Home / Content / Beyond “Good” and “Bad” Muslim: Addressing Islamophobia in Schools by Thea Renda Abu El-Haj

Beyond “Good” and “Bad” Muslim: Addressing Islamophobia in Schools by Thea Renda Abu El-Haj

Saturday, December 2, 2017

In the wake of the 2016 election of a U.S. president who has stoked the fires of Islamophobia and xenophobia, democratic schools face a critical, moral imperative to proactively educate against this pernicious and dangerous political climate. Unfortunately, this racist and hostile political climate is not a new development for youth from Muslim communities raised in the U.S. today. Since 9/11 people from Muslim communities have always lived under the shadow of President Bush’s admonition that “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” They have grown up in a climate of rising Islamophobia as well as racism directed not only toward African and African American Muslims, but also toward people from South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). They may have experienced increased state surveillance directed at their communities. The latest data show that hate crimes against Muslims have grown in the last year by a 67% increase (Lightblau, 2016; Morlin, 2016; PBS News Hour, 2016).

The need for schools to address explicitly Islamophobia and other forms of racism directed at African Americans and people from Africa, MENA, and South Asia has risen to a new level of urgency. Remarkably, it is only this September (2016) that the US Department of Education decided to begin collecting data on religious discrimination and bullying in schools. As concerned educational leaders prepare to address this climate in their schools, I offer perspectives from ethnographic research (Abu El-Haj, 2009; 2015) I conducted with Palestinian American Muslim, and other Arab American, youth in the decade after 9/11 to illustrate two critical issues that concerned educators should consider as they plan to respond to these forms of racism.

“And the issues we had here [after 9/11] were, in my mind, really minimal issues.”
Principal, Regional High School

Despite this principal’s claim that Muslims in the school faced only minor “issues” after 9/11, youth in my research described myriad experiences with racism. Peers’ vicious taunts of “terrorist” and “jokes” about where they “were hiding Bin Laden” created a hostile climate for these young people. Even more concerning were the (less common) incidents that involved teachers; for example, telling a girl who wore a hijab that she “looked like a disgrace in that thing” or telling a young Iraqi to “go back home.” Unfortunately, the students’ experiences with racism were not met with a consistent and vigilant response from school administration.

Systemic racism against minoritized communities continues to be an intractable problem in schools across the country. There is, however, confusion around whether to consider Arabs and Muslims (which are not equivalent) racially minoritized communities. Although racialized discourses about Arabs were entrenched well before 9/11, Arabs have occupied an ambiguous racial position in the US. Early Supreme Court decisions included Arabs in the racial category, “white” (persons of European, Middle Eastern, and North African origin). This classification system—which may be changed in time for the 2020 census—reflects residual notions of race and conceals the racialized discourses and practices to which Arabs have long been subjected (Cainkar, 2008; Naber, 2000; 2008; Samhan, 1999).

There is some disagreement about whether discrimination directed at a religious community can be considered racism. However, there is a history—which Said (1979) coined as “Orientalism”—through which Muslims have been constructed as racially other, imagined to inhabit particular bodies and to act in particular ways (Naber, 2008; Rana, 2011).

Thus, racisms that target people from (or presumed to be from) Muslim communities are multifaceted and complex, originating from different, often overlapping, histories of colonial relations—relations that live on in the colonial present (Gregory, 2004). It is critical to engage, rather than flatten out the lived experiences that develop from these different systems of racism. For example, African and African American Muslims are targeted by militarized police violence directed toward black Americans as well as threats and violence directed at them because they are Muslims. As important as it is to refuse to gloss over or flatten out forms of racism faced by different groups, it also remains critical to recognize that the specific forms of racism directed at people from Muslim communities has serious and systemic consequences, both within the U.S. and abroad. Violence and hate crimes constitute an ongoing problem in the United States (Ahmad, 2002; Jamal, 2008; Lightblau, 2016; Naber, 2000; Volpp, 2002). Legislative, legal, and policing practices have denied many Muslims basic civil rights, before and after 9/11. A few examples include the USA Patriot Act, the no-fly list, and mostly recently, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. Racialized images of Muslims and Arabs have justified war, military violence, and torture—violence that is often invisible in our domestic conversations about racial justice.

Educators must consider anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment within a broader framework of racism, not just prejudice, because treating the issue as one of prejudice often leads to mainstream multiculturalism that foregrounds education about Islam. This approach typically focuses on teaching basic information about Islam as a religion, its basic tenets, religious practices, and holidays. While there are numerous problems with this multicultural approach (including that Islam is a vast and diverse religion), the most critical is that it fails to address structurally reinforced, systematic racism directed at these communities. Moreover, confronting Islamophobia requires examining the relationship between global and local manifestations of this phenomenon, for the United States’s political, economic, and military policies both fuel and are fueled by these racisms.

Thinking in terms of racism leads to more critical educational practices. For example, educators can conduct climate surveys to track what youth from Muslim majority communities have experienced in their schools and communities. Schools can collect data to explore whether there are hidden discriminatory patterns in relation to academics and discipline. Professional development for teachers and new curriculum for students can educate individuals about racism against these communities (including for example, studying media; critically examining whose violence gets called “terrorism”; and explicitly teaching about US state policies such as surveillance that have been directed at Muslim communities). Perhaps most important, if not also most difficult, remains the need to find ways to confront directly the racist words and actions of some educators. Creating inclusive, just schools for children and youth from Muslim communities depends on a holistic approach that addresses not only the development of anti-racist curriculum, but also attends to building compassionate and loving relational environments in our schools.

