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Post 9/11: NYC Muslim Public School Students Feel Safe, But Hyper-Aware of Religious Identity

Contrary to expectations -- and the fears of many parents -- Muslim youth have generally felt comfortable, safe and fairly content in New York City public schools since the events of September 11th, 2001, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Teachers College. Yet these young people -- even those who are not religious -- have been made hyper-conscious of their religious identity.

Contrary to expectations—and the fears of many parents—Muslim youth have generally felt comfortable, safe and fairly content in New York City public schools since the events of September 11th, 2001, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Teachers College. Yet these young people—even those who are not religious—have been made hyper-conscious of their religious identity.

The results of the study—Muslim Youth in New York City Public Schools: Religiosity, Education and Civic Belonging—were presented and discussed on April 30th at an all-day conference at Teachers College.

About one in 10 students in New York City’s public schools is Muslim—more than 100,000 in all. More than 600 Muslim and non-Muslim students in public and private schools were surveyed for the Teachers College study, which also included focus groups and ethnography. The study found that Muslim youth in public schools have high self esteem, perform well or better academically than their non-Muslim peers and are active in extra-curricular activities. The vast majority (95 percent) report that some, most or all of their school friends are non-Muslim, while seven in ten non-Muslim students surveyed reported that some of their friends are Muslim.

Yet the post-9/11 environment has heightened the value of Islam as a marker of identification for Muslim students.

“These kids are hyper-conscious of being Muslim whether they are religious or not,” says Louis Cristillo, the Teachers College faculty member who led the three-year study. “It’s as if they’re another racial group—‘the Muslims.’ They themselves will say ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the Americans’ and ‘the white folks.’ But that hyper consciousness has not been imposed upon them in their schools. It’s generated by the constant news coverage of their religion, typically framed by very negative coverage. If you’re a Muslim, you’re in the news every single day, and it’s been like that since 9/11.”

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • Eight in ten Muslim public school students surveyed in the study think their schools are “pretty cool” and 85 percent say they feel safe. When asked in focus groups to say if they would switch to any other school if given the chance, virtually all the students said they like would stay where they are.
  • Yet the school environment isn’t wholly welcoming. Seventeen percent of Muslim public school students, most of whom are of either African American, Arab or South Asian ancestry, report having been the object of bigotry, often in the shape of teasing or offensive taunting about Islam or being a “terrorist.” Arab students are twice as likely to be targeted, and girls more often than boys.
  • Most Muslim students feel pretty comfortable with their Muslim identities and harbor few serious doubts about their religious convictions. Only 12 percent of those in public schools and 9 percent of those in private schools were prone to doubting the tenets of Islam, compared to 30 percent of non-Muslims who expressed doubts in their faith traditions. Muslim students were about half as likely as Christian students to admit some doubts.
  • Yet nearly one in three Muslim public school students say that 9/11 made them feel uncomfortable about their Muslim identity. And while 43 percent feel that Americans in general are respectful and tolerant towards them, 69 percent thinks that mainstream society is suspicious of them, and nearly all feel that discrimination against Muslim Americans has increased since 9/11. Nearly two-thirds believe that a Muslim wearing Islamic attire would face discrimination in the workplace.
  • Twenty-eight percent of Muslim students report being stopped by a law enforcement officer as a result of racial profiling; 12 percent report being turned down for a job; 11 percent report suffering the destruction of property; and 7 percent said they have been physically assaulted.
  • Only 9 percent of Muslim students report having tried to pass as someone of a different ethnic or racial group, but 29 percent have at some point used a non-Muslim sounding name.

At the close of the conference, responding to an audience member who was worried about the need to better “Americanize” Muslim students, Cristillo said, “If you walk away with anything from this conference, it should be that we don’t need to ask how we can better educate Muslim students, but instead, how did the voices in this study educate you?”


Response to 'Muslim Students in NYC': Do the Numbers Tell the Whole Story?

