Most young Muslim students feel accepted on California junior high and high school campuses, although a significant number say they face bias from teachers and bullying from fellow students, according to a new report by a leading Islamic advocacy group.
The report, issued Thursday and based on an extensive survey by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, offers a nuanced portrayal of the climate young Muslims face in California schools.
Of the nearly 500 Muslim youth surveyed across the state, about 80% gave a positive rating to their overall educational experience — noting that they were comfortable speaking about their religion in the classroom and felt safe in school and respected by teachers.
The Growing in Faith survey found, however, that significant problems remain for young Muslims.
Five percent of those surveyed said their teachers did not respect their religion; 10% reported being physically bullied, including being slapped, kicked or punched. And 17% of girls who wore the hijab, an Islamic head scarf, reported being mistreated because of their choice in clothing. Half of the survey respondents said they'd been subject to mean comments or rumors as a result of their faith.
"I believe there's more to the finding that so many people feel comfortable than meets the eye," said Ahmed Abdelgany, a 19-year-old student at UC Riverside who attended Northwood High School in Irvine. "People don't want to admit when something is wrong. I always hear stories from students about things they had to endure. I had to endure them too, mostly being called names and having to hear jokes about terrorism."
The large positive response came "as quite a surprise," said CAIR attorney Fatima Dadabhoy, who helped author the study. "When we started, the anecdotal evidence we'd been gathering suggested a different kind of picture."
Dadabhoy lamented the disconnect between students who said they'd been bullied but still reported feeling accepted at school. "A lot of students are internalizing mistreatment," she said. "More needs to be done to show our students what bullying really is."
The CAIR lawyer said a significant number of students worry that their complaints about discrimination won't be taken seriously by teachers.
"They are also often afraid to tell their parents," added Hussam Ayloush, CAIR's executive director, noting some students were frustrated because they felt complaints about treatment at school would be met by parental instruction to "toughen up and have a thick skin." Others, he said, kept quiet because they did not want their parents to worry.
The report, which in 2012 began polling students between ages 11 and 18, showed young Muslims who lived in places like Orange and Santa Clara counties — where their faith is well-established — felt the most secure about their school experience.
CAIR said the report's aim was to raise awareness of bullying and the complex issues young Muslims face daily, and to highlight the legal protections available for students who are harassed because of their religion.