“Are you or are you not an American?”
Teacher’s comment to a Palestinian American student who protested the Pledge of Allegiance

Many youth from Muslim communities have deep transnational ties to places that are directly affected by U.S. foreign and military policy. In a political climate that frames all Muslims as suspect members of the nation, youth can find it difficult to voice more complex affiliations and critical perspectives. For example, many youth in my study, born in the US, had spent years living in Palestine where they developed a deep sense of belonging. Even youth who had never lived in Palestine developed a sense of being Palestinian through everyday life in their transnational community. However, this sense of being Palestinian did not erase their commitments to the democratic ideals of their US citizenship. In fact, precisely because of experiences that family members had with statelessness and lack of citizenship, Palestinian American youth greatly valued rights-bearing US citizenship. However, experiences they had with racism and unequal educational opportunity in the US, and their knowledge about US foreign policy, led many to be critical of the ways that this country often fails to live up to the espoused ideals of democracy and equality—ideals to which youth were deeply committed.

One site at which Palestinian Americans’ complex perspectives on the US came to the fore was the ritual of pledging allegiance. Most stood during the Pledge of Allegiance in order to mark for the public that they, as Arabs and Muslims, were members of this nation. However, participation in this ritual engendered discomfort for many who felt conflicted about the extent to which the nation lived up to its ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” As one student put it, “there isn’t always justice for everybody.” Another young woman worried about the message she was conveying by participating in the pledge.

“[T]here are American troops in Iraq killing Arabs. So when I think about it [pledging the flag], it’s like me praying for the troops to kill more Arabs.

Unfortunately, Palestinian American youth found little space within their schools to engage in critical conversation about the “War on Terror” or about the unrealized democratic ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” They had good reason to fear expressing critical perspectives, as several youth faced disciplinary sanctions for speech that was viewed as “anti-American.”

Since 9/11, there has been little room for Muslim Americans to maneuver between “Good” (loyal, patriotic, uncritical) citizen and “Bad” (dangerous, suspect) outsider. The outcome of the recent presidential election has exacerbated this divisive climate. Education that is committed to addressing the racism directed at youth from Muslim communities must reject this simplistic dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslim. Educators must listen carefully to these youth to understand why so many have developed complex and critical perspectives on the impact of US foreign policy on countries in MENA and South Asia, and why they are often also critical of the failed promises of equality and justice in this country. Rather than viewing their multifaceted and nuanced perspectives on US democracy as disloyal and problematic, educators must understand transnational citizenship as a legitimate way to forge a sense of belonging to, and active engagement with social, cultural, economic, and political issues that cross the boundaries of nation-states. Such an understanding could inform the development of educational curriculum and practices that support all young people to think about, and work for justice across the borders of nation-states.


Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2009). Imagining postnationalism: Arts, citizenship education and Arab American youth. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 40 (1), 1-19.Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2015).

Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2015). Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian Youth after 9/11. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Ahmad, M. (2002). Homeland insecurities: Racial violence the day after September 11.

Ahmad, M. (2002). Homeland insecurities: Racial violence the day after September 11. Social Text 72 (3): 101-115.Gregory, D. (2004).

Gregory, D. (2004). The colonial present. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Jamal, A. (2008). Civil liberties and the Otherization of Arab and Muslim Americans. In A. Jamal and N. Naber (Eds.),

Jamal, A. (2008). Civil liberties and the Otherization of Arab and Muslim Americans. In A. Jamal and N. Naber (Eds.), Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: From invisible citizens to visible subjects, pp. 114-130. New York: Syracuse University Press.Lightblau, E. (November 14, 2016). U.S. Hate Crimes Surge 6%, Fueled by Attacks on Muslims.

Lightblau, E. (November 14, 2016). U.S. Hate Crimes Surge 6%, Fueled by Attacks on Muslims. New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

Morlin, B. (September 13, 2016). Experts Seeing Spike in Possible Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes. Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/09/13/experts-seeing-spike-possible-anti-muslim-hate-crimes

PBS News Hour (May 18, 2016). Muslim American Students Face High Rates of Bullying. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/daily_videos/muslim-american-students-face-high-rates-of-bullying/

Naber, N. (2008). “Look Mohammed the terrorist is coming”: Cultural racism, nation-based racism, and the intersectionality of oppressions after 9/11. In A. Jamal and N. Naber (Eds.), Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: From invisible citizens to visible subjects, pp. 276-304. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Rana, J (2011). Terrifying Muslims: Race and labor in the South Asian diaspora. Chapter 1. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Volpp, L. (2002). The citizen and the terrorist, UCLA Law Review 49 (June).

Author Biography

Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is an anthropologist of education. Her current research explores new questions about youth citizenship raised by globalization, transnational migration, and the “war on terror.” Supported in part by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Post doctoral fellowship, this ethnographic research focuses on how young Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans grapple with questions of belonging and citizenship in the wake of September 11, 2001. She recently published a book about this project: Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11 (2015, University of Chicago Press). Other publications about this research have appeared in Anthropology and Education Quarterly; Harvard Educational Review; Educational Policy; and Theory into Practice. Her first book, Elusive Justice: Wrestling with Difference and Educational Equity in Everyday Practice (Routledge, 2006), offers a critical account of the range of justice claims at play inside real schools, exploring several different, important dimensions of educational equity that are often ignored in contemporary educational policy debates.