Handout 3: Religious Prejudice Simmers
Originally published in USA Today. Used by permission.
"I hate pizza day at school," my nephew announced at my family's annual holiday dinner.
That sounded strange coming from a 14-year-old boy, so I asked for an explanation.
"Well, there's only two kinds—cheese and pepperoni. Once, when all the cheese pizza was gone, I ate only breadsticks for lunch and all the kids asked why I wasn't eating the pepperoni pizza. I told them it's because I'm Muslim and we don't eat pork. Big mistake."
On a typical day at his school in suburban Houston (ranked one of the top public schools in the country, academically), he's pushed around on the playground, called "terrorist" and "towel head" by bullies and fair-weather friends alike, and asked sneering questions such as "When are you coming to bomb my house?"
In fact, any time the word "bomb" comes up at all—in a lesson on a war in history, in a novel in literature class—kids start laughing and pointing at him.
It's a problem that's affecting his slang.
"Everybody's favorite phrase is 'That's the bomb.' You know, like 'That video game's the bomb.' But I can't say that because kids will make fun of me."
What's a parent to do?
"Do the teachers know this is going on?" I asked.
"Sure, they see it and they hear it. But they'd rather not get involved. Mostly, they just pretend that it's not there."
"I've told him I can come to his school and talk to the principal, the teachers, the kids, whoever," said his father, an immigrant from India who works as an engineer and moved to this particular suburb for the good schools and seeming openness to diversity.
My nephew reacted like I would have when I was 14—as if he'd rather be run over by a truck than have his father come to school to talk about what a great religion Islam is, suggest to the students that they stop teasing his son, and ask his teachers to pay a little more attention to the growing cancer of religious prejudice that's now infecting his son.
His dad sighed. "So we just accept that he's going to be a Muslim at home but not talk about it outside."
That's part of what the great African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois famously called double-consciousness. He was referring to blacks in America, but like much of the best of African American social thought and literature, the concept applies equally to others, and I think it is particularly relevant for young Muslims today. Double-consciousness is not just being one thing at home and another thing outside. It's the added confusion and frustration of knowing that the thing you are at home is reviled by the outside world.
Extremists are going to continue their terrorist attempts. Islamophobes will no doubt happily point to each one and say, "That's the real Islam." Cable news can be counted on to carry the message of this unholy alliance. And while we can argue whether Muslim leaders are doing enough to combat extremism in the name of Islam, surely we can agree that American Muslim teenagers should not experience discrimination as a result of all this, and that schools should not blithely permit such prejudice to roam their hallways and visit their classrooms.
Schools have already made that decision when it comes to racial prejudice. When I asked my nephew whether racial slurs such as the N-word were ever used in his school, he looked horrified and said that, outside of hip-hop talk, he had hardly heard it. "If a student at your school used that word in the hallway and a teacher heard it, what would that teacher do?" I asked.
"The teacher would take that kid straight to the principal's office, and he'd get like a thousand years of detention."
I'm glad that America has evolved to the point where racial prejudice is simply not tolerated, and I'm glad that schools have taken the lead. I'm wondering why religious prejudice isn't in that same category.
Earlier this year, a Gallup Center for Muslim Studies report found that more than 40 percent of Americans feel at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims. Compare this with the 14-18 percent of Americans who feel the same about Christians, Jews, or Buddhists, and you'll see why my nephew feels that his school can be a hostile environment for Muslims.
And though the prejudice is considerably lower for other religious communities, this isn't something that just Muslims face. The 2008 presidential election revealed embarrassing amounts of prejudice directed at Mormons (Mitt Romney) and Pentecostals (Sarah Palin).
All Americans, religious or not, have a stake in advancing our country to a stage where religious prejudice is deemed unacceptable. It's part of what it means to be a good society.
One step in the right direction would be for schools to declare themselves "No Prejudice Zones," and for teachers and administrators to patrol religious insults with the same vigor that they do other slurs.