Understanding Islamophobia and Religious-Based Bullying in the Classroom

The following is drawn from research conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) as well as a report on the 2017 National Interfaith Anti-Bullying Summit, in which ISPU played a significant role on the topic. You can access the complete report at the link for insightful evidence-based best practices.

Report Highlights

In a 2017 study conducted by ISPU on a nationally representative sample of American families, 42% of Muslims, 23% of Jews, and 6% of Catholics reported that at least one of their children had been bullied in the past year because of their religion.[i] Importantly, in 25% of the cases involving Muslim students, a teacher or administrator at school perpetrated the bullying.[ii]

Like other social institutions, schools “mirror larger forces of exclusion and inequality in society, often reflecting dominant notions of who does and does not belong.”[iii] Since harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) in schools is a reflection of the larger sociopolitical climate,[iv] and because the U.S. Department of Education statistics do not breakdown bullying based on religious affiliation, it is important to examine other sources of data.

According to the 2018 ISPU poll, 61% of Muslim participants reported experiencing religious-based discrimination. This number is in stark comparison to other religious groups, with 48% of Jews, 21% of Protestants, and 19% of Catholics reporting discrimination based on faith affiliation.[v] In a similar vein, it is helpful to examine the most recently available FBI hate crimes statistics from 2016:[vi]

  • 2% were anti-Jewish.
  • 8% were anti-Islamic (Muslim).
  • 1% were anti-Catholic.
  • 8% (12 offenses) were anti-Hindu.
  • 5% (7 offenses) were anti-Sikh.

In terms of hate crimes based on race/ethnicity/ancestry:

  • 2% were a result of bias against groups of individuals consisting of more than one race.
  • 1% resulted from anti-Asian bias.
  • 3% were classified as anti-Arab bias.

Other research also supports the high prevalence rate of peer victimization among Muslim youth. A report by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 50% of their sample of California Muslims aged 11-18 reported being called mean names about their religion.[vii]

Credit: The Family & Youth Institute

Public Health Issue

Given the prevalence rates and negative mental health outcomes associated with religious-based bullying, it must be considered a public health issue in need of prevention and intervention attention. Schools should represent safe environments where children grow and learn free of abuse.[viii] Although every child deserves this, many schools have failed to protect children from the abuse perpetrated by peers or worse — and on rare occasion — at the hands of their teachers or administrators. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2015, 1% of 12-18 year olds reported being the target of religious-based hateful speech while on school grounds.[ix] While such a low percentage may not mobilize communities into action, this number vastly underestimates the prevalence rates of HIB. This underestimation is due to inadequate reporting mechanisms, lack of training in schools on what constitutes bullying, and failure to report due to fear of retaliation or the belief that adults in school will do nothing to address the incident. As such, bias and bullying incidents involving religious-minority students is a subject that has received little attention from researchers and even less in terms of prevention and intervention programming.

Why Religious-Based Bullying?

Bullying inherently involves an imbalance of power. Kids who bully use their power — such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity — to control, alienate or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people. Forms of bullying —  teasing, name-calling, taunting, threatening, leaving someone out on purpose, spreading rumors about someone, hitting or tripping someone, or harming his or her belongings — are quite familiar to most anyone but sometimes it can be more nuanced and complicated.

Religious-based bullying is a multilayered issue particularly as it relates to the intersection of religion, ethnicity, race, and ancestry. The conflation of skin color and religion enables a perception of individuals of color to be considered as “other,” as “enemy,” and as “terrorist.” Consequently, hate crimes and bias-based bullying become more acceptable when the individual is considered an outsider who possesses anti-American views; the escalation of hate crimes after terrorist activities supports this position.

What Is the Impact of Religious-Based Bullying?

Since a sizeable number of young people experience religious-based bullying, it is critical to know what outcomes might be expected for targets of bullying. One study found that youth who were harassed due to a minority group affiliation reported higher levels of mental health issues and substance use compared to those who were targets of non-biased-based harassment.[x]

Consequences associated with being bullying include: anxiety and depression[xi]; compromised peer relationships[xii]; academic disengagement[xiii]; and risk of suicidal thoughts.[xiv] Bias-based bullying has been shown to be more harmful than other forms of bullying. One study found that youth who were harassed due to a minority group affiliation reported higher levels of mental health issues and substance use compared to those who were targets of non-biased-based harassment.[xv]

Other evidence suggests that even frequent “minor” experiences of microaggression related to minority status are associated with poor mental health outcomes since the attacks are perceived to be due to an integral part of one’s identity and are expected to occur again.[xvi] Since many religious followers wear visible religious symbols (e.g., the Muslim hijab, the Sikh dastaar as well as chunni or dupatta, and the Jewish yarmulke, to name a few), the target of the attack often anticipates future incidents.[xvii] Adopting a developmental perspective is particularly salient when considering bullying, brain development, and well-being.

