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“The talk”: 6 Muslim parents on what they tell their kids about Islamophobia

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On January 5, the Council on American-Islamic Relations offered a new service for the Muslim American families among its members: It released a guide titled "A Muslim parent's guide to talking to children about acts of violent extremism." It was meant to help parents guide their children through a new world in which the tide of Islamophobia, as well as the threat of violent extremism, is growing.

The guide reflects a difficult new truth: Muslim parents in the US and Canada today no longer just have to worry about giving their kids the "birds and the bees" talk. They must now also give the Islamophobia and extremism talk, helping their children prepare for anti-Muslim bullying and harassment, a political climate that often treats them as alien interlocutors, and, yes, the threat of radicalization.

I wanted to find out more about how these conversations were playing out in the real world, so I reached out to some Muslim parents and asked them how they're raising these issues with their kids and what they're saying. Here's what they told me. These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Amanda Quraishi, activist, Austin, Texas:

My kids ask me things like, "What's going on in Syria?" and, "Why are guns legal?" and, "What do the terrorists want?" Often the questions come from things they hear on television or on the radio. They also come home from school with some pretty big questions after talking with their friends. Media is omnipresent in this society, and kids get exposed to all kinds of things.

My daughter came home from camp one day and was so upset because another girl had found out that she is Pakistani American. The girl told my daughter that Pakistanis are terrorists. It was very upsetting.

There's a lot of anxiety around 9/11 every year at school because there are only a couple Muslim kids in the class, and they get stared at or whispered about during the 9/11 discussions. A few weeks ago both my kids were playing an online game, and one of the other players had a username "KillAllMuslims" — they were deeply troubled by it.

I try to help them understand that most of the time Islamophobia is coming from a place of fear and uncertainty. I encourage them to look at people who are spouting Islamophobia with sympathy, and ask them to be patient. And of course, if anyone threatens them or is abusive, they know to report those people immediately. They know they can always talk to me directly about things that happen with other adults, and I will take it seriously.

Hena Zuberi, editor in chief of MuslimMatters.org, Washington, DC:

My girls are 15 and 13, and my boys are 10 and 8. A few days ago I was running late to pick them up from school and I saw they were on the sidewalk and a police officer was talking to them. My heart almost burst — he was asking them where their parents were, but my mind kept thinking back to Ahmed Mohamed, the clock kid.

I have found myself having talks with my sons, making them aware of the general perception of bearded, brown men. As they grow up, they will be profiled; that is a fact. They have to be ready to face that reality with grace so they don’t put themselves in further danger. My 10-year-old is a jokester, and I have had to categorically tell him that he cannot make any bomb jokes in school ever, that ranting on online forums is not an exercise in free speech, as Muslim men have been arrested for thought crimes.

I don’t want my children to grow up thinking they have to apologize for acts that have nothing to do with them, or to develop self-hate or internalize the hostility toward them. I also don’t want them to look at every injustice in life or every altercation or every incident through the lens of "Islamophobia," because that is not a healthy way to live. I want them to grow up unapologetically Muslim.

Mariam Ahmed, lawyer, working temporarily in Dubai:

I have two boys: Hamza is 8, and Maaz is 5. My kids are too young to know about current events aside from what I mention to them myself. I told Hamza when the Paris attacks happened, and at that time we also discussed 9/11 and the rise of ISIS in Syria.

I told him that these are bad guys who are committing crimes for their own reasons — for power, land, money, revenge. And some of them are using Islam as a way to justify some of their actions.

I had a lot of anxiety when broaching the subject with Hamza. I live in a Muslim-majority country at the moment, but I am preparing them and myself for the time when we move back to America and they will have to face the reality of life as American Muslim children.

Once I return, my concern will be that people will use their faith as a means of targeting them, and because they are growing up in Dubai right now they won’t know how to respond. But I’m also hopeful that they will have a nuanced and sophisticated view of the world and of Islam by that point and can be articulate in explaining things.

