Islamophobia: Suffer the Little Muslims - SF Weekly, USA
- Suffer the Little Muslims
A look at the appalling discrimination against Middle
Eastern students countenanced by Bay Area public
By Cristi Hegranes
Originally published by SF Weekly 2005-08-17
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
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
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
'"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
Sadaf never went back. She never filed a complaint
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
"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
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
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
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.
In all the cases, the abuse was anything but subtle.
It was open, raw, degrading -- and essentially ignored
by the school districts in which it had been
San Francisco school district spokesman Roqua Montez
says he could find no information about what happened
to Laila at Galileo Academy. But, Montez insists,
incidents of racial and religious discrimination are
rare on the "tolerant and inclusive" campuses of San
Many Arabs and Muslims have a less rosy view.
"It's hard to know what to do when you tell a teacher
something bad happened, and then she does the exact
same thing," Laila says. "I feel stupid having to tell
people that my father isn't bin Laden. But sometimes
it feels like I have to."
Inas Elmashni of the Arab Cultural Center in San
Francisco works with Arab students in four high
schools around the city. She was not surprised to hear
about what happened to Laila. "Most of the time, when
students come forward, nothing is ever done," she
says. "For every teacher who is really dedicated,
there are a lot who are ignorant. A lot of times our
students aren't treated fairly, and they aren't taken
Other cases of discrimination from the San Francisco
schools include that of a ninth-grade Muslim boy who
found 10 notes in his locker on the one-year
anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on
New York and Washington, D.C. The notes all said,
"Killer." The family says the boy brought the notes
home, but they never made an issue of it with the
A 10th-grade Muslim girl who wanted to try out for the
drill team at Washington High was told the day before
tryouts that she couldn't be on the team. "They told
me not to even try out because they couldn't trust me
because I was dangerous, and they said I was too ugly
with 'that rag on my head,'" the 16-year-old girl, who
asked not to be named because she still attends the
In other local school districts with similar policies
on discrimination complaints, the scenarios are
When the Elgharoui family decided that their daughter,
Shana, should leave the Fremont public school system
to attend a private Islamic school, they had a very
specific reason. In March 2004, a substitute teacher
told Shana that she would not teach someone who
outwardly supported terrorism. When Shana became upset
and insisted that neither she nor her family supported
any such thing, Shana's mother, Samina, alleges, the
substitute responded, "Well then what is that on your
Like hundreds of other Muslims in the Fremont Unified
School District, Shana wears a hijab to school.
Wearing a hijab in no way connotes support for
terrorism. "Not all Muslim women wear it, so a lot of
people think that when you do it's because you are a
radical or something," Samina says. But that isn't the
case. The teachings of the Quran ask that women wear
the hijab so they can be recognized as Muslim, and as
a sign of modesty, Samina says.
Samina says she reported the incident to Shana's
teacher. "But then we never heard anything else," she
says. An immigrant from Somalia, Samina admits that
she didn't know what her family's rights were, and,
besides, Shana's father wanted to keep the incident
quiet. "He said, 'The last thing we need is any
trouble and people looking at us,'" she recalls. But
in light of a 2004 case in Oklahoma, in which the U.S.
Department of Justice supported a student's right to
wear a hijab at school, Samina says she expected some
response from the school district.
Dr. John Rieckewald, the superintendent of the Fremont
school district, says he is unaware of the incident.
But, he says, complaints against substitute teachers
are handled in personnel, so he likely wouldn't have
heard about it.
Cheryl Bushmire, the director of personnel for the
Fremont district, isn't aware of Shana's case either.
"Sometimes things happen that are resolved at the
site," she says. Indeed, they are; Bushmire confirms
that the Fremont school district also has a policy
that aims to resolve complaints "at the lowest level,
"A lot of school administrators went to the school of
'let sleeping dogs lie,'" says Charles Haynes, a
senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, an
Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit educational
organization. "They just want to ignore it and hope it
goes away. But discrimination rises to a much more
important level when teachers or principals do it,
because they are supposed to be responsible. It
poisons the climate of the school."
To its credit, the Fremont district is one of the few
in the Bay Area that has disciplined a teacher for
discrimination against a Middle Eastern student. "We
have had a few situations that were well documented
and were dealt with right away," Superintendent
Rieckewald says. "We had one situation where a teacher
was transferred and another was suspended for several
days for making inappropriate comments." One case
involved an African-American student, the other a
Middle Eastern student.
