Ten Years Later After 9/11, Misunderstandings Remain
By Robert Schroeder
For Americans old enough to remember, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are forever seared vividly in memory. But there is a generation already in school classrooms too young to remember.
To elementary and middle school students, the idea of September 11 is more social construct than actual recall. And the small percentage of those students who are Muslim can face a confusing environment of misinformation, shame and rejection when the national psyche addresses its relationship with the Muslim world.
National Louis University's Seema Imam, Ed.D., associate professor in the National College of Education, says most schools do an adequate job of providing a welcoming environment to all students, but she says her research published in the compendium "Muslim Voices in Schools" shows that pockets of discrimination still exist ten years after the terror attacks.
"The identity of children is at a great risk," Imam said. "It's been a long 10 years of misinformation and miseducation, and kids have to live with an identity that the world believes around them."
Imam's research has uncovered teachers who intentionally skip social studies curriculum related to the Islamic world; children with foreign names seeking to covertly change their names at school; and students reciting hateful media narratives to their Muslim classmates. Often, Muslim students do not relay their troubles to parents because they fear their parents reporting back to the teacher, which could lead to peer identification as a Muslim.
Imam says teachers often throw up their hands in response to media narratives children internalize and bring into the classroom. And while teachers cannot control media messages, Imam says teachers can take concrete steps to establishing an inclusive community in their classroom.
"As [classroom teachers] begin the year, it's a new beginning," Imam said. "So a teachers, we create community, and when we create community, we are in fact making everyone feel welcome."
She recommends small actions like posting a map of the world and using pins to identify the home countries or ancestral countries of students. In teaching religion, Imam says there's nothing wrong with referencing the name of a religion's god in the classroom—she advocates teaching about religions, rather than teaching one religion. Imam stresses that most schools are successful at creating an open environment and most teachers are genuinely concerned with creating community.
Despite best efforts, problems often go unaddressed because children choose not to report confrontations, again with the goal of acquitting themselves of identification as a Muslim. She says future research, examining Muslim students and other students who experience identity issues, needs to focus on qualitative studies of individual experiences to put a name and a face to circumstances that arise.
Ten years ago, the tranquility of a cloudless Tuesday morning was shattered permanently. In the decade since, there has been discord, and there has been harmony. Imam says building the latter is the ultimate goal.
"As an American and a Muslim by choice, the thing that needs to be added is that we are all responsible for harmony," Imam said. "Every one of us on the street, not just done by teachers or a few activists.
"It has to be done by a lot of people."