The events of 9/11 still resonate heavily with Americans. 9/11 is an integral part of the American collective and is commemorated with reruns of archival footage, television analysis of the events, testimonials from witnesses, interviews with survivors or their families, national memorial services, presidential comments, prayer events, and a host of new movies both fiction and non. It is a day of American collective mourning – resonating significantly with so many people because the events are in their recent memory as much of the U.S. population was alive and a media witness of the event.
It is a stressful time for all Americans. But, for Muslims, it can be especially stressful because the attacker and events of that day are indelibly attached to Islam and us. And this can be especially challenging for American Muslim adolescents and teens that attend a public school. Students may develop anxiety about the potential direction of a classroom discussion or indeed the curriculum narrative itself.
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Students who will commemorate the 20th anniversary this year were not even born when these events happened so they have only the indoctrination of their family and society to fall upon as a reference point. Even a fresh out of college new teacher would have grown up with 9/11 as a regular part of their academic reality. Older teachers most likely witnessed the event. This means that teachers will have anecdotes, opinions, and even perhaps a position to share with students about the events that happened on 9/11.
Unfortunately, a Muslim student could find him/herself with a teacher who distorts Islamic fiqh, spreads disinformation about Muslims, or even bullies the Muslim students by asking them to explain or clarify why “Muslims” do a certain action. Teachers may display this behavior out of ignorance, but in some instances, they can also be distraught and manifest it with criticism of Islam.
Students subjected to instructor attacks on Islam have responded with everything from anger to tears. The best defense to these uncomfortable situations is to develop a plan of “re-action” should the need arise. Check out these suggestions and plan accordingly.
- Prepare yourself mentally for the day so that you can prepare your children and be viewed as a reliable and stabilizing force.
- Remind yourself and your children that it is a day of collective sorrow for the 9/11 attack and that many Americans lost families and friends.
- Do not make it a day to focus on or anticipate Islamophobia. The day belongs to the victims that lost their lives not to Muslims who have been collectively blamed.
- Listen to your child to see if they seem particularly disturbed by an upcoming discussion, class, school activity, or assignment that revolves around 9/11.
- Explain the events of 9/11 to your child(ren).
- Watch for symptoms of depression and anger in your child; these can include being over sleepy, defensive, isolated, nonverbal, aggressive, blaming, and/or easily frustrated.
- Don’t feel afraid to contact any teachers who have made your child uncomfortable or on the defensive. Contact the school administration as well.
- Be a curriculum advocate – if you know or learn that your school has a curriculum that puts Muslims in a bad light – bring attention to it through the school board.
- Do a little research on 9/11 of your own so that can separate the facts from falsehood and so you can speak with authority if you want to offer your input.
- Come to class prepared to listen carefully.
- Don’t feel that you need to defend the actions of the 9/11 attackers.
- Do not feel guilty if you have mixed or confused feelings.
- Politely correct misinformation.
- If you feel uncomfortable confronting, debating, or correcting a teacher who is spreading misinformation or misinterpretation – don’t do it.
- Let your teacher know if you are feeling uncomfortable with their statements or the book/article they are presenting.
- Don’t be disingenuous with your expressions of sympathy or patriotism.
- If you are a child of a naturalized citizen, there is no need to prove your “Americanness.”
- Likewise, there is no need to hide the fact that you are a Muslim from your classmates or instructor.
- If a teacher makes a comment that is inappropriate or very offensive to Islam and/or Muslims– make a note of the exact statement, the day, time, class, the context if you can and notice who else in the room may have heard the statement and could be called as a witness later. (You can write the direct quote, record it with your phone, etc.).
- Do not keep your feelings of discomfort a secret. The next Muslim student may be more fragile and such conversations or actions coming from a position of authority may be more than they can handle.
- If you attempt to correct or comment on misinformation and/or misinterpretation and are debated or dismissed by your teacher, that behavior is bullying. Report this to your parents and the school administration.
- Don’t feel bad if your passion level does not reflect that of others. For some Americans, 9/11 was a rallying cry for anti-immigrant statements and open Islamophobia. These families have strong feelings and may discuss this event frequently to justify their sentiments.
- If the misinformation and/or misrepresentation of Muslims in regards to 9/11 is systemic and part of the school culture, remember as a student that you have the power to bring about change. You can organize petitions or letters of complaint and submit them to the school administration and the board of Education or trustees for your school.
For Muslim teachers:
- Be an advocate for a curriculum that is free from bias.
- Pay attention to teachers who express anti-immigrant or Islamophobic opinions to other teachers.
- Don’t take a political position.
- Politely correct misinformation or misperceptions.
- Don’t explain away the 9/11 event.
- Don’t blame “those Arabs” or immigrants. Remember for many non-Muslims when you say this you are basically agreeing that the problem is Muslims or Islam.
- Don’t use this as a time to offer counterpoints on America’s terrorist or racist groups or attacks like those of Timothy McVey.
- If you are a history teacher, examine the entire curriculum to identify points that require more sensitivity toward Muslim students and Islam.
Finally, it is important to always be mindful that our own response needs to be considerate of people but, most importantly, pleasing to Allah. Be patient, respectful, informed, and an ambassador of our beautiful religion by your words and actions. This is the best way to teach about Islam and to counter misinformation and misunderstandings, inshaAllah.