Nearly 100 high school and college students, educators, activist, politicians and parents converged on Mastery Shoemaker High School located in West Philadelphia for what was said to be the first of the annual “Combating Anti-Muslim Bigotry Youth Conference.”
Shoemaker principal and conference host, Sharif El Mekki, said the creation of the youth conference served to create space for young people to share the range of their experiences coping with anti-Muslim sentiments. In the current political climate, attitudes and responses to Muslims has been, in many cases, alternately “dismissive, demeaning and at times unjustly hostile.”
Envy Abdelkader, an attorney, scholar and professor at the Edmond A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the author of the recently released study, “Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election said during her keynote address that her research discovered almost since the beginning of the presidential race there has been an increase in the negative depiction of Muslims in the media.
“American Muslim youth are disproportionally impacted by violence,” she said.
“Interestingly, often times when we hear about American Muslim youth … as we’ve seen in the (media’s reporting) of the rise of ISIS, it’s in a context of their vulnerability to recruitment efforts, their vulnerability to violent extremism propaganda.” To a lesser extent, she said, the media focuses on “discrimination and harassment in school.”
In addition, her remarks chronicled Muslim youth and how they responded and overcome discrimination and harassment.
Included in her Power Point presentation was Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old freshman at a high school in Irving, Texas, who was detained by police after taking a homemade alarm clock to school to show an engineering teacher.
During a press conference held outside of his home, after receiving support from President Obama, and the founder of Facebook, Ahmed said, “It felt really outstanding,” adding that he wanted to use his moment in the spotlight to “try my best not just to help me but to help every other (Muslim) kid in the entire world that has a problem like this.”
Also highlighted by Abdelkadar was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim female, who at the age of 17, was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store in Oklahoma because she wore a hijab.
The teenager responded to this obvious discrimination by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Seven years later after winning, then losing the case in a higher court, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.
The keynote address was followed by a panel of area high school students. Kadidja Cisse, of Parkway West High School and a member of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement, said she was amazed to see teachers calling her “towel head” and her “principal call me ISIS.” She said teachers in one school she attended said she was disturbing the class because she wears the hijab. “I can’t imagine seeing anyone else that’s looking different in class (having) to go through something like that.”
Manetayne Jackson Bey, a senior at Gratz Mastery Charter School, said he experiences discrimination due to his religious beliefs inside and outside of school. He said he’s heard “people say he’s a terrorist, or he has a bomb because of what’s reported in the news about ISIS.”
He encouraged the teachers and adults seated in front of him to understand that his experiences are similar to the experiences of other Muslim youth. Bey said that it is their responsibility to strengthen the faith of young Muslims so they can overcome the discrimination and bullying their children are receiving as Muslims.
During the conference, several small group sessions happened simultaneously, including Activism & Youth Empowerment, Adult/Education: Supporting Our Youth and Faith Identity & the Art of Storytelling.
Co-chairing the Art of Storytelling workshop was Yale graduating senior, Emi Mahmoud, the reigning World Poetry Slam Champion of 2015, and Majid Ruben, a Junior at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and chair of “Students Against Islamophobia and Discrimination.”
The session focused on how to process the difficulty in faith and identity by using individual stories, poetry, whatever way participants felt comfortable expressing their personal experiences.
According to the Adult/Education workshop facilitator Soledad Alfaro, who is Deputy Chief of Staff for the Mastery Charter School Network, “The discussion was engaging and wide-ranging, with reps from community members, parents, educators and youth program leaders. It seems that the group connected the need for young people to develop a strong identity for themselves, with guidance and support, with their ability to stand up against bigotry and racism.”
“I think that the spoken word (presentations), just the variety of ways, the diversity of format, as well as the diversity of age and how that represented Muslim Americans was really powerful,” said Intreza Binte Fard, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The Intersectionality, being Black, being Muslim, and being female that was the thing that really came out really strongly.”