By Michael Gonchar and Katherine Schulten
December 17, 2015
Muslims in America are an incredibly diverse group, reflecting the variety inherent in a worldwide religion of over 1.6 billion followers.
Many Muslims are born in the United States; others are immigrants or the children of immigrants from dozens of countries, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Somalia and Guyana. Some are religious and attend mosque every week; others are nonpracticing. Some are dark-skinned, others are light-skinned. Some Muslim women wear a head scarf, or hijab, and others don’t. The diversity recognized in the Christian or Jewish American communities is also reflected in the Muslim American community.
Photo: Hebh Jamal, 15, studying at her family's home in the Bronx. With the violent spread of the Islamic State and a surge in Islamophobia, she has had to confront the harsh challenges of being a young Muslim in America. Related ArticleCredit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
Recent headlines about Islamic extremist attacks in Syria, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., along with rhetoric from the presidential campaign targeting Muslim immigrants, have raised anti-Muslim hostility to levels not seen since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In this lesson, students read about what it’s like to be a Muslim teenager growing up in America at this moment, then consider ideas for countering stereotypes and Islamophobia. In the Going Further section, we provide resources for looking at related issues.
Note to teachers: As a recent Times Op-Ed essay points out, it will not always be clear who in your school community is Muslim. We suggest planning ahead, perhaps with some of the tips in our 10 Ways to Talk to Students About Sensitive Issues in the News.
Though these ideas are focused on the situation in the United States right now, they could easily be adapted for classrooms elsewhere in the world.
Photo: A Muslim woman joined a rally in support of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in New York in December. Related Article Credit Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Warm Up | Invite students to take a few minutes to answer the two questions below in writing, then move on to small-group or full-class discussion.
Have you ever felt judged because of your identity — maybe because of the way you look, speak, dress or wear your hair? Because of your religion, ethnicity or family background? Or because of where you live, who your friends are or any other characteristic that may have caused others to make snap judgments about you? What happened? How did it make you feel? Why?
What is a stereotype? Where do stereotypes come from? How can they be dangerous?
Next, students can answer and discuss two more questions, using a short reading as a jumping-off point.
The New York City-based Youth Communication published short responses from four New York City Muslim teenagers about their experiences facing stereotypes. Assign pairs one of these four responses to read. You can print them and cut them into cards.
Students should read their card and answer these two questions based on their own experiences and what they read:
What kinds of stereotypes are there about Muslims in this country?
Photo: Protesters stood outside the Plaza hotel in Manhattan in December, where the Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was attending an event. Related ArticleCredit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
How do you think these stereotypes affect this teenager or Muslim American teenagers in general? Or, if you are Muslim, how have these stereotypes affected you?
Whole Class Reading | This week The Times reported on how the climate of fear in America is affecting Muslim teenagers.
In “Young Muslim Americans Are Feeling the Strain of Suspicion,” Kirk Semple writes:
Hebh Jamal does not remember the Sept. 11 attacks. She was 1. Growing up in the Bronx, she was unaware of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and was mostly insulated from the surge in suspicion that engulfed Muslims in the United States, the programs of police surveillance and the rise in bias attacks.
But in the past year, especially in the past several months, as her emergence from childhood into young womanhood has coincided with the violent spread of the Islamic State and a surge in Islamophobia, she has had to confront some harsh challenges of being a young Muslim in America.
Instead of occupying herself with a teenager’s normal concerns, like homework, clothes and hanging out with friends, she said, she has had to contend with growing anti-Muslim sentiment, adjusting her routines to avoid attacks and worrying about how she appears to the rest of society. And she has repeatedly felt compelled to justify her faith and to distance herself from terrorists who murder in the name of her religion.
“I have to sit down and study more and think more, and the idea of thinking more is really tough, because as a 15-year-old, you don’t want to think more,” Ms. Jamal said in an interview last week. “I feel like the past two months have probably been the hardest of my life.”
While reading the article, students can answer the following questions and then discuss their answers with their classmates.
Reading Comprehension Questions
What is Islamophobia?
Who is Hebh Jamal? What are some of the challenges she faces?
Ms. Jamal said, “If a Muslim hasn’t been called a terrorist in middle school, lower school or high school, then they’re probably in a really great school — and I’m happy for them!” Why do you think students would call Muslim students “terrorists”? How might you feel if you were a Muslim student called a “terrorist” by fellow students?
