How to end teen bullying from a Muslim who was targeted

By Ishaq Pathan, INGYouth Manager.

This opinion originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

I was in seventh grade when a fellow classmate remarked, “I wonder how skinny Ishaq would be without the bomb strapped to his chest.”

Looking back, I understand how this incident, which attacked both my Muslim identity and weight, along with other remarks making ill-informed connections between my faith and terrorism, contributed to alienation I felt as an adolescent.

I never told an adult about my experiences. Like countless young American Muslims, I did not know how to process them. And I didn’t have any faith in adults’ ability to remedy this situation.

Ten years later, I am an adult working as youth manager for the Islamic Networks Group (ING), a nonprofit organization that counters prejudice and discrimination against religious groups through education and interfaith engagement.

Our INGYouth Program trains and certifies young American Muslim students to be speakers about their faith and community, giving them tools to address bullying and supplement education about Islam and Muslims.

I have spoken with Muslim teens around the country about teasing, harassment and bullying in their schools. They are no more optimistic than I was about adults’ capacity to help counter and prevent bullying.

Though many students understand the importance of reporting physical harassment and bullying, they do not inform adults about verbal, “ordinary” incidents.

Some believe that adults do not have the time or energy to deal with verbal remarks. Others fear adults may react in a dramatic manner by conducting a classroom lecture or a schoolwide assembly.

In students’ minds, this “solution” backfires because schoolwide assemblies are often ineffective, may highlight the targeted student as a snitch and can cause the bully to retaliate. This approach threatens a student’s sense of self-reliance and as one student said, “makes you feel like a child.” Finally, an adult always possesses authority over the student, which inhibits openness.

Taking this into consideration, what can adults do to counter bullying?

We need to start listening to adolescents, before and after incidents. We need to help them create a safe space for them to freely express themselves, take time to listen and gently ask them questions to show we care about their concerns.

When they share stories of bullying, we need to stop saying, explicitly or by implication, “Thanks for telling me, now leave it to the adults,” rendering the student powerless. Students must be able to express themselves without fear of losing their own agency and self-reliance.

We also must talk with adolescents, not at them. We don’t need to lecture them not to be bullies or bystanders. They know this.

Instead, schools and parents should provide education about identifying bullying and its mental health consequences by using real-life scenarios to help students pinpoint whether they experience, witness or even contribute to this problem. Schools can also educate teachers and students about the value of diversity and pluralism to develop a culture of inclusivity and acceptance.

Because of the power dynamic between adults and students, students will always trust other students more than adults. Therefore, schools must help students develop peer-to-peer education and intervention to curb bullying. Trained students who can mentor and address concerns of targeted students can greatly reduce bullying overall.

How can adults best help prevent bullying? By empowering students and supporting their efforts to meet this challenge. Building a culture of trust and openness among students and between students and adults will not be easy, but it is the only way to bring about real change.