Rieckewald says that he and the school board take the
issue of discrimination seriously and have been
proactive in attempting to increase education efforts
in regard to Islam, in part because Fremont has a
large Afghan and Muslim population.
But at lower levels, teachers and principals may not
be taking discrimination as seriously as the district
Among the other incidents in the Fremont school
district reported to SF Weekly was that of a
third-grade Muslim girl who received a card at a
classroom Valentine's Day party in 2002. The card
read, "Why does your family always blow themselves
up?" The card was given to the teacher by the girl's
mother, but, the mother says, the school took no
William, who graduated from Mission San Jose High
School in Fremont in 2004, describes his family as
Muslim "but practically secular." He says he was
called a "sand nigger and a camel jockey hundreds of
times over the last few years."
William says he wrote a letter to Mission San Jose
Principal Stuart Kew during the spring semester of his
senior year describing the extent of the problems he
had faced and offering some suggestions about how it
might be stopped in the future. He never received a
response. "I can't remember that letter," Kew says.
"But normally I do respond."
Kew says that he is aware that discrimination happens
in his school. "It happens everywhere," he says.
In several other Bay Area school systems,
discrimination against Arab and Muslim students also
seems to have been ignored, at least in some cases.
In Hercules, an Iranian-American sophomore, Hassan
Rahgozar, was beaten in a school bathroom in May.
Apparently at the request of the students who planned
the attack, the beating was videotaped and later
posted on the Internet. The family pressed charges
against the two attackers and is suing the West Contra
Costa Unified School District for failing to protect
Hassan. Bill Berg, the family's lawyer, says Hassan
was also attacked earlier, in April, and repeatedly
endured racial slurs. (The West Contra Costa school
district refused to comment on the pending lawsuit.)
And in Sacramento, a seventh-grade girl found a
written death threat in her locker after she tried to
start a Middle Eastern club in which Muslim students
could pray together on Friday afternoons.
Other states have policies that encourage informal
complaint resolution, and many districts nationwide
have also been hesitant to punish teachers who act
inappropriately toward Muslim and Arab students. In
some seemingly egregious cases, lawsuits have
In a suburb of New Orleans, a Muslim girl filed a
lawsuit in January, alleging that her teacher, Wes
Mix, used religious slurs against her and physically
yanked off her religiously mandated head scarf last
year. Jefferson Parish School District Superintendent
Diana Roussel recommended the teacher's termination
last July, but the school board overruled the decision
in a closed-door hearing, suspending Mix for several
weeks and requiring him to complete sensitivity
training before returning to school in the fall
instead. He was also required to apologize to the
student. The lawsuit is pending.
Similarly, in Nevada, 17-year-old Jana Elhifny and the
American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against
the Washoe County School District last October. The
suit alleges that nothing was done after Jana received
a death threat and was routinely verbally assaulted by
classmates based on her religion.
Without reliable statistics, it is impossible to gauge
the full extent of the problem of discrimination
against Arab and Muslim students in the Bay Area. But
it is clear that the policy of handling school
discrimination "at the lowest possible level" could
have serious legal consequences. In 1998, the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that a
school district could be held liable for a "hostile
racial educational environment" under Title VI of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits
discrimination of any kind in programs that receive
"Under the current law, if there is harassment and
school officials know about it, they could be held
liable," says Haynes of the First Amendment Center.
"They are setting themselves up for a lawsuit. What's
worse, it can't be left to the people creating the
problem to take it up the line. They aren't going to."
Many of the families interviewed for this article
claimed that the discrimination they complained of
would have been handled differently by the schools "if
it had happened to a black child or a Jewish child."
While in theory complaints about school racism are
handled without regard to the ethnicity of the victim,
in practice there seems to be a difference.
Anti-discrimination advocates and cultural experts
agree: Black, Jewish, and other minority communities
respond differently to discrimination than Arab and
Muslim families do, and so get a different and more
positive response from the authorities.
"Over the long years, we have learned to give
ourselves an unquietable voice," says Mimi White, the
mother of three African-American children, now adults,
who faced discrimination in the San Francisco school
district in the 1970s. White says that
African-Americans have learned to join forces and
loudly decry individual instances of discrimination.
