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Education, Faith

Here’s what American public schools need to understand about Muslim children

ESL Immigrant Learners

During my experience as a teacher, I have found that when working with English Second Language (ESL) learners,  it is important to understand the diversity of native languages spoken at home and the cultural background of each student. This background is an important part of the student’s work ethic and shapes the challenges he or she may face in school. Immigrant Muslims speak a variety of languages at home such as Urdu, Arabic, and Bengali, and many strategies are needed to make the process of absorbing the English language easier for the student. Schools can provide translators who speak the students’ native language or facilitate that relationship between the parents and the school staff. This will remove the fear of the parents getting involved and the students expressing themselves. Resources exist, but the strategies that need to be used to invest those resources needs planning and organization.

The Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2015. According to the Center for Immigration Studies in 2012, Muslim children living in the US have origins from 57 nations and speak 60 different languages, and many Muslims settle in large cities such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Although Muslim communities are generally seen as a vital organ within the society here, are well educated, civically engaged, and are well established, Muslim students tend to feel marginalized and disregarded in schools. Despite the efforts of Muslim communities to integrate and lobby for their rights, students continue to be misunderstood, which leads to negative outcomes academically and psychologically on their achievements.

Hijab and the media

Since September 11, 2001, Muslims in the U.S. have been portrayed negatively in the media. They have faced many challenges and discrimination, including but not limited to Muslim women who wear the hijab. As a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, it empowers me by strengthening my relationship with God. The media has portrayed this religious symbol as an oppressive practice against women, which is a complete misunderstanding of my religion. Contrary to what the media presents, Islam gives women the right to pursue education, work, have a choice in marriage, express their opinion, and participate in civic life. Although these might seem like social norms nowadays in the West, these rights are enshrined in our religion. As an adult I can face these realities in my social surroundings, however, children are more susceptible to pressure from friends and classmates, therefore I must be a strong example for my daughters so that they learn about their rights and value in our society as Muslim women.

To improve hopes for the young generation of Muslims in the US, we must raise awareness and educate our fellow Americans through dialogues and community action about our reality as Muslims in this country. To practice Islam, there are rules that Muslims must follow and accommodations that need to be made for children in public schools to lower stress and help in the process of integration. For example, it is forbidden for Muslims to eat pork products such as sausage or pepperoni; teachers must understand that simply removing pepperoni from a pizza in a class party is not enough to accommodate a Muslim student because clearly grease from sausage or pepperoni remains on the pizza. Likewise, it is important to have vegetarian or fish options for lunch so that Muslim children can avoid eating non-zabiha meat (meat that comes from animals slaughtered according to Islamic tradition, like the Kosher tradition in Judaism). Although these things might seem trivial to some, stressing these issues will help students preserve their faith and will lower the stress level on the child.



Modesty is very important in Islam and it is important for a Muslim girl to dress modestly. During physical education, girls should be given an option to wear pants or long skirts instead of shorts and their hijab, which is obligatory after a girl reaches puberty. Girls naturally are very conscious of self-image and when they are made to feel that the way they choose to dress as part of their faith is strange or unacceptable they will suffer from a lot of stress. This also impacts older girls and women in college and at work. Young girls need the support of their family and community, including their school and teachers, to grow up being confident members of society who can contribute to the greater good of the community.

Islamic holidays

There are two main Holidays in Islam; Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan and Eid Al-Adha at the end of Hajj. Some Muslim families do not celebrate any holidays other than these traditional two, therefore, they do not participate in American Holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. In addition to this, some Muslim families consider music with dancing rhythms and lyrics of songs that encourage forbidden behavior to be unacceptable. It is important for a school teacher and officials to recognize this and offer the children alternatives to holidays concerts and other events.

It is also stressful for some parents to speak with school officials about these issues, because they may be ostracized based on their religious beliefs. Fasting during the month of Ramadan for example, where Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, may leave some school children who desire to fast finding it difficult to participate in physical education. Accommodations to help those students avoid dehydration and exhaustion is important, which could be as simple as reducing their exercise requirement or letting them stay indoors during physical education.

We need to encourage a strong relationship between the school, students, and parents. When there is dialogue, modifications can be made to help students get engaged in school. This will make the students less stressed and the environment more accepting of Muslims in public schools.

Wasan Abu-Baker is an American Activist with a Palestinian Origin. She is the Vice Chair of Corpus Christi National Justice for our Neighbors and a staff writer for Kings River Life Magazine in the US. She writes about Palestine, Islamophobia, and Education. She is an educator and earned her MA from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.

3 Comments

  1. A primary school teacher asking her pupils in the classroom: What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual! what do you call the person who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. And what do you call a person who speaks only one language? British!

