islamophobia in our schools and communities. This lesson and this article can offer you tools to deconstruct stereotypes, analyze myths and misconceptions, and work to stop bullying against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, specifically South Asian youth. Colorín Colorado has created an index of educational resources designed to guide educators through talking about—and combating—Islamophobia.
Educators can present a more rich, positive education surrounding Muslims in the United States. This publication from the First Amendment Center and the Interfaith Alliance can help teachers frame lessons about the history and present-day realities of Muslims in the U.S. And these videos—“Muslim Students in America” and “Small Truths: American Muslims”—can help humanize people of the Muslim faith for your students, who will explore their unique lived experiences.
Educators can also take strides to inoculate students against online white nationalism that seems to have informed the killer’s rhetoric and tactics. His manifesto, if truly his, reflects a language cloaked in irony that defines the more extreme sectors of what has been termed “the alt-right.” Our primer on the so-called “alt-right” offers educators a glimpse at its history, its key terms, where it lives on the internet, how students may be susceptible to their recruitment practices and how the messaging can be countered in class. If we are to protect our students against hateful rhetoric, we must know where it lives and how it breathes.
And, as we wrote in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, there is a time-tested model we can rely on to contextualize events like what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand: the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate.
The Pyramid of Hate
The Pyramid shows biased behaviors, growing in complexity from the bottom to the top. Although the behaviors at each level negatively impact individuals and groups, as one moves up the pyramid, the behaviors have more life-threatening consequences. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are supported by the lower levels. If people or institutions treat behaviors on the lower levels as being acceptable or “normal,” it results in the behaviors at the next level becoming more accepted. In response to the questions of the world community about where the hate of genocide comes from, the Pyramid of Hate demonstrates that the hate of genocide is built upon the acceptance of behaviors described in the lower levels of the pyramid. (source: adl.org)
The pyramid underscores the importance of never normalizing biased behaviors in the lower levels, which educators can emphasize with students. It also underscores the necessity of educators interrupting and unpacking acts of Islamophobic or anti-immigrant bias they witness it in their school communities.
Students are listening. They are watching. They, too, live in a world where a major news network personality inferred that a lawmaker’s wearing of a hijab “is antithetical to the United States Constitution.” They, too, live in a world where the horrors faced by Friday morning’s victims were spread online—made into a spectacle, as the perpetrator wished.
Educators can spread a different story. A story that empowers Muslim students. A story that refuses to offer a simple narrative of what it means to be Muslim. A story that interrupts white nationalist talking points before they become white nationalist actions.
New Zealand may be far away, but this story feels close. Don’t let go of it. Embrace that closeness. Embrace everything but feelings of helplessness. Instead, remember an educator’s purpose: to help students understand. To help students actively participate in a better tomorrow.
And with compassion, with empathy, with resolve, act on it.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.