But war abroad and the continued emphasis on terrorism
at home have caused Middle Eastern communities to be
fearful of coming forward. Many Muslim-American and
immigrant families who spoke with SF Weekly say they
were unwilling to come forward to address incidents of
racism with school officials for fear of backlash
against their children. Because of these fears, many
Arab and immigrant families never pursue punitive or
legal action against teachers or students who actively
and openly discriminate.
"A lot of these families just go along because they
don't want to draw attention to themselves and so they
just turn the other cheek," says Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a
lawyer and founder of the National Legal Sanctuary for
Community Advancement, an organization that
specializes in civil rights and discrimination cases
affecting Middle Easterners. "They don't know what
their rights are, and they don't really talk about
things like this among themselves. There is a lot of
shame around it."
And sometimes, coming forward doesn't seem to help.
Elmira Dianati is an Iranian mother who says her son
endured intense discrimination at La Entrada middle
school in Menlo Park during the 2001-2002 school year.
Dianati's son, who asked that his name not be used,
says he became a target for his eighth-grade English
teacher, Brian Kelly, just after Sept. 11, 2001.
Throughout the year, Kelly made fun of the student's
ethnic name, calling him "Trash Can," which rhymes
with his Persian name. Dianati and several of her
son's classmates say the name-calling went on all
year. The discrimination culminated, they say, in an
event near the end of the school year when, Dianati
alleges, Kelly told his class that he was having a
special breakfast party before the students took their
exams. And then, while Dianati's son was in the
library, some classmates say that Kelly told them "no
Persians" were allowed at the breakfast.
Dianati's yearlong, well-documented struggle with the
school, the school district, the county, and the state
to bring her son's situation to the attention of
administrators serves as a primary example of why more
Middle Eastern parents don't pursue complaints
When she first found out about the name-calling,
Dianati says, she went to see her son's teacher. She
says he was very friendly and told her that her son
was a delight to have in class. When her son became
increasingly withdrawn and depressed, she pursued the
matter with La Entrada Principal Dee Brummet. "All I
wanted was for Mr. Kelly to apologize to my son in
front of the class," Dianati says. "That is all we
asked for, but it never happened."
In a meeting with Brummet, another school
administrator, Dianati, and Dianati's husband, Kelly
admitted that he had used the names "Trash Can" and
"Ashtray," but he claimed he had the boy's permission
to do so. Kelly denied having said Persians were not
welcome at the class breakfast.
Brummet agreed to investigate Dianati's claim further
and interviewed 17 students. All of the students were
interviewed with Kelly present; some hadn't even been
in class during the incident. Even so, three students
did say that Kelly had made the statement that no
Persians were going to be allowed at the event.
Perhaps what is strangest about Kelly's alleged
comment is how Dianati's son and other classmates say
it came up in class. A letter from the federal Office
of Civil Rights says that when Kelly announced the
breakfast party, he "participated in a conversation in
which students were joking about whether students of
different racial and ethnic backgrounds could attend."
Several of the students in Kelly's class confirmed
that some students raised their hands to ask if Asian
and African-American kids could come to the breakfast
party. Out of this conversation, Dianati and three of
her son's classmates allege, Kelly made the "no
"The fact that this teacher created an environment
where the kids had to think about what category they
belonged to says a lot about the teacher," Dianati
After the interviews, the principal told Dianati there
was not enough evidence to determine that Kelly had
ever said Persians were not welcome at the breakfast.
Dianati continued to ask for a public apology.
In letters made available to SF Weekly, Brummet
promised Dianati an apology on May 29. When that
didn't happen, Dianati was assured the apology would
take place on June 3.
"The day before graduation I met with the principal
again, and she assured me that the apology in front of
the class was planned for that day," Dianati says. But
Kelly never apologized to her son.
"This is a school. This is where kids are supposed to
learn how to deal in a society. Teachers are not just
responsible for math and science," Dianati says. "We
are supposed to teach kids that when you make a
mistake, you apologize."
Dianati says that when she brought her concerns to the
superintendent, MaryAnn Somerville, she received a
fast response that included a request that Dianati not
contact any local media about the issue. "I told them
I didn't want to do that or to sue. I was not after
money. All I wanted was for my son's request to be
filled -- he wanted an apology."
