The recent execution-style murders of two reported American Muslim men – including a teenager – of Sudanese descent in Indiana comes with suspicion about possible motives. With the execution-style murders of three American Muslim youth near the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill barely one year behind us, many suspect foul play predicated on growing Islamophobia in our country.
The Indiana murders – and surrounding suspicions reflected in popular hashtags like #OurThreeBoys and #3MoreWinners – bring back into focus the contemporary experiences of not just the American Muslim community, in general, but some of its youngest members, specifically.
Perhaps, their realities are more complicated, however.
Mr. Trump, the kids can hear you
From “accusations” casting Obama as a closet Muslim to arguments that Muslims shouldn’t serve in the president’s cabinet, young Muslims have endured Islamophobic political rhetoric since the 2008 presidential elections. Republican presidential hopefuls, like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have only ratcheted up anti-Muslim vitriol this election cycle, with utter disregard for constitutional principles or American values.
Recall, for instance, when Mr. Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration. His comments prompted 8-year-old Sofia Yassinito pack up her dolls, peanut butter and toothbrush. She thought American soldiers were en route to her Texas home. Her fear inspired a social media campaign – #IWillProtectYou – with American soldiers and vets assuaging the young Muslim’s fears.
And, remember when Dr. Carson told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” In response, a 12-year-old Minnesotan, Yusuf Dayur, made a video, explaining,
“Mr. Carson, what if someone told you that you couldn’t become president because of your color? What if someone told you that you couldn’t become president because of your race? What if someone told you that you couldn’t become president because of your faith? That’s what you did to me….People would say that black people couldn’t become president. Guess what? I’m black and I’m Muslim … I will break that Muslim boundary. I will become the first Muslim president.”
From genuine fear to powerful defiance, Muslim children’s responses signal an acute awareness about an ugliness they shouldn’t have to confront at any age.
What kids learn
Last week, an American Muslim child in Fairfax, VA, received this high school homework assignment:
Exercise 15: Why are there so many Muslim terrorists who want to attack the West? How do you think this situation can be improved?
There is a false assumption underlying the question. According to Europol, non-Muslim Europeans have committed more extremist violence in the European Union than Muslims. In the US, non-Muslims are responsible for more American deaths. And, a 2015 survey of law enforcement officials around the country found greater articulated fear of domestic terrorism from right-wing extremists.
Conversely, controversies have erupted around the country in response to school books and lesson plans that don’t cast Islam and Muslims in a similarly negative light.
In Tennessee, for instance, parents and politicians protested a middle school curriculum on world history that incorporates a lesson plan on Islam – in addition to Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism – as “indoctrination.” Their efforts culminated in a proposed bill banning all Tennessee schools from teaching religion prior to the 10th grade.
In Virginia, a world geography homework assignment incorporating Islamic calligraphy shut down an entire school district.
In California, a social studies class on Islam – in addition to Christian, Buddhist and Hindu civilizations – prompted middle school parents to complain at school board meetings as well angry social media posts.
In Texas, a chain email about “pro Islamic teaching in our public schools” forced one school board to investigate the allegations. The resulting 72-page report found a bias in favor of Christianity, however.
In Georgia, parental complaints prompted students to opt out of social studies classes that discussed Islamic history.
Significantly, the U.S. Supreme Court has previously found that teaching about religion in schools is perfectly legal so long as it’s academic, not devotional, in nature.
Those refugees include kids, too
The image of a lifeless three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, facedown on a beach has faded since discourse about immigration policy devolved into Islamophobia in the wake of last year’s attacks in Paris and San Bernadino.
Dismissed as potential “Trojan horses,” last year, at least 26 Republican governors united against refugees coming to their states. Some, like Chris Christie, boasted that they would have no qualms turning away refugees, even 5-year-old orphans.
In fact, the UN reports that more than 2.3 million Syrian children are registered as refugees. They include orphans, those without food, shelter, schools or protection. Still, Islamophobia has desensitized us to their plight and our shared humanity.
Ok, the kids are scared
Consider these examples.
Last November, a Muslim family returned to their home in Orlando, Florida to find a bullet hole in their garage. They later discovered that three shots had been fired at their home. The homeowner shared his family’s subsequent fear, “They feel unsafe now. Why somebody is shooting at us, what did we do?”
The following month, in December, someone attacked a Muslim family’s home, hurling large rocks at their window. The homeowner, who had just moved into the Texas neighborhood, observed, “More than the damage – it’s not the window – it’s the terrifying factor of it. It is them trying to terrorize us or scare us. The kids are scared to go up or down alone.”
From Islamophobic approaches to immigration to alarming political rhetoric, from hate crimes to homework, Muslim kids are increasingly forced to navigate difficult terrain with which most adults continue to grapple.