The article discusses two responses that Muslim youth might have to this environment of fear and suspicion: blending into mainstream society, and reaffirming and declaring their ethnic and religious identity. Describe what each of these responses might look like and how they differ.
Who is Zayneb Almiggabber? How did she deal with her ethnic and religious identity in high school? How did her approach change in college?
Ms. Almiggabber said, “The reality is that I’m just as Muslim and just as Arab as I’m American, and it’s possible to be all three.” Can someone have more than one identity? Can someone be American and Christian? Can they be ethnically Chinese and American? How do people balance these multiple identities? Is there a right and a wrong way to do that, or does each person have to find her or his own balance?
The article ends:
For many young Muslim Americans, the struggle of this era — to understand what is happening to them and their community, to figure out how to respond, to manage fear, to remain buoyant and vital and alive — has been a lot to handle.
“I find myself coming home,” Ms. Jamal said, “and my parents say: ‘Why are you so tired? What did you do?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ ”
“You feel like the whole world is against you,” she added. “It’s exhausting.”
What is your response to Ms. Jamal’s words? How might non-Muslim teenagers help their Muslim peers?
Below, we provide several additional possible paths of investigation for classes that want to explore related topics. These are, of course, only a starting point.
Education as a Solution
In a recent editorial, Time magazine suggested that education is an important part of the solution. Ignorance about Muslims allows people to easily generalize about what they see in the news about radical individuals and apply it to all Muslims. Ignorance also makes people vulnerable to hate speech by demagogues and fearmongers — whether about Catholics in the 1920s, Jews in the 1930s or Muslims today.
Stereotypes are weakened when we refuse to generalize based on one characteristic — whether it is skin color, ethnicity or religion. What can you do to educate yourself about Muslims and Islam? You might begin with this slide show from the Lens blog, “Islam, Beyond the Stereotypes.”
How much have you learned about Islam and Muslims in school? Where can you find reliable information on your own? Here are some resources outside The Times and beyond the scope of this lesson plan that might help:
PBS/WNET | Access Islam Curriculum
Teaching Tolerance | Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam
Teaching Tolerance | Islamophobia
Anti-Defamation League | Terrorist Attack in Paris and Scapegoating
As you read and research, you might create an infographic, write a paper, make a presentation or develop a quiz about Islam, the diversity of Muslims around the globe, or any other aspect of this larger topic.
Promoting Tolerance and Understanding
What are other resources that classes can use to learn about how communities work together to overcome intolerance and prejudice?
Watch the video above by Teaching Tolerance about how students in a Kansas City, Mo., high school, after losing a classmate to a violent crime, refused to let fear and hatred dominate the memory of their friend.
Or, read this Times article about Lewiston, Me., its mayoral race and how an influx of Somali Muslim refugees is helping a hardscrabble city in the whitest state in the nation make a comeback.
Then, watch this short film about Lewiston’s state-champion high school soccer team, where 18 of the 25 players are refugees, many of them Muslims from Africa. How does the coach make sure that all the students, no matter where they are from originally, work together?
Ultimately, perhaps the best resource for promoting tolerance and cultural understanding is the people in your own community, since actually meeting and talking with real people can be a powerful way to combat prejudice. How can you reach out to the Muslims in your community to educate yourself beyond stereotypes? One way might be to invite someone knowledgeable to speak to your class about any of the questions raised in this lesson.
Another idea? Invite students to interview Muslim teenagers and adults to create something like this Times multimedia piece, “Do You Know Me? Do You Know My Heart?,” for your school or local paper.
Muslims in American History
Peter Manseau writes in the Op-Ed essay “The Muslims of Early America” that Muslims in America go back long before the founding of this nation:
No matter how anxious people may be about Islam, the notion of a Muslim invasion of this majority Christian country has no basis in fact. Moreover, there is an inconvenient footnote to the assertion that Islam is anti-American: Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States — not just a few, but thousands.
Read the Op-Ed essay and then do further research about the history of Muslims in America. You might choose to look into one of the topics discussed in the Op-Ed essay, such as Muslim slaves or Arab traders, or African-Americans reclaiming and remaking Islam as their own. Or you can study more recent immigration trends.
You also might look into the role that Muslims play in American society today, from sports to Congress, and Wall Street to the military.