Experts respond to the Cristillo study; an ethnographic study of Palestinian youth; and readings from a unique anthology of oral histories

TC’s new study on the post 9/11 public school experiences of Muslims in New York City drew strong responses when it was presented by TC faculty member Louis Cristillo on April 30.

To George Bond, Professor, the work embodied the mission of the department he chairs—International and Transcultural Studies—because “it is through the schools that the U.S. is being transformed into part of the rest of the world,” and because “nowhere else except in Mecca during the Hajj [the time of Muslim pilgrimage], can you find Muslims from so many Muslims from different countries” as in New York City.

Each of the two respondents to Cristillo’s study, Hisham Aidi of Columbia University and Michelle Fine of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, expressed concern that the study might underplay the pressures on Muslim students in the wake of 9/11.

Aidi, who has worked extensively with Cristillo over the years, described meeting with a Muslim parent in Spanish Harlem who was considering sending his kids back to Yemen when they turn five “because he was afraid they’ll lose their cultural heritage.

“Whereas in the past, immigrant children in the U.S. followed a straight path into Anglo-American culture, which is seen as upward assimilation, many today are as likely to be incorporated into black and Latino culture, which is seen as downward assimilation, and there is a lot of anxiety about that among parents,” Aidi said. “I would say there’s a crisis of identity and belonging among Muslim youth in particular—a heightened awareness of ethnicity and skin color—some of these kids shift identities trying to pass as being part of other racial and ethnic groups.”

Typically the trigger for the decision to try to make such an identity change, Aidi said, is an encounter with bigotry or discrimination. But such experiences, particularly for boys, can lead to the opposite reaction—a decision to embrace a more fundamental Islamic identify.

Fine praised Cristillo’s research “as amazingly ambitious,” but cautioned that “we don’t yet know the developmental consequences to young people of living in a society where Sean Bell can be shot down with no consequences, or where Debbie Almontaser [recently ousted as principal of Kahlil Gibran High School in New York City] can be forcibly removed from her job. So kids may have great self-esteem, but what does it mean for them to be living in this toxic, anti-Islamic environment? How does it affect their souls? As psychologists, we don’t know.”

Fine, too, described a split in the post 9/11 experiences and reactions of Muslim boys and girls.

“Boys are fighting the ghost of ‘You’re a terrorist,’” she said, referring to input she received in doing focus groups with Muslim young people. “When we asked them what message they would most want to put in an MTV movie, they said it was, ‘Check my knapsack and see that there are no bombs.’”

Girls, on the other hand, are more typically seen as oppressed victims who need rescuing from Muslim males. The message they wanted to put in an MTV movie, Fine said, was “I wear Hijab [a head scarf] because it’s like wearing a helmet when you ride a bicycle—it lets me be comfortable and go anywhere.”

On the deepest level, however, Fine says that Muslim boys and girls share a gut-level reaction that is akin to the feelings of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.

“They became an external out-group, and when you read their collected letters, they say, in essence, ‘as an American, I can’t believe that you’re treating me like this. I thought this was all about democracy and belonging. I thought I was a member of the moral community, so how did I get placed outside it?”


Speaking in Their Own Voices: Muslim Students Are Heard From

From Kosovar Albanians to new Latino converts, New York City has the most diverse Muslim community outside of Mecca during Hajj. This is Where I Need to Be: Oral Histories of Muslim Youth in NYC, a new anthology from TC’s Student Press Initiative, seeks to capture slices of that diversity, and it goes right to the source. The book’s 12 pieces were written 12 high-school-age Muslims, each of whom had interviewed a peer about what it’s like growing up (or becoming) Muslim in New York City.

With guidance from SPI director Erick Gordon, project advisor Kerry McKibbin, and teachers Nisrin Elamin, Ann Hawley and Amina Tawasil, the students learned the exhaustive interviewing, writing, editing, and publishing processes that goes into producing an SPI anthology. The result are produced sympathetic, nuanced portraits that range from budding fashion designers to a new convert trying to make her Jewish family understand her views.