Inclusion and equity are fundamental tenets of a positive school climate. Structural barriers to religious practice and expression in schools and extracurricular activities convey messages about who “is important” and who “is not important.” To be inclusive, schools must be sensitive to the beliefs and needs of all students. School administrators and teachers may be unaware of issues related to important religious practices that can affect students’ day-to-day experience; for example, with regards to Muslim students, how does fasting during Ramadan have an impact on test performance or other school-related activities? Are there designated prayer areas? Are halal foods available in the cafeteria? These seemingly small matters can lead to feelings of social isolation and a sense of not belonging to the school community.

What Can Be Done to Remedy the Problem?

Inclusion and a commitment to equity are qualities that schools must espouse through what they teach, how they teach it, and how this shapes the interactions they have with all members of the school community. The summit presentations yielded valuable insights for educators, parents, and students, as well as the broader community.

Credit: http://maeril.tumblr.com/


  • Implement anti-bullying prevention strategies that address:
    • A whole-school approach,
    • A positive school climate,
    • Social-emotional character development (SECD) of students,
    • An emphasis on inclusion,
    • An explicit mention of protected groups in the school’s HIB policy,[xviii]
    • Teacher and staff training pertaining to the prevention of bullying,
    • Cultural sensitivity and support for minority students (e.g., faculty sponsorship for clubs or student groups, a recognition of all religious holidays, etc.), and
    • Religious literacy and addressing bias and inaccuracies in the curriculum.[xix]
  • Teachers should be equipped with anti-bullying training in order to develop the skills necessary to implement a school’s anti-bullying program. [xx]
  • Bullying should be effectively managed every time it is reported. This entails compliance with the school’s anti-bullying policy, including investigation and remedies that should be put in place to address the safety of the target if the criteria for bullying have been met.
  • Make sure to address the target of the bullying, reassuring them that they are wanted and should feel safe within the school. Counseling may also be needed depending on the child’s well-being, as well as the severity and persistence of the bullying.
  • Make sure to address the child who bullies to understand what is compelling him/her to act aggressively and to see if counseling may be warranted.
  • Provide educators with resources needed for professional development, addressing both cultural competency training and the promotion of religious literacy. Identity and self-exploration-based practices for teachers in which their own identity and cultural backgrounds are explored with colleagues is critical. This correlates to the notion that empathy and social-emotional learning occurs throughout the system and not just at the student level.
  • Incorporate anti-bullying initiatives into school-based learning on life skills. Ensuring a student’s ability to participate and thrive within the school community must include a focus on anti-bullying work, with specific attention on religious-based bullying and challenging of stereotypes.
  • Teachers should incentivize students to challenge biases (e.g., validation from adults regarding the reasonable risk and benefits to doing so).
  • K-12 teachers should ask questions on their introductory surveys at the start of the school year about children’s likes and needs, as well as a faith celebration question. This allows parents to connect to the school culture and can or should lead to parents collaborating or speaking with students about their religious holidays.


  • Since targets of bullying often feel shame about being victimized and therefore hesitate to discuss such instances, it is important to develop strong parent-child bonds characterized by an honest dialogue. Furthermore, as adolescents explore facets of their identity that include their culture or religion or experiment with their appearance, they may be more vulnerable to being bullied. As such, parents should attempt to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Parents also need to foster a relationship with the school and teachers, learn about the anti-bullying policy, and be active in community organizations.
  • When bullying happens, parents are encouraged to meet with the school, and then send a follow-up email documenting the contents of the meeting so that there is a record that will enhance school accountability.
  • Parents are the gatekeepers, and thus parental monitoring must be present with the use of technology in the daily lives of children and adolescents.
  • It is critical for parents to be aware of the laws and policies governing cyberbullying in their districts.


  • Promote being an “upstander” and respond to bullying when it occurs. It is very important to not stand by and watch bullying since this promotes the behavior. Instead, upstanders either “speak up” or leave the situation to get an adult who can stop it. After the incident, upstanders can provide support for the child who was bullied to help that individual to feel safe again.
  • Always report any harassment, intimidation, or bullying incident to an adult. It is not being a “snitch.”
  • Ask teachers and/or guidance staff to have an anonymous submission box to report bullying incidents to avoid concern over retaliation.


  • Counselors and mental health practitioners should note that ongoing bullying of one’s faith or religion may be experienced as a form of abuse and has long-term mental health outcomes for the target. In connection to mental health, social factors such as loneliness and social isolation at home and in the community should be explored for both the target and the bully.

The above information is extracted from the report, “Religious-Based Bullying: Insights on Research and Evidence-Based Best Practices from the National Interfaith Anti-Bullying Summit,” which can be read in its entirety here.

You can also view the December 5, 2018 panel discussion of the ISPU and AMHP’s Religious-Based Bullying report, the connection between mental health and bullying, and parent/child accounts of religious-based bullying.

