U.S. Department Of Education Takes Aim At Religious Discrimination

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Education will begin collecting data this year to track religiously motivated discrimination or bullying allegations from students.

“Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in an announcement.

The Post report placed an emphasis on Muslim students, and those perceived to be Muslim, given the increase (in Western countries) in Islamic terrorist attacks and the fearful reaction that follows. But the Education Department’s initiative is an important first step that will protect all students – Christian, Jewish, atheist, etc. – from bullying and harassment.

When I heard this news, I thought it was a long overdue move. As Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Post: “Everything from being called ‘terrorist’ to jokes about ‘Where is your bomb?’ Obviously, they are not really jokes.”

Indeed they’re not. Often-hateful rhetoric about Muslims is just making it worse. Just this week, a Muslim woman’s clothing was set on fire and two Muslim women who were pushing strollers were attacked by a woman who told them to get out of the country.

In Newton County, Ga., plans by local Muslims to build a mosque have sparked an uproar from some segments of the community. County commissioners planned to hold a meeting to discuss the matter, but it was cancelled after members of an armed militia held a protest.

The list goes on.

The Education Department is right to monitor these potential hate crimes in schools. According to a survey taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 2,000 K-12 teachers published in April, more than one-third of the teachers noticed anti-Muslim sentiments growing in schools during this election cycle.

Every student should feel equally welcome in schools. 

A teacher even reported in the study that one student told a Muslim classmate “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”

This SPLC study confirms what I already experience: The increasingly ugly rhetoric we’re hearing these days has created a more discriminatory culture that motivates anti-“religious freedom for all” sentiments, which clearly makes students a target.

As someone who grew up Arab in the 9/11 era, when kids in elementary school started using the nationalities of war victims – “Iraqi” (because all Arabs look the same to some people, I guess?) and “Afghan” (not even Arab, they’re Persian) as consistent insults – I never thought the hatred could get worse for the next generation of Arab, Muslim, perceived Muslim, etc. students after me. (It’s even more disturbing to remember this as an adult because kids really don’t develop this hatred without their parents’ help)

But it has, and a lot of this falls on the shoulders of people who simply don’t understand the Constitution and laws of America.  

We have nothing like a religious hierarchy here. A large faith doesn’t get more rights than a small one. All are equal. Immigrants can’t be subjected to a “religious test” as part of the vetting process.

The lack of respect some people show toward even basic constitutional principles puts Muslim-Americans and others in a dangerous place. As long as that goes on, too many innocent people who just want to live in peace will be perceived as second-class, suspicious and potential terrorists.

Parents of even elementary school students underestimate how contagious that hatred can be. The first step to combatting it is understanding the scope of the problem. The Education Department’s data-collection efforts will do that.

One can only hope the department’s tracking of religious discrimination will prevent future hate crimes towards religious, non-faith and secular minorities in this country.