Says Gordon, “They endeavored to capture genuine pieces of everyday moments—some perfectly ordinary, some poignant, others aggravating—in the lives of fellow teenagers for whom ‘looking Muslim’ can scare up a suspicious gaze or a look of disdain.”

In one of the pieces, new convert Danielle Benson talks about how she learned to love the hijab—a traditional head-covering of Muslims—even before her conversion. “It feels wonderful to understand the principle of modesty,” she said. “When I went to Israel, I wore hijab for one day, and I had little kids screaming and running away from me in the bathroom.”

A student who asked to be known only as Hussein said he wanted to be a journalist when he grew up. “I love the people who work for the BBC and Al Jazeera, who go to conflict zones and put themselves in dangerous situations just to report the news to everybody else. I think that is really honorable.”

The student authors said that not only did the project teach them new things about publishing; it also taught them about the variety found in the New York Islamic community. As one of the authors, Rahimah Ahmad, put it, “I’ve learned it wasn’t just about getting the stories; it was about hearing them too.”

The full text of Where I Need to Be can be viewed at

An Ethnography of Pakistani Muslim Youth

As part of the overarching study presented on April 30th about the post 9/11 experiences of Muslim public school students in New York City, TC doctoral student Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher talked about her own case study of the academic engagement and socialization of Muslim Pakistani immigrant youth. Ghaffar-Kucher’s presentation was followed by responses by Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY); and Zareena Grewal, assistant professor in the departments of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale.

Ghaffar-Kucher, who spent three years studying Pakistani immigrant high school students in New York for her dissertation research, began by noting that while Pakistanis form the largest immigrant group in the United States and they are nearly all Muslim, they vary greatly in the degree to which they are religious, politically active, and culturally engaged in the United States. Pakistani youth, especially, create a complex web of identities for family, school, religious, and cultural settings that cut across race, gender, language, national, ethnic, and religious ties. Since 9/11, they have been doing so as Muslims have been viewed as an “alienated and problematic” minority, Ghaffar-Kucher said.

Outsiders see Pakistanis as Muslims and nothing more, so that, particularly for young Pakistanis, religion becomes a marker of both identity and difference, Ghaffar-Kucher said. Pakistani youth identify with Islam not so much out of religiosity, but as an act of politics. “The experience of being ostracized actually strengthened their Muslim identity,” even if they did not become more religious, she added. After 9/11, Pakistani youth felt they no longer could be considered American, since in their perception, Americans didn't like Muslims. Many reported claiming a Muslim identity but not as a sign of increased religiosity, rather as a way to find a community to which they felt they belonged.

Some Pakistani youth, mostly boys, act out their anger by joking and making fake threats, for example, to “blow up” someone’s house. At the same time, the students described many open and subtle aggressions against them by their non-Muslim peers and teachers. For example, she said, some high school guidance counselors assumed that the daughters of conservative Pakistani immigrants would never go to college, and so steered them toward careers that wouldn’t require it.

In general, Ghaffar-Kucher found that, for many Pakistani youth, ethnic, nationalist and religious ties often win over the pull that any immigrant feels toward American “modernity.” In response, they assert a form of cultural nationalism and obvious Muslim identity that perpetuates their sense of separateness. “Pakistani youth see themselves as outside the mainstream of American culture,” she concluded.

Bayoumi affirmed that he, too, had made many of the same observations about Pakistani and Muslim youth in studying an older cohort of Muslim immigrants, ages 19 to 29, in Brooklyn. Unlike Ghaffar-Kucher, however, he reported finding an increased interest and practice of Islam, and increased religious conservatism and proselytizing, among slightly older Muslim immigrants.

Grewal also praised Ghaffar-Kucher’s study as important to understanding Muslims in contemporary America, but said she would argue for a more flexible and contextual definition of Islamic religious practice and culture.

Published Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2008