Islamophobia attacks — aggressive to violent incidents triggered by hate toward Muslims — are on the rise, according to the FBI. Part of what has contributed to a rise in these attacks is the surfacing of buried fear, resentment and anger toward groups of people who are seen monochromatically. Muslims are often seen as either foreign terrorists or interlopers.
Muslim children who are victims of Islamophobia attacks are at risk of alienation. They are also vulnerable to experiencing a counter-emotional reaction, which can include their own feelings of fear, anger and resentment toward non-Muslims. In some cases, depending on the age of the child and other social and experiential factors, it can push a youth toward deeper ideological indoctrination into the monochromatic filter that one’s identity is either strictly one thing or another.
Over the last two decades, we’ve been witness to a form of reactionary identity framing. Increased suspicion and spotlight on Islam and Muslims has brought second generation American Muslims to more openly identify and brand their faith. Hence, we’re seeing more emphasis on the use of hijabs and religious markers to draw a distinctive perimeter around their identity.
While Muslims will continue experimenting in how to integrate, adapt, respond to and personalize their faith, what is alarming is the open sprouting of puritanical forms of Islam within younger populations of Muslim youth in America.
Take the case of Maram Al-Shammari, a fourth-grade student at Millcreek Elementary in Millcreek, Utah. Just a couple weeks ago, Maram was bullied for wearing a hijab. While praying during recess, Maram recounts that the bully (ironically another refugee) came and pulled off her hijab.
There are a two major red flags with this story.
First, speaking to the media, Maram said:
“A woman who doesn’t wear the hijab is most likely to get sexual assault and abuse than a woman that does wear it because she covers up.”
Please stop reading and think about this for a second. Really think about it.
What is Maram — who is just in fourth grade, who is just nine or 10 years old, who has likely not even hit puberty yet — saying? Where are these ideas coming from? What sort of person is Maram being groomed to become — a follower or a free thinker? Submissive or confident? More or less likely to suffer a forced marriage, accept normalization of domestic abuse? More or less likely to be supportive of other women? More or less likely to fit into American society or reject is as she grows older?
These are the first layer of questions we need to ask before we get to the next set of questions to understand the dynamics at play here. We need to stop thinking of the story as a fourth grader vs. a bully and look at Maram. We need to really see Maram.
Maram is a kid, already worried about sexual abuse being justified. The Islamist concept that women invite abuse because they are not sufficiently covered as per “community standards.” (This concept shares the same umbrella as “slut-shaming,” where a woman who is the victim of sexual abuse is blamed for the attack because “she asked for it” by the way she was dressed, etc.)
This is not faith. This is a man-made innovation that can be best described as the product of centuries of throwing theory, rulings, philosophy and culture at a simple and refined painting (Islam) simply to see what would stick, because at the time it was of use. Over time, people who looked at the painting thought it was part of the original artwork. If we’re going to talk about faith because a fourth-grader experienced a horrible attack, then lets talk about faith truthfully. These conversations are an opportunity for education.
Refugees consistently need help acculturating to their environment. They do not need to be encouraged or misdirected into believing that the environment must adapt to them. While it is true that in some cases, how we respond to an issue with a refugee might require adaptation, but this is not that case. The league should be reminded that religion is private and has no place in a public school.
Threads of these blurred truths — what is culture, what is religion and which of the two shapes identity — are woven throughout Maram’s story. It’s also found in the way Fox 13 Salt Lake City reported the story when they wrote, “As a devout Muslim girl, Maram’s hijab is a critical part of her cultural identity.”
Was it Maram’s culture or was it her religion that had her wearing the hijab? Does wearing a hijab make Maram a devout Muslim? Who decides what is devout and what is not?
These are the conversations we need to be having — conversations that both Maram and the media would benefit from. It is her culture, not her religion, that calls for hijab, and culture, like Islam, is always being shaped. Neither are static. However, what is certain is that no Muslim has a right to judge who is devout: A Muslim with a hijab is no more an indicator of piety or belief than a Muslim without one.
The story, including both points of criticism, comes back to the argument for reform. We must be able to have radically honest conversations about faith and identity, especially when distasteful situations like this take place. That is essentially the heart of reform at this hour.
Increased attacks against Muslim youth are happening to children as young as Maram regularly. Just a day before Fox 13 reported Maram’s incident, another incident took place at Framingham’s Hemenway Elementary School in Massachusetts, where a death threat was discovered by a Muslim fifth-grader in her cubby saying, “You’re a terrorist,” and another note following it saying, “I will kill you.”
The way forward is to talk to students, school counselors and teachers to help them understand the issues, but even better is to discuss them before they happen — in schools, camps and communities.