    English is not a peace building language for the Muslim children in British schooling. Majority of English speaking Muslim youths are extremists, find themselves cut off from their cultural heritage and are unable to enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. One can find English speaking Muslim youths in Syria and Iraq, in prison and in the mental hospital. Thanks to English language. English is the economic language of the Muslims while Arabic , Urdu and other community languages are the social and emotional languages of the Muslim community.

    Speaking English does not promote integration into British, American and Australian societies, and broaden opportunities. English speaking Muslim youths are angry, frustrated and extremist, thanks to state schools with monolingual non-Muslim teachers and English language. English language is not only a lingua franca but also lingua frankensteinia. Human right are also covers linguistic right. Cultural and linguistic genocide are very common. British schooling is murdering community languages like Arabic, Urdu and others. English is today the world killer language. Linguistic genocide is a crime against humanity and British schooling is guilty of committing this crime. Language is not just a language. It defines one’s culture, identity and consciousness. It defines how we think, communicate and express ourselves. The fact is the most South Asian Muslims have come to know Islam by way of Urdu, the children’s alienation from the language that connects them the heritage of their parents and grand parents is disturbing. As a matter of fact, one has to get to know his mother tongue well if one is to master any other language.

    Tri-lingual 11 year olds in Hackney outperform monolinguals in reading tests and tell more elaborate stories University of East London A study of language and literacy use in the Guajarati Muslim community shows that children in multilingual families have complex patterns of language use and literacy development. They speak a dialect of Guajarati in the home and the community but have very little access to literacy in that language. They become literate in Urdu to interpret religious texts, but use the language little outside religious contexts. They study the Qur’an in Arabic. Far from being confused by these experiences, by age 11 the children perform above age norms for children of a similar social background in the borough. Unusually, boys are ahead of girls in their reading performance. The children who have encountered traditional stories through two languages rather than one tell more elaborate stories. The children who tell good stories in the community’s dialect of Gujerati also tell good stories in English. However due to the lack of access to literacy in Gujerati, the children find access to literary Gujerati difficult. The study was carried out in Hackney between 1996 and 2000. It investigated the language use and literacy practices of 36 children (aged three and a half, seven and eleven) from a Gujerati and Urdu speaking community. The study also found that cultural community centres play a crucial role in slowing down inter-generational language shift Families who use a community centre have more literacy materials in Gujerati and tell more stories to their children. Access to leisure activities with children who share their first language helps children maintain the use of the family language with siblings and friends. Dr Raymonde Sneddon, who carried out the study, notes that contrary to the expectation of many English teachers, children can thrive on a complex diet of language and literacy. The children in the study demonstrated a strong awareness of their different languages and considerable insight into their different uses in their every day life. Children would benefit from having their language awareness skills more readily recognised and developed in school. The study was carried out with 36 children and their families through: Questionnaires and extended interviews of children and their families / observations in school, home and community settings / tape recordings in the home and in school /analyses of children’s drawings, writing and story telling in Gujerati and English / interviews with elders of the community.

    Research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development and their future. Children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view. But they also tend to be better than monolinguals at ‘multitasking’ and focusing attention. They are often more precocious readers, and generally find it easier to learn other languages. Bilingualism gives children much more than two languages!

    More recent research also suggests that learning another language may have benefits in later life, delaying the onset of dementia symptoms, and slowing cognitive aging. The good news is that these benefits seem to exist even when people learn a second language later in life. So it is never too late – see our resources page for classes and meet up groups around Edinburgh.

    As a British Pakistani myself, and a Muslim, I am deeply proud of my heritage and language. At home I speak my own languages, Punjabi and Urdu. I have always said, the more languages you know, the broader your cultural knowledge. Those who say you must only use one language narrow their perception of the world. Also, people who can learn languages are good at playing musical instruments. Languages should be taught more in school. When I speak in Arabic I feel like a poet and when in English, I feel like a philosopher. “This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.” We are amazed by being able to speak multilingual which is great Ever thought of the One God Creator Who made these languages.

    Multi-Culturalism is even more important and crucial after 9/11, 7/7 and terrorist attacks in various European countries. Muslim youths are also likely to feel alienated by a focus on shared Britishness, rather than multicultural diversity. Rather than promoting a single British “us” teaching should acknowledge that “us” can be diverse and plural. Children should be encouraged to explore differences in appearance, history and religion to reduce social and educational fears. The pressures of multi-Culturalism, racism, bullying and Islamophobia have forced the Muslim community to set up their own schools. Does the media label the troubles in Northern Ireland as Catholic terrorism, or Protestant terrorist, or Christian terrorism? No. There is bias and hate pointed right at Islam. As for race, why did white youths attack a Sikh thinking he was a Muslim? Answer skin colour. People see someone with brown skin and a scarf or foreign clothing and automatically assume they are Muslims.

