CAIR-WA examines rising trend of bullying Muslim youth

Subreen Tuku started experiencing bullying when she began wearing a hijab in middle school. CAIR-WA suspects this kind of bullying is on the rise and has started studying the issue. (Photo courtesy Sabreen Tuku)

The bullying began in the seventh grade when Subreen Tuku started to wear a hijab — one year after moving to Issaquah from Everett in 2014.

That’s when classmates quit seeing her as a dark-skinned girl and began seeing her as a Muslim. Some began treating her differently.

“Oh, you’re an effing terrorist,” is how she remembers one of the first taunts.

“It was surreal. I was always Subreen. Now I’m a terrorist,” said Tuku, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Issaquah High School. “I felt like a pawn, not a person, just a label to throw around.”

Sometimes, students bullied her physically, pulling on her hijab,  something that she feels disrespected her privacy and religion.

Frequently, students focus their conversations on terrorism and the Middle East on her, in and out of the classroom, regardless whether she wanted participate or not.

Many Muslim youth report similar experiences of bullying and prejudice in their schools. According to surveys in California, bullying is on the rise. The Washington Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations suspects the same is true in the Pacific Northwest. The group hopes an online survey will help CAIR-WA get a better handle on the bullying Muslim kids experience in Washington.

“When kids go through bullying, it’s something they never forget,” said Masih Fouladi, executive director of Washington chapter of the Council on American-islamic Relations.

CAIR-WA is beginning its work by talking at mosques across Washington. At each mosque, CAIR will refer youth to an online survey. The organization hopes to finish collecting information by early 2019. It plans to crunch the data from March to June 2019 with the idea of publishing a report in October 2019. Then CAIR-WA hopes to present the information to the Washington Legislature in its 2020 session, Fouladi said.

Fouladi brought the idea of the survey when he moved to Washington from the California branch of CAIR in July. He worked there as advocacy manager of the Los Angeles chapter. The new survey is similar to an annual one in California that Fouladi worked on since 2012, which led to that state’s legislature improving its anti-bullying laws.

One example is the state’s 2012 “Seth’s Law,” named after a 13-year-old gay student who committed suicide. That law requires schools to set up complaint systems and procedures to deal with bullying, including requiring school employees to take action when they see bullying occur.

Washington has enacted good anti-bullying laws, he said. Fouladi wants to use the survey to see if they can be improved.

Fouladi speculated that Washington’s Muslim kids will likely report bullying trends similar to those reported by African-American, Sikh and LGBTQ children nationwide. About 50 percent to 55 percent of youth in these groups report being bullied because of their skin, religion or sexual orientation, he said.

The last California survey of 1,041 Muslim teens conducted in 2016 and published in 2017 showed only 69 percent felt welcome in their schools, down from 83 percent in a 2014 survey. This was during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which included anti-muslim stances.

Fifty-three percent of the 2016 respondents reported being insulted or physically abused for being Muslim. That’s more than double the national statistics on students being bullied, according to the the 2017 California CAIR report. Only 61 percent felt comfortable talking about Islam in their classrooms in 2016, compared to 76 percent in 2014.

Thirty-six percent of students reported hijabs being pulled or other offensive touching, compared to 29 percent in 2014. Twenty-six percent reported being cyberbullied in 2016, compared to 19 percent in 2014.

Tuku has come up with her own personal for dealing with bullying.

She educates herself, sifting and sorting through literature and news reports on Muslims, not expecting everything to be accurate or mutually supporting. Essentially, she makes up her own mind on the pertinent issues.

She said another step is not targeting classmates to be the representative for an entire ethnic, religious or sexual demographic. That includes not having to be a cultural representative for every Middle East or religious conversation.

“You don’t have to have to answer for every Muslim kid,” she said.