Muslim students are grateful that this 21st anniversary of September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks fall on a Sunday, when there is no school.
This is because we always teach the events of this day in a way that makes these students feel unsafe, unwelcome, or uncomfortable in their classrooms. It is a heavy price to pay, given that they were not even born at the time of the attacks.
Lallia Allali thinks that our school systems must do better. Allali holds a doctorate. student in the Department of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. She is also the chair of the San Diego Unified School District District English Learner Advisory Committee.
Allali, a Muslim woman, arrived in the United States with her eldest daughter, Selma, 21 years ago, just as the terrorist attacks occurred. The fear she felt – moving halfway around the world to an unknown country – was compounded by the aftermath of the attacks.
But on Selma’s first day of kindergarten, Allali’s fear turned into a passion for academic excellence. She immersed herself in the American education system, learned about school policies and practices, and advocated for parental involvement.
At school sites, Allali – who wears a hijab – was often approached by Muslim students. She heard a recurring theme in their 9/11 stories: that class discussions made them feel cornered, attacked, and sometimes drawn to tears.
The candid and heartbreaking conversations inspired Allali’s research project at the University of San Diego, exploring the experiences of Muslim students, grades 8 through 12, in three San Diego-area school districts.
Students reported that teachers relied heavily on stereotypes and generalizations when describing the 9/11 attacks: since the perpetrators were Muslim, all faith must be suspect (a sentiment that was only reinforced by the teachers’ use of the term “Islamic terrorists”).
Students also spoke about the inadequacies of textbooks and classroom conversations. There was no mention of Muslims working in the World Trade Center, acting as first responders, or dying on the ill-fated planes.
Nor was there any discussion of related but controversial topics, such as the subsequent treatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Student views and perspectives were not solicited.
In her analysis and interpretation of the focus group transcripts, Allali noted a direct link between classroom experience and bullying of Muslim students. Unfortunately, it’s more than a once-a-year event.
The California Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA) conducts a biannual study that assesses school climate for Muslim students ages 11-18. The most recent study (2021) showed that more than half of those surveyed felt harassed or marginalized because of their identity – feelings which have increased since the first study in 2013. A third of students were victimized or witnesses of cyberbullying or negative posts about Islam on social media. or Muslims; a quarter said a teacher, administrator or other adult at their school had made offensive comments.
One way to combat the ongoing discrimination and bullying of Muslim students is to change school curricula – starting with how we teach 9/11 in our classrooms. Allali began this work by collaborating with the San Diego County Office of Education to create the “Educator’s Guide to Teaching 9/11 with Compassion.”
Among the recommendations of the guide, it is recommended that teachers use accurate and impartial resources focused on the event and its historical context; avoid inflammatory terminology, particularly implying a link between Islam and extremism; and provide examples that clearly show that the perpetrators of terrorism are not just one race or religion.
Although created specifically for educators, the guide is useful for all of us. According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, 80% of Muslims worry about the safety of their families here. They feel insecure about their place in American society — an uncertainty that has been exacerbated in recent election cycles by politicians (still) using Islamophobia as a political tool.
The concern is not misplaced. In March 2019, John Earnest set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque in Escondido. A month later, he opened fire on the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, killing a worshipper. In court, Earnest pleaded guilty to a total of 113 hate crimes, saying he wanted to kill Muslims and Jews.
The endurance of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiments – and their connection – will be explored at an event on September 22 organized by the National Conflict Resolution Center. I’ll be hosting a conversation with panelists Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke Divinity School and New York Times opinion writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens. For more information or to register, visit NCRConline.com. I hope you will join us.
Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group that works to find solutions to difficult issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn more about NCRC programming, visit ncrconline.com