    I think the problem is that, as the UK has become more and more diverse, the curriculum has become more and more restricted. Young teachers (and that’s most of them) don’t often have the opportunity or the courage to step away from the set learning and try something different. No fault of theirs – the fault lies in our deeply flawed system. Try learning a new language. It will open up a different culture and new ways of seeing the world to you, more fun, and more friends. I recently went to a meeting were four languages were spoken, and none of us spoke them all. But we managed, and we achieved results that could not have been achieved had we each spoken only our native language. Many workplaces function very well on more than one language. :) Don’t succumb to nativist fear!

    In Finland, every child who has a mother tongue which is not Finnish or Swedish (the official languages) is entitled to two lessons per week in their native language. In my city, dozens of different languages are taught in schools under this scheme. It enables the children to maintain/improve their mother tongue language skills in an academic environment, outside the home. This can have huge benefits for the country (eg economic) as well as for the children (language learning supports overall literacy). “Bilingualism is something we usually celebrate in adults yet not always in the classroom, where English is usually prioritised.” – curious to see how the word “prioritise” has acquired a bad connotation. Surely schools should be to prepare children for life not just the workplace. But in both situations knowledge of more than one language is a bonus. Recognising respecting and encouraging our community languages rather than undermining and even mocking them might be the best place to start.

    Muslim children must learn and be well versed in English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time they must learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry, otherwise, they would be lost in western jungle.

    A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. he/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brits. British schooling has been forcing them to become notoriously monolingual Brits. It is a fact that British schooling is the home of institutional racism and British teachers are chicken racist. It is a crime against humanity to deprive a child form his/her mother tongue. Arabic is a religious language and all Muslims must learn and be well versed in Arabic to recite and understand the Holy Quran.Ed is very proud of his comprehensive school because students were speaking 60 languages. After leaving school, all those who spoke different languages, could only speak English because there is no arrangement for them to learn their own languages at school. Even teachers discouraged them to speak their language in school. British schooling regards bilingualism as a problem and not an asset. The Mayor of London is the product of British schooling. He is very proud that he is unable to speak, read and write Urdu language. I do not blame him. It is the fault of the school.

    Legally, the state has an obligation to respect the rights of parents to ensure that ‘education and teaching(of their children) is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’

    The schools must satisfy the spiritual, moral, social and cultural needs of Muslim pupils. State schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers are not in a position to satisfy their needs and demands. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental period’ otherwise, they would be lost in the Western JUNGLE. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. At higher level of education, a Muslim teacher is not a priority.

    There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be opted out as Muslim Academies.
    IA
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  2. My comments is for Mr. Waddy. Even with maturity, only the most arrogant of people are not affected by the way people around them view any differences, and children find it even more difficult to ignore the opinions of others than adults. Anyone who works around children knows that their feelings do respond to the attitudes around them and those feelings can have a positive or negative impact on their ability to learn at their highest level. That is not a cultural question, it is a life statement. Having worked with children of a variety of religious and national background, I have found no difficulty in recognizing the needs of students and have found working with Islamic children an amazingly positive experience. We have to make accommodations for students for any reason that will enhance or be a detriment to their learning environment, as well as their academic time, to provide the best opportunity for them to learn and develop. Minor allowances for religion are the smallest adjustments that we can make.

  3. Fascinating and sad to see how Western Hedonism creeps in to people’s thinking. Epitomised in the sentence, “…when they are made to feel that the way they choose to dress as part of their faith is strange or unacceptable they will suffer from a lot of stress. ” Nobody actually “makes us feel” our feelings are our responsibility. Even more so if you are asserting that your lifestyle is a product of faith in a God. There is little point in praying “God is Great” if he is not great enough to nursemaid my feelings.

    All of the assertions that “the school should …’ “the rest of society should…” fall into the trap of accepting the support system game where you are pathologised as a needy person and require the umbrella shelter of the secular establishment to survive. Sad if you are also asserting some sort of faith in an almighty being.

    Pathologising needy people is not helping western society either as we see depression reaching epidemic proportions, along with suicide, violence etc.

    Initially when Islam spread through the world did it need the support and special consideration of local rulers in the countries it went to? It is so much easier to image that opposition comes from christian based thinking. It is far more difficult to search thro all the implications of hedonistic secularism and see how it is undermining Islam and being welcomed to do so.

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