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Suffer the Little Muslims 

A look at the appalling discrimination against Middle Eastern students countenanced by Bay Area public schools

Wednesday, Aug 17 2005
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Laila and her friend Cathleen were hanging out in the courtyard at Galileo Academy of Science & Technology, talking about shopping to blow off steam after their sixth-period math test. It was a cool December day in San Francisco, and Laila remembers wanting to go inside early.

A few minutes before the bell rang to end the lunch period, Laila, a Muslim student who wears a hijab, the head scarf worn by many Muslim women, says she noticed a boy, whom she recognized but did not know, approaching them. "He walked right over to us," Laila says. "There were a lot of people standing around. He got real close, and then he just started screaming at me:

'"Her father is bin Laden! She's going to blow up the school, she's going to blow it up! She has a bomb under her sweater! Everybody run, this jihad girl is going to kill us!'"

Laila says the boy and his two friends doubled over, laughing. Other students walked quickly as they passed. "I was so mad, just so embarrassed. I wanted to spit in his face," Laila says.

Laila, who is 17 and recently graduated, says she faced this kind of harassment and discrimination at school many times over the last four years. But the bin Laden incident stuck with her because so many people witnessed it, both students and teachers, and no one did or said anything about it.

"I had math after lunch, and I told my teacher what happened," Laila says. "My teacher said she had heard the whole thing. And then she said I shouldn't make a big deal out of it. 'He has the right to express his opinions,'" Laila remembers her saying.

Laila told her teacher that she didn't think that was fair. "She told me that my people had caused a lot of problems in the world, and that I should understand if people were frustrated with me," Laila says.

Laila went home and told her mother and father what had happened. When her mother, Sadaf, went to see the teacher, Sadaf says, she was sent away. "She asked me to come back after the Christmas break," Sadaf says. "And then she said, 'Or whatever you people celebrate.'"

Sadaf never went back. She never filed a complaint either.


Racism has long been a consequence of war. As governments seek to mobilize their citizens, the "enemy" is dehumanized into Huns or Japs or Charlie. In today's War on Terror, however, more than a third of the world fits into the United States government's profile of a potential terrorist. People from North Africa, India, the Middle East, and South Asia have become suspects.

"When you fight a war with a country, you know who your enemies are. This is a war about an idea, an idea that people here have no idea about," says Ali Hasani, an Iraqi immigrant who lives in Oakland. "We are assumed guilty because we look like what people are afraid of."

There is room for legitimate debate about the proper responses to the potential for domestic terrorism, but one clearly indefensible reaction has been widely seen and little discussed. In the midst of the so-called War on Terror, U.S. schoolchildren of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim faith have suffered discrimination of a type and ferocity that would not be tolerated if it were aimed at other minority groups.

Some overtly racist behavior has become almost common in Bay Area schools; it is student-on-student and often involves racial slurs. But there have also been death threats. And in a surprising number of incidents, teachers have joined in, calling Middle Eastern students derogatory names, promoting stereotypes about their cultures, and ignoring violence against them. Although the Bay Area is generally considered hypersensitive to even small racial slights, school districts in the region appear to have done little about anti-Arab and anti-Muslim behavior, seldom punishing students or teachers even for grotesquely racist behavior aimed at children whose sole offense is to have Middle Eastern ancestry or Islamic beliefs.

In general, school districts here, across California, and throughout much of the country follow policies of resolving discrimination complaints "at the lowest possible level." This policy calls for bias complaints to be handled first by teachers and then by principals. Often, policy-makers -- superintendents and school board members -- hear of discrimination only when complaints are made in writing and addressed specifically to the central administration.

Because of cultural factors and fear of retaliation, many Middle Easterners are uncomfortable pressing such complaints, so official government statistics seldom reflect the students' experiences. It is, therefore, all but impossible to quantify the extent of recent discrimination against schoolchildren of Middle Eastern origin.

A study released in April by the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows that discrimination and hate crimes aimed at Arabs and Muslims in America increased by 49 percent last year over the previous year. CAIR began compiling statistics on discrimination against Muslims in America -- as reported to the group's local and regional offices -- in 1996. In 1998, 284 cases of discrimination were reported in CAIR's annual survey. In 2004, 1,522 cases were reported, with 20 percent of that total occurring in California.

The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education does keep statistics about complaints of racial or religious discrimination, but for a complaint to reach that level, a family has to pursue it through as many as six local and state channels first. The process can take years.

In the last four years there have been approximately 400 cases of racial or religious discrimination in schools reported to the Office of Civil Rights; 50 of them originated in California. Just one of those cases came from the Bay Area.

Clearly, however, such mistreatment is far more widespread in the Bay Area. During a month of research for this story, 27 Middle Eastern and/or Muslim families shared stories of discrimination at school with SF Weekly. Some spoke only with a promise of anonymity. Some enthusiastically came forward, but then retreated under pressure from family or community members. ("His father is too ashamed that this happened to him," says Arna, the mother of a 14-year-old Iranian boy in the San Francisco Unified School District.) A few spoke plainly about the discrimination they had faced.

About The Author

Cristi Hegranes

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