Works Cited Above

[i] Dalia Mogahed and Youssef Chouhoud, American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims at the Crossroads (Dearborn, MI: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 2017), retrieved from https://www.ispu.org/american-muslim-poll-2017/.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Monisha Bajaj, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, and Karishma Desai, “Brown Bodies and Xenophobic Bullying in U.S. Schools: Critical Analysis and Strategies for Action,” Harvard Educational Review 86, no. 4 (2016): 481–505; K. Joshi, “The Racialization of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism in the United States,” Equity & Excellence in Education 39 (2006): 211–26.
[iv] 22 David Dupper, Shandra Forrest-Bank, and Autumn LowryCarusillo, “Experiences of Religious Minorities in Public School Settings: Findings from Focus Groups Involving Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist Youths,” Children & Schools 37, no. 1 (2015): 37–45.
[v] Dalia Mogahed and Youssef Chouhoud, American Muslim Poll 2018: Pride and Prejudice (Dearborn, MI: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 2018), retrieved from https://www. ispu.org/american-muslim-poll-2018-full-report/
[vi] U.S. Department of Justice, “2016 Hate Crime Statistics,” 2017, accessed from https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2016/topic-pages/ incidentsandoffenses.pdf.
[vii] Council on American-Islamic Relations, Growing in Faith: California Muslim Youth Experiences with Bullying, Harassment & Religious Accommodation in Schools (Santa Clara, CA), https://ca.cair.com/sfba/wpcontent/uploads/sites/10/2018/04/GrowingInFaith.pdf?x93160.
[viii] Ansary et al., “Guidance for Schools Selecting Antibullying Approaches”; Dan Olweus and Susan P. Limber, “Bullying in School: Evaluation and Dissemination of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 80, no. 1 (2010): 124–34
[ix] Lauren Musu-Gillette, Anlan Zhang, Ke Wang, Juzhi Zhang, and Barbara A. Oudekerk, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2017), accessed from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017064.pdf.
[x] Stephen T. Russell, Katerina O. Sinclair, V. Paul Poteat, and Brian W. Koenig, “Adolescent Health and Harassment Based on Discriminatory Bias,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 3 (2012): 493–95
[xi] Louise Arseneault, Barry J. Milne, Alan Taylor, Felicity Adams, Kira Delgado, Avshalom Caspi, and Terrie E. Moffitt, “Being Bullied as an Environmentally Mediated Contributing Factor to Children’s Internalizing Problems: A Study of Twins Discordant for Victimization,” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent 162, no. 2 (2008): 145–50; Sheryl Hemphill, Aneta Kotevski, Todd I. Herrenkohl, L. Bond, M. J. Kim, John W. Toumbourou, and Richard F. Catalano, “Longitudinal Consequences of Adolescent Bullying Perpetration and Victimisation: A Study of Students in Victoria, Australia,” Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 21 (2011): 107–16; Jaana Juvonen and Sandra Graham, “Research-Based Interventions on Bullying,” in Bullying Implications for the Classroom, ed. C. E. Sanders and G. D. Phye (San Diego, CA: Elsevier, 2001), 229–55
[xii] Tonya R. Nansel, Mary Overpeck, Ramani S. Pila, W. June Ruan, Bruce Simons-Morton, and Peter Scheidt, “Bullying Behavior among U.S. Youth: Prevalence and Association with Psychosocial Adjustment,” Journal of the American Medical Association 285 (2001): 2094–2100.
[xiii] Ken Rigby, Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School (MA, USA: Blackwell, 2008).
[xiv] Ken Rigby and Phillip Slee, “Suicidal Ideation among Adolescent School Children, Involvement in Bully/Victim Problems, and Perceived Low Social Support,” Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 29 (1999): 119–30.
[xv] Stephen T. Russell, Katerina O. Sinclair, V. Paul Poteat, and Brian W. Koenig, “Adolescent Health and Harassment Based on Discriminatory Bias,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 3 (2012): 493–95.
[xvi] Qu-Lam Huynh, Thierry Devos, and Cheyenne M. Dunbar, “The Psychological Costs of Painless but Recurring Experiences of Racial Discrimination,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 18, no. 1 (2012): 26–34, doi: 10.1037/ a0026601.
[xvii] Bajaj, Ghaffar-Kucher, and Desai, “Brown Bodies and Xenophobic Bullying in U.S. Schools”; Wendy Klein, “Responding to Bullying: Language Socialization and Religious Identification in Classes for Sikh Youth,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 14 (2015): 19–35, doi: 10.1080/15348458.2015.988568.
[xviii] Mark L. Hatzenbuehler and Katherine M. Keyes, “Inclusive Anti-Bullying Policies and Reduced Risk of Suicide Attempts in Lesbian and Gay Youth,” Journal of Adolescent Health 53, no. 1 (2013): S21–S26.
[xix] Nermin Said Sabry and Katherine Richardson Bruna, “Learning from the Experience of Muslim Students in American Schools: Towards a Proactive Model of School-Community Cooperation,” Multicultural Perspectives 9, no. 3 (2007): 44–50
[xx] Ansary et al., “Guidance for Schools Selecting Antibullying Approaches”; Craig et al., “What Works in Bullying Prevention?”
[xxi] Gladden, R. M., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Hamburger, M. E., & Lumpkin, C. D. (2014). Bullying surveillance among youths: Uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements, Version 1.0.Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US Department of Education.
[xxii] “Facts About Bullying.” StopBullying.gov, Department of Health and Human Services, www.stopbullying.gov/media/facts/index.html#definition.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com