Data show cases of anti-Muslim bullying in schools on the rise

Timothy Welbeck, the civil rights attorney at Philadelphia’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, sits in his office Friday, July 20, 2018. He says reports of anti-Muslim bullying to his office have increased since 2014.

In June, a Muslim family in Northeast Philadelphia filed a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and St. Dominic Catholic School, alleging their son endured months of discrimination.

Similarly last month, an 11-year-old girl had her khimar, an Islamic headscarf, abruptly removed by a classmate. And in a separate incident, a student alleged his teacher persistently harassed him because he was Muslim, according to Philadelphia’s Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Officials at CAIR-Philadelphia said these acts represent a pattern of anti-Muslim bullying in schools that has been on the rise since 2014.

Since August, the organization has received more than a dozen complaints of anti-Muslim bullying targeted at 15 to 20 students in 13 schools and colleges in the region, said Timothy Welbeck, the civil rights attorney for CAIR-Philadelphia. By comparison, there was one complaint of bullying for 2014, two for 2015, and nine for 2016.

Nationally, CAIR recorded a 17 percent increase in all types of anti-Muslim bias incidents from 2016 to 2017, according to its 2018 Civil Rights Report. It reported 2,599 bias incidents in 2017, compared with 2,213 for 2016 and 1,409 the year prior. Reports range from harassment to hate crimes and incidents of being unnecessarily targeted by the FBI or Customs and Border Patrol.

In 2017, Welbeck said he noticed a “significant uptick” in all types of complaints to the Philadelphia office, adding that they often coincided with “[President Trump] making Islamophobic remarks and inflammatory statements.”

“Ultimately, right now, our social and political climate is creating feelings of not being safe or being supported for a lot of Muslim students,” said Anisa Goforth, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Montana who has researched the psychological adjustment for Arab American children. “Fostering support for students who are ethnic and religious minorities is incredibly important.”

CAIR, established in 1994, is an advocacy group for American Muslims that handles discrimination cases, organizes lobbying efforts, and works with media organizations to promote an accurate and positive image of Muslims in the United States. It has 32 chapters.

Last month, Naimah Leach reported to CAIR-Philadelphia that her daughter’s khimar had been removed, and the Naqvi family filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against their son, Syed, at school two years ago. Parents for both students said they were shocked to learn of their children’s experiences in school.

Mustreen Naqvi said students began calling Syed, then 12, “ISIS” after the December 2015 San Bernadino mass shooting, in which the gunman was also named Syed and was of Pakistani descent. Later, the former principal of St. Dominic allegedly reported her son to the FBI after reviewing his class project that included “action scenes,” like explosions, which the family believes were wrongly perceived as threats, according to court documents filed last month.

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer
Syed Naqvi (top center) and his family at their home in Northeast Philadelphia on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. The Naqvi family filed a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and St. Dominic Catholic School for racial discrimination. Parents Mustreen and Syed and children (clockwise from top) Syed, Naad Ali, Shanshah, Hassahn Razn and Rida Fatima.

Leach got a call from a teacher last month telling her another student ripped off her daughter’s khimar. The student later said it was “a joke.”

“I was really shocked because that didn’t happen to her before,” she said. “How could you say that you were joking about something like this? This is serious.”

Goforth said “being perceived as ‘the other’ ” can make a child feel lonely, isolated, and not part of a group, which has a “significant impact” on the child’s well being.

Ahmet Tekelioglu, CAIR-Philadelphia’s education and outreach director, and Welbeck emphasized that Muslim students, especially young children, are reluctant to speak up about their experiences with anti-Muslim incidents or contact their office.

Welbeck noted in an email that he and Tekelioglu conducted an anti-bullying workshop for roughly 50 Muslim children in Bensalem, at which a third of them said they had experienced bullying, but “only a fraction” said they reported the incidents.

Leach said it took hours for her daughter to open up about what had happened at school. Syed Naqvi said that he was reluctant to tell his parents about getting in trouble at school, which his family believes occurred because of their son’s national origin and religion.

Goforth said members of school communities should support Muslim students by being political and social advocates for them.”Their experience is real and authentic,” she said. “Children are diverse, not all Muslim students are the same. … Provide them that support.”

But both families said they still worry their children could be harassed in the future.

“I’m just afraid that… this [incident] opened up the doors for the other girls [to] just grab her khimar off her head,” Leach said.

Syed Naqvi’s father, also named Syed, said he fears for his five children, who have since been removed from St. Dominic and sent to a new school.

“I have to watch all the time. … All the time, you’re scared,” he said.