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Jehron Muhammad: Students on being Muslim

Did you know that 64% of the Muslim American students surveyed experienced bullying, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)? This is twice as high as the percentage of all students being bullied at school, according to the advocacy group that strives for "compassion, tolerance and moderation."

In addition, CAIR says 28% of Muslim students say they experienced discrimination by a teacher or an administrator.  Among female students, who wear the hijab, or headscarf, 29 percent reported that they experienced "offensive touching or pulling" of the hijab.

Recently, Muslim students took part in a roundtable discussion about such issues at Philadelphia's Academy at Palumbo. A similar discussion took place with students at Shoemaker High School.  The discussions were put together by teacher Kate Sundeen and principal Sharif El Mekki, respectively.

This author discovered that not only did students report that bullying of Muslim students on the increase, but ignorance about Islam and its significant contributions played a major factor.

Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, believes it would help if public schools taught about the contributions of Islam.  As an example, Lockman said that knowing that "translated Arabic writings on medicine, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences were for centuries used as textbooks in medieval Europe …" could help counteract Islamaphobia.

The importance of a united umma (Muslim community) was a constant theme of the student discussions. As the future professor, art curator and business owner, and 10th grader at Palumbo, Laila Islam said: "There are so many Muslims (Philly has over 200,000), but we like to separate ourselves with all the different Masjids and different social organizations. I feel like we're not connecting like we're supposed to (because) our voices aren't being heard because we don't speak as one."

Ninth grader and future pediatrician Mariama Gackou, echoed Islam's comment. She said she remembers when the local Muslim community was more unified. Because of "people coming at us…(via) social media…our connections with each other has become distracted," she said. "Now we're like segregating ourselves within our (own) communities and it feels like we've become less integrated with each other. And that's not how the umma (is) supposed to be."

This writer listened as Palumbo and Shoemaker students discussed everything from being bullied because they are Muslim to new converts being ostracized by family and friends.  They talked about Donald Trump and his "bigoted" anti-Muslim comments, the demonizing of Islam in the media, the need of a room on school grounds for prayer, to a need for a comprehensive history course on Islam. They believed there was a need for a city-wide forum, geared to college and high school students, to discuss all of the above.

Adam Albarkawi, a 15-year-old 10th grader whose family is from Palestine, believes that ignorance and people needing "structure in their lives" is a principle reason that support for groups like ISIS exists. He said support for ISIS comes because they are offering "protection, food and security," not because they are offering the correct interpretation of Islam.

The Palumbo student emphasized that "Islam is a unifying force." He suggested that teaching Islamic history in schools would go a long way toward nullifying the misconceptions about the religion reported in the media.

Shoemaker 12th grader Zahira Weaver expressed special concern about the "stereotyping" of all Muslims. She mentioned Ahmed Mohamed, the North Texas high school freshman who was arrested and suspended from school because of a "suspicious" clock he made and brought to school as a part of a science project. His teachers said his project resembled a bomb.

"He couldn't create an invention without being judged based on what he believed in," Weaver said. "He couldn't just be smart. He had to be a terrorist because of something he wore, or because he was of a certain ethnicity or race."

Tenth grader Ridwan Hagos, whose family is from Ethiopia said that Muslims students have great "potential." The future software programmer said, 'We have the potential to make a difference if we come together and work as one force."

Ridwan's sister, future accountant Firdaws Hagos, paid special attention to the divide within the Muslim community. She said many times she greets Muslims that live in her Wynnefield section of Philadelphia that are from a different ethnic background or race "and they won't say anything." In fact, she said, "They won't (even) look at you or anything."

During both roundtable discussions many of the muslimah's (Muslim females) spoke about the many questions they receive concerning the wearing of hijab. Those questions include: "Do you take a shower in your hijab?"; or "What's under the hijab?" Some African American muslimahs that took shahada (converted to Islam) said they lost friends, the result of wearing hijab.

They all wondered: why does bettering one's self spiritually and intellectually, and becoming more responsible alienate you from your friends?

Read more Jehron Muhammad here.