The following is an excerpt from the book ENGAGING MUSLIM STUDENTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS by Michael Abraham. Footnote numbers and citations are noted in the text but the actual notes and references are only accessible in the book which can be bought on Amazon.
Experience of Muslims Students in Public Schools
The examinations in educational research of the experiences of Muslim students are not as cumbersome as other minority groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos, who have a longer and more visible history in the public education system. Nevertheless, there is plenty of literature to draw on. Within these analyses and case studies some literature focuses solely on ethnic identity and renders the Muslim identity of students as either tacit or non-explicit altogether. The discussion below is limited to studies that specifically identify the subjects as Muslims.
The earliest case study that examines the experience of Muslim students in North America was done by Lila Fahlman in Ontario in 1984. There were some studies done in the 1970s on attitudes of Arab immigrant college students and their attitudes towards America and their likeliness to stay in the country (Pulcini, 1993), but these were surveys and quantitative in nature and more geared towards assessing that population’s trends of assimilation. None of those studies explicitly identified its subjects as Muslim either, and likely looked at mixed-religious populations of Arabs.
Case studies of Muslim students in Western countries increased significantly after September, 11th, 2001. From these, the theme of students having detrimental experiences in school is common, and the lack of knowledge on the part of educators about Islam and practices both cultural and religious are frequently pointed at as root causes of these issues. It can be further said that this phenomena is found in case studies of Muslim students across differing ethnic backgrounds as well as Western continents and countries.
Still, the narrative of detrimental schooling experience for Muslim students is not universally held. The argument has been made that the prevailing narratives of studies on Muslim students takes on an overly-dubious tenor of victimization on the part of the students, and incrimination on the part of the educators. In particular this refers to the work done by Toronto-based researcher Sarafoz Niyozov in 2009, who examined the perspectives of teachers of Muslim students (Niyozov, 2010). There could be some merit to this point, issues of bias on the parts of the researchers could very well exist. Some of the key case studies that have been done on Muslim students that form a detrimental treatment narrative were done by Muslim researchers who were more or less explicit about the fact that they were attempting to bring to the light of educational research phenomenon that they knew to exist from their own school experience or their experience as residents in a non-Muslim country (Falhman, 1984; Zine, 2001; Ahmad, 2003).
In what is perhaps the largest quantitative survey of Muslim students ever done, by New York City Public Schools, it was found that most Muslim students identify themselves as having a satisfying school experience (Mastrilli, 2009). Still, while Niyozov’s critique had some merit to it, a closer scrutiny reveals its errors, and this will be touched upon in chapter six. That a gap of understanding exists between Muslim students and non-Muslim educators is demonstrable in the case studies, and it is actually affirmed by a critical analysis of Niyozov’s cross-referencing with teachers, despite his own assertions to the contrary (Abraham, 2019).
I am not one to indict teachers or anyone else for issues that arise or are latent due to misunderstandings; and I believe that the need for educators (not to mention the broader society) to know more about Muslim students’ cultural and religious backgrounds is obvious to most. Yet, to the extent that this need warrants justification from within the archives of educational research one should rest assured that it exists. However, I reemphasize the point, that case study examinations of Muslim students and the framing of their experience along patterns of victimology, and using analytical frameworks from critical theory, can also result in a pigeonholing of Muslim students into boxes in which they or their community may have never asked to be put.
If Muslim students are viewed through lenses that downplay the importance of religion in their lives, a key piece of the equation of engaging them in public schools is amiss. Researchers of Muslim students and their families almost without exception acknowledge the importance of religion and Islam in their lives. Research also confirms that families view the development of a positive Muslim identity as carrying numerous secular-world benefits along with it (Guo, 2011; Ahmed, 2015). It has been observed by some that a sense of religious priority, identity, and communal solidarity is heightened within a diaspora experience, and/or following refugee or distressed immigration experiences (Berns-McGown, 1999; De Voe, 2002; Farid & McMahan, 2004; Bigelow, 2010). According to Mastrilli (2008), Muslim students are more likely to cite religion as being “very important” in their lives compared to non-Muslim students by a factor of three to one, and 98% of Muslim students in his survey said religion was important in their lives. In short, educational research overwhelmingly confirms that there is a need to examine and understand Muslim students as Muslims.