Xenophobia in America’s Past
The use of stereotypes in politics is nothing new in American history, of course, and neither is a blanket fear of specific ethnic or religious groups.
German-Americans were targeted when the United States declared war on Germany in World War I; Russian and Eastern European immigrants were looked on with suspicion after the Bolshevik Revolution during the first Red Scare; and Japanese-Americans were rounded up into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Research a time when a specific ethnic group was the target of mass suspicion or prejudice. Some examples include:
African slaves and African-Americans
Russian and Eastern European immigrants
You can use these questions to guide your research:
When did the wave of discrimination, prejudice or violence begin? How long did it last? What was the historical context?
What primary sources can you find that show how this group was perceived?
What role did the news media, politicians or community groups play in stoking the xenophobia? In opposing it?
What kinds of stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination or violence resulted?
How did the country move on from these incidents? How is the prejudice and discrimination in the past still reflected in that group’s experience today?
Are there any parallels that can be drawn from your research about the past that apply to attitudes toward Muslim Americans today?
Muslim Women and the Veil
The hijab, the head scarf that Muslim women sometimes wear, can be a visible sign of a something typically invisible — a person’s religion. You may know students in your school who wear a hijab, or if you are Muslim girl, you may wear one yourself.
Muslims have different feelings about the importance of wearing a hijab. Shameera Sheeraz, the 15-year-old girl featured in the Youth Communication article above, made the choice to wear a hijab starting in ninth grade. One reason she decided to wear it was “as a personal statement against all the media images of women wearing hardly any clothes.” Jensine Raihan, 17, stopped wearing her hijab after “enduring ‘weird’ looks and treatment that she attributed in part to the garment.”
In June, a young Muslim woman won a Supreme Court case against Abercrombie & Fitch, which had refused to hire her because she wore a head scarf. The company said the scarf clashed with its dress code, which called for a “classic East Coast collegiate style.”
Mona Eltahawy writes in an Op-Ed essay about why women wear a hijab in her home country, Egypt, and how the tradition has changed over time:
There are many explanations for why women veil themselves. Some do it out of piety, believing that the Quran mandates it for modesty’s sake. Others do so because veiling visibly proclaims their Muslim identity. For yet others, the veil is a way to avoid unwanted attention and gain some freedom from harassment in public space that has become increasingly male-dominated.
The rise of Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has increased the prevalence of veiling. Often, the Islamists’ social control has been boosted by regimes that were nominally secular but promoted the same conservative values to burnish their religious credentials.
Ultimately, for personal reasons, she decided to stop wearing a hijab:
My head scarf came off 22 years ago, but I have never stopped wrestling with what veiling means for Muslim women. Authenticity is about more than a layer of cloth on one’s head. To be acknowledged as more than our head scarves is the right of every Muslim girl and woman.
What do you think of what Ms. Eltahawy writes?
Consider what religious practices or customs in your religion, or in another religion with which you are familiar, some students might choose to follow while others don’t, such as keeping kosher, wearing a cross or receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. Research the reason behind the practice, and then explore why teenagers make different decisions about when and how to follow, or not follow, this practice.
Searching for Hate
While the FBI tracks the number of hate crimes committed each year, Google search data provides a different kind of resource for researchers and law enforcement officials studying the ebb and flow of Islamophobia. In the Op-Ed “The Rise of Hate Search,” Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explain how Islamophobic searches are at their highest level since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and why that matters:
People often have vicious thoughts. Sometimes they share them on Google. Do these thoughts matter?
Yes. Using weekly data from 2004 to 2013, we found a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Read this article to find many ideas, drawn from data, for what individuals and organizations can do to counter Islamophobia.
As the writers point out at the end of the piece, “The human capacity for rage and anger will never disappear. But there is a huge difference between this flare-up of hatred and those from decades past. We now have rich, digital data that can help us figure out what causes hate and what may work to contain it.”
Donald J. Trump has dominated the news in recent weeks with his proposal to bar Muslims from emigrating or even traveling to the U.S., but all the other Republican candidates want to deny asylum to all Syrian Muslim refugees. Ben Carson recently said that Muslims should not be president.
If you have learned about Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim and the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, you might want to read her response to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.
One real-world application for this lesson is to write to elected officials and those running for office and use what you have learned to support or refute their proposals.
Or, post your thoughts to our related Student Opinion forums on Syrian refugees and on Mr. Trump’s proposal.