Tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim students in St. Cloud and Owatonna school districts have kicked up a storm, with advocates calling for the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to look into reports of racial and religious harassment. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) describes hostile school environments where students were harassed solely for being Muslim. CAIR-MN charged that “school administrators have failed to effectively respond to the incidents and the harassing treatment often becomes worse after they report it.”
According to CAIR-MN a student wrote a racist essay that he used to taunt Muslim students while other students shoved pork into the faces of Muslim students.
Are there such incidents in the Twin Cities? How do Muslim students interact with their peers when faced with constant bullying?
Taneeza Islam, the executive director of CAIR-MN says that there have been no incident reports filed with their office from students in the Twin Cities.
The Daily Planet spoke to about twenty Muslim students from public schools around the Twin Cities. A Sunday school class at the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley was made up of a group of teenagers mostly comprising suburban middle school and high school students. They were discussing multiculturalism and racial theory. Their consensus: that while they have different cultural backgrounds – African, American, Southern Asian – their identity is American. For boys, and for girls who don’t wear scarves, it is impossible to even know that they are Muslim unless they mention it.
Kashif Saroya, a CAIR-MN board member, hosts a summer youth camp where he has children share their experiences. While he admits that there is a lot of religious tension, he suspects that Somali kids face more discrimination than other Muslims. He says that some of the children in his class were shocked to hear about the negative experiences of many Somali students. One student agreed. “Sometimes, I don’t think people know the difference between a Somali and a Muslim.”
This group of students expressed positive experiences in their schools. Their teachers, they said, were accommodating. They are allowed to take time off for prayer and sometimes even use the teacher’s staff room to pray.
Abia Ali, a community activist who works with young Somalis, says that she has seen schools in Minneapolis transition over the last several years. Although she still hears complaints from Muslim students she says that the large numbers of Somali and other Muslim children around the metro has accustomed students and school administrators to diversity.
In most of her work, Ali says, she tries to work directly with institutions because she is concerned about negative biases based on racial and religious stereotypes. She talks about a nephew who was told by his Minneapolis high school career counselor that he could not make it academically.
Ali runs a girls’ afterschool program at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis where she mentors young girls. It was here that I talked to the second group of teenagers: all girls, attending high schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park. They come to the mosque every day for their evening prayers and later to work on their school homework. Clad in variations of head covering: the hijab and long flowing jilbab and long skirts the girls engage in animated discussion about their daily encounters with prejudice.
The teasing is constant, they say. “Pillow head,” “blanket,” and “towel head” are epithets that they have been called.
In school hallways, one of them describes being constantly uncomfortable when other kids stare her down. “When they see girls in head scarves, they mean mug us,” she said. While waiting in line for school lunches some of the girls have had their head scarves tugged at. They tire of the teasing as they do of the persistent questions on their head scarves or jilbab.
To one girl’s amusement, she has sometimes been mistaken for a Catholic nun.
Teachers seldom take action, even when they observe the bullying. “I can’t do anything,” is a refrain the students are used to hearing.
In one incident, a teacher asked a student if she had a bomb in her bag. “I knew that she was joking, but it was inappropriate to make a joke like that. It made me uncomfortable because these are stereotypes we face everyday.”
The students have learned to protect themselves through banding together and only making friends with people they can trust.
“The other kids can be your best friends,” one explained, “but things get awkward when no one stands up for you when a religious or racist joke is made at your expense.”
But they stand by each other. “When I got picked on in the past I have defended myself,” one girl said. “I don’t tolerate bullying and if someone is getting bullied then I step in as well.”