My advice in the past has been to try to befriend the bully. Sometimes people just need to realize all the things they have in common, and the urge to bully is reduced. I’m trying to encourage them to be confident and defend themselves from bullying of all kinds.

My other concern is that they may be tempted to step away from their faith if it just becomes too difficult to deal with the backlash. However, I’m hopeful things will never get quite so bad.

Walid Darab, host of a podcast on everyday life for Muslims in the West, Washington, DC:

I have a teenage daughter and an almost 2 1/2-year-old boy. The boy I'm not that worried too much about right now, but with the girl it's been very tricky because she's a hijabi [meaning she wears a hijab] and she goes to a public school.

One of her teachers makes comments that I'm very, very close to contacting the school about. She mentions things like terrorism, and then she just looks straight at my daughter. It's like, "Okay, cool. You're a professional? You're a teacher?"

I told my daughter, "High school and college, these are preparing you for the real world, because you will join a company and you won't like your manager, you won't like your co-worker, or they might say something that you don't like. It doesn't mean that you're going to come home and complain about it. You got to roll with it. You have to change. You got to be flexible."

I also told her, "You know what? You can't stop somebody from looking at you. I can’t talk to your teacher and say, 'Hey, how come you looked at my daughter when you said this word?'"

She's at the age where she's starting to inquire about [politics and world events]. She'll say, "Some people say ISIS is good; what do you think?" She'll ask me these questions. We talk about it, but I stress to her that, first of all, there's nowhere on this earth that you would want to live other than in America.

We talk about politics, because it's a juicy topic. It's juicy. Everybody likes to blame other people. "If America did this, if Palestine did this, and blah, blah, blah." But we're living in America. She has to go to school. She has to get A's. She has to go to college. We talk about it, but we talk about it with the underlying thing that, yes, it does happen. To better that in the grand scheme of things is educate yourselves and be a better Muslim here. We leave it at that, and we just move on.

Naheed Mustafa, journalist, Toronto, Canada:

You try to have these conversations with young people, and at the same time you feel like you're kind of ruining things for them. You're basically telling them that life isn't going to be a party. You actually have to worry about what you look like, and you have to worry about how other people see what you look like.

My eldest has trouble backing down. She wants to fight every fight. But that can be crippling. It's like never being able to get off the internet. So that's a conversation I've had to have with her, that you need to be able to walk away from some things.

The other thing is, who's the person? Is this a friend of yours who has genuine questions, or is this a discussion in class? Is this a professor who holds an inordinate amount of power over you and you're beholden to them, which is also a reality?

That's the other part of this that can be very frustrating, because it's the idealism of the young. It's that age-old problem where young people think old people have sold out. When I say, "You need to choose your battles," sometimes the perception might be what I'm saying is, "You need to just eat people's shit for a while," which is not what I'm saying. Managing your way in the real world requires that. You can't approach your boss in the same way that you can approach somebody who's on the train with you or whatever.

Asma Uddin, lawyer and founder of AltMuslimah, Washington, DC:

I have two kids. My daughter is 8 1/2, and my son is 4. They're not really dealing with this stuff in their day-to-day life, and they're not, thankfully, dealing with any sort of bullying comments by their peers. They're mostly still shielded from the headlines. I haven't really broached the topic head on with them. Since they're young, I'm trying to establish the foundations that my parents established for me, which was a really solid understanding of religion and God. I think of it as an interactive, personal relationship with God where we know that he's always present, that's he's protective.

I think that when they did that for me, I'm not really sure that it was even intentional on their part to do it that way, but it just happened because of that foundation as I grew up and seeing and being exposed to more and more sociopolitical issues related to Islam. Definitely my childhood wasn't free of that.

Starting at least in high school and definitely beyond, I started dealing with questions that became more pronounced, especially because I used to wear headscarves when I was in college and law school, and around the time of 9/11 I was wearing a headscarf. That automatically makes you a spokesperson and gets attention that you might not otherwise get.

I fully expect that as my kids grow up, they're going to confront these issues and have a lot of questions and probably go through a lot of their own agonizing moments. I think I'm well-positioned to help them navigate that, because I went through it as well.