When the superintendent's office told Dianati that
based on the principal's investigation there was no
evidence to proceed, she took her complaint to the
The board told her that it would not investigate
further or punish Kelly because witnesses had heard
Dianati's son call Kelly names first.
"'You've got to be kidding me,'" Dianati says she told
them. "They said that my son had called Mr. Kelly
'Mrs. Kelly.' To me, that just showed their mentality.
They didn't care that anything had happened, and they
weren't interested to do the right thing."
So she went to the next level, the San Mateo County
Board of Supervisors, which ruled against her,
contending she did not file a complaint within six
months, as required by law.
Then Dianati went to the state Department of
Education, where, in addition to the "no Persians"
comment, she complained about the teacher's
name-calling and the school's refusal to apologize.
The state asked Brummet for the list of the 17
students she had interviewed. When the principal said
she had destroyed the list, the state dropped the
So Dianati took her complaint to the national level
and the Office of Civil Rights. On April 11, 2003,
Dianati and her son received the response: There was
insufficient evidence to prove that Kelly or the
school district had violated federal discrimination
But, Dianati says, she never wanted to make a federal
case out of her son's problems. She just wanted him to
receive an apology for the year of abuse he'd
Now, four years later, Superintendent Somerville says
she hardly remembers the incident. "As I recall, it
was about a remark made about an ethnic group,"
Somerville says. She says she does remember that
Dianati's son did not appear to harbor any bad
feelings for the teacher, and that she feels the case
was resolved properly. Kelly left the school in 2004
to teach in South America; attempts to reach him for
comment were unsuccessful.
It's unclear what set of policy steps would
significantly reduce mistreatment of Arab and Muslim
schoolchildren in America. At the least, a change in
the method of handling discrimination complaints seems
in order. As it now stands, because almost none of
these complaints makes it into official statistics,
there is little way of determining the overall scope
of the problem.
Some experts say that education and training are the
answer. Specifically, they say, there should be
increased focus on Islam and the Middle East in social
studies and history courses in middle and high
schools. They also advocate diversity training on Arab
and Muslim culture for teachers and administrators.
But does it really take diversity training for
teachers to know that Arab and Muslim schoolchildren
should be treated as students, rather than suspects?
It does in Daly City.
In 2003, Amir, a fifth-grader at Daly City's Skyline
Elementary School, says he was nervous about
presenting a family history report in class. He hates
public speaking; he is small for his age and thinks
his voice is squeaky. But there was another reason for
his apprehension. Amir's family is from Iraq, and some
of his family members have the last name Hussein. "He
told me while we were pasting up some photographs [for
the report] he was worried about what his classmates
would say because of the war," his mother, Ariana,
says. "I told him not to be silly."
When it was Amir's turn to present his report, he got
up before the class, leaned his poster board of
photographs on the rim of the chalkboard, and gave his
five-minute report. As he finished, he asked if there
were any questions. After their reports, other
students had been asked about family resemblances and
"His teacher asked him when his family came to
America. Then she asked him if his family in Iraq
supported America in the war," Ariana says. Amir
answered that his family had been in America for about
15 years, and he didn't know all of his family members
in Iraq, so he didn't know how they felt about the
war. "Then she said, 'So you don't know if they are
terrorists?'" Ariana says. Amir just shook his head.
Amir received a 75 on his report. On the scoring sheet
used to tally points, he received zero out of 10
points for "ability to answer questions about family
"When he told me what happened, I was furious. And he
was so upset," Ariana says. She wrote a letter to
Amir's teacher, but never spoke to her or the
principal about it. "Now I wish I would have," she
Tim Sullivan, the principal of Skyline Elementary
School, says that had the problem come to his
attention he would have investigated it "and made sure
it didn't happen again."
"It's not that I doubt what this family is saying," he
says. "It's just that the problem never came to me."
Amir is now in middle school in Daly City. Ariana says
he has become more comfortable with both himself and
his culture, especially after a family reunion in
Detroit last year. But Ariana is still angry about her
son's fifth-grade teacher. "I understand if you have
your own opinions and your own politics," she says.
"But I don't understand how you can be a teacher and
take your stuff out on little children."
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