Education and Peer-to-Peer Engagement Curb Religion-based Bullying

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

Bullying is a fact of life for too many students. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that over one quarter of middle and high school students are bullied at least once over the course of the school year. For minority students of faith, the situation is much worse: two-thirds of Sikh students report being bullied because of their religious identity, and Jewish students are bullied twice as frequently as students in general. According to several studies, between 50% and 80% of Muslim students (depending on the state they reside in) suffer bullying. This is alarming—and unacceptable.

This reality reflects public attitudes. In the case of Muslims, a recent survey revealed that they are the most unfavorably regarded religious group in the U.S. This is not surprising, in view of the fact that most Americans have little or no interaction with Muslims and know little about their faith. Education about Muslims and Islam, together with dialogue and interaction with Muslims, is urgently needed to change attitudes in schools and in society at large.

Our organization, Islamic Networks Group (ING), has in fact found that such education and interaction effectively deters bullying based on religious identity. ING trains Muslim speakers to supplement education about Muslims and their faith using content prepared with the participation of recognized academic scholars. I want to share some recent examples of middle and high schools in the San Francisco Bay area that called on ING in response to incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry and used ING resources to stop teasing and bullying of Muslim students and improve the environment for the entire school:

  • An East Bay middle school confronting serious incidents of bullying of Muslim students invited a Muslim speaker to supplement education about Muslims to all 7th- and 8th-graders and held a district-wide cultural sensitivity training for educators and administrators.
  • A parent of a hijab-wearing student at a Peninsula middle school complained about harassment of her daughter, and the school responded by arranging presentations by Muslim speakers for all the classes in her grade.
  • A hijab-wearing staff member at a South Bay middle school reported being repeatedly harassed by students. The school administration organized presentations by a Muslim speaker for the entire student body.
  • A hijab-wearing student at a South Bay high school was not only harassed by fellow students but also confronted in an English class with blatantly Islamophobic readings passed off by a teacher as objective information. The school administration held an assembly that addressed bullying specifically and respectful communication when dealing with people of unfamiliar cultures generally. The school district is also responding by inviting ING to hold district-wide cultural sensitivity workshops for teachers and administrators.
  • In another East Bay high school, a student who had created a video for his student body presidential campaign that stereotyped Muslims as terrorists eventually won that election. Students and community members addressed the district school board, saying that they did not feel safe in the Islamophobic environment of the school. The board set up a Community Action Group for Cultural Responsiveness that began meeting on August 31 and scheduled an ING cultural diversity training for all district staff in November. In addition, ING has organized training for Muslim teens that imparts knowledge and speaking skills that will empower them to answer challenging questions about their faith and counter the attitudes that produce bullying and harassment.

These efforts succeed because they combine education about Islam and personal encounter with Muslims. ING has solid proof of the effectiveness of this approach. We regularly conduct surveys on attitudes toward Muslims and their faith before and after our educational programs in schools, finding a significant improvement in perceptions of Muslims and their faith after just a few hours of exposure to a Muslim speaker. For instance, the percentage of students who see Islam as promoting terrorism falls by 60%, while the percentage seeing the religion as promoting violence falls by two-thirds. The percentage believing that Muslims “see women as inferior” decreases by more than half, from 20% to 9%.

The power of education and interfaith engagement cannot be overestimated, but it must be consistent and widespread in the communities where the schools are located. That’s why we’ve joined forces with nearly 90 interfaith, community, and civil rights organizations across the country to form the Know Your Neighbor-Multifaith Encounters coalition (KYN-ME). The Coalition’s latest “Back to School” campaign shared tools and resources for countering bullying, educating about diverse religions and cultures, and creating inclusive classrooms. The campaign had a broad reach:

  • Over 180 organizations across the nation retweeted, shared, or created posts about #KnowYourNeighbor.
  • The #KnowYourNeighbor hashtag had nearly 7 million impressions on Twitter and Facebook.

Bullying, harassment, and bigotry are not immutable elements in the makeup of human beings. They are created by social and historical circumstances—and what human beings have made, human beings can change. It’s up to all of us to bring about the changes we need for peaceful schools, peaceful communities, and a peaceful world. The resources are there; all we need is the will.