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Wide support for action to tackle Islamophobia in schools

Samena Dean presenting Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools

A new report on experiences of Islamophobia in Edinburgh schools was launched at a packed meeting at Edinburgh's Annandale Mosque on Friday 2 June. The report was written by Samena Dean and published by SACC.

Speaking at the meeting, local MSP Ben Macpherson promised to take the issue to the Scottish Parliament's Equalities and Human Rights Committee and to the relevant Scottish Government minister. Councillor Gordon Munro promised to raise it with Edinburgh City Council's Director of Education. Councillors Amy Mcneese-Mechan and Susan Rae also gave their support to the report and gave a commitment to help tackle the problem.

Introducing her report, Samena Dean said:

"Last October, my daughter and her Muslim fellow students experienced a number of Islamophobic incidents at their school, which led most of them to be upset and some of them in tears. What struck me was the reluctance to go and tell a teacher that this was happening at school. I was told by my daughter and Muslim students that this was because teachers don't help.

As a Mum, I thought: is this just happening at my daughter's school, or is this widespread? Are other Muslim children in Edinburgh schools suffering as well?

I prepared a questionnaire containing 7 questions and I phrased the questions in a way that I wanted to know: how supportive are schools when a child comes to them and tells them about an Islamophobic incident; and how representative are schools towards Muslim children when they talk about topical things like Islam and terrorism.

I contacted a number of Muslim after-school Islamic studies and youth groups and asked permission to speak to the pupils. I ended up interviewing 100 pupils."

Dean went on to outline her findings. She said that:

55% of high school respondents said that they had encountered verbal Islamophobia, and 35% had experienced it personally. 53% of primary school respondents said that they had encountered verbal Islamophobia and 29% had experienced it themselves. Examples of verbal Islamophobia included being called a “terrorist”, “bomber”, “ISIS”, “suicide squad”, “al Qaeda”, making fun of God, making fun of Allah, being asked if they had a gun under their scarf.

15% of high school respondents said they had encountered physical Islamophobia, and 6% had experienced it personally. 26% of primary school respondents said that they had encountered physical Islamophobia, and 14% had experienced it personally. Examples of physical Islamophobia included being punched, being kicked, being pushed and having their hijabs pulled off.

59% of respondents said that they would tell their parents if they experienced Islamophobia at school, but only 33% said that they would tell a teacher. The most frequent explanations given by those who would not tell a teacher included: “don't help at all”, “they wouldn't take it seriously”, “they may not understand what we are going through” and “they may not know much about Islam”.

14% of respondents said that they had in fact told a teacher about an experience of Islamophobia. The respondents gave free-form answers about the outcome which Deen categorised as positive of negative. She considered 43% of outcomes to be positive and 57% to be negative. In categorising the outcomes, Dean counted an action undertaken by a teacher as positive, even if the respondent felt the outcome was less than fully satisfactory.

Respondents were asked how they felt when Islam or terrorism were talked about in class, and Dean categorised their response as positive or negative.

57% of the children felt positive about Islam being discussed in class. They felt proud of their religion, Dean said, and happy that people were talking about it. 30% felt negatively about it, and felt awkward and uncomfortable.

17% gave responses categorised a positive to terrorism being discussed. They felt OK, or didn't feel anything about it. 65% felt negatively about the discussion. Dean said that they felt scared and worried, or that “something was going to happen to them” after they left the class.

46% of respondents said they were worried about going to school after a terrorist attack. 8% said that they didn't go to school. 15% said that their school had taken special measures in this situation.

21% of the children said that, apart from these exceptional situations after a terrorist attack, they were afraid if going to school just because they were Muslim. They said, fo example, that they were scared of abuse and getting attacked, or of what people might think of them for wearing a hijab.

"Teachers are in the front line"

Concluding her presentation, Samena Dean said:

"Teachers are in the front line. I feel that they should be promoting human rights and human values. I urge schools to prioritise combating Islamophobia and I urge for teachers to be trained, as my findings show that not all Muslim children have had good experiences of their teachers.

Responding to the presentation, Ben Macpherson MSP (Edinburgh Northern and Leith, SNP) said:

"The position that we’re in, in terms of bullying generally, when it comes to Holyrood/Scottish Government level is, at the end of last year the Scottish Government undertook to pull together a fresh anti-bullying strategy and that is still in process and that has engaged with the relevant committee in Holyrood, which is the Equality and Human Rights Committee, and also with stakeholders. What I will commit to to do today as the local MSP, is to take this report, to take the findings within it, and take it forward both to that committee and to the relevant Cabinet Secretary, the relevant Scottish Government minister, to make them aware of these findings because I think it’s so important that it goes to that level. Because if we’re serious about having an anti-bullying strategy that is comprehensive and that focuses on the issues that are most challenging, most severe in our schools, in terms of young people being unfairly treated, and prejudiced and bullied, then this research is key to that. Thank you so much Samena for bringing it together in order for me to take that forward and make that powerful case."

Councillor Gordon Munro (Leith, Labour) said:

"I was really struck by the concluding remarks in your report which says that you hope it encourages wider society, the council unions and schools to challenge Islamophobia in all its forms. I think that’s the real meat of this report, how to take this forward as Ben was saying in his remarks. I think that’s something we can do because the main teaching union, the EIS, has policies in this regard, so it’s about how do they get their members to implement it so that it can actually be made a reality, and its also how can we, as a council, make it a reality so that we can work together, schools, parents, pupils, the trade unions together to tackle this because that is how we will prevent the comments, the remarks, the incidents outlined in this report. I welcome trying to take this forward and I will ask the Director of Education – I might ask for another copy of the report and I’ll personally hand it to him – and ask him if he can take it further forward as well."

Ben Macpherson and Gordon Munro had both agreed to speak at the meeting at very short notice, on the understanding that they would leave early due to an earlier commitment. Both stayed a little longer than expected in order to participate in the discussion.

A member of the audience said:

"I see a real need to change the attitude of the some of the adults in school. At the level of school leaders I'm very aware of the impact of Prevent training that's being rolled out across Edinburgh Council. I'm wondering if you have any reflections on the impact of that."

Gordon Munro, in responding, mistook this as a suggestion that Prevent should be widened. The questioner interjected to say "I didn't mean widen it out." Gordon Munro has subsequently apologised for his mistake and says that the Labour Party manifesto "commits to a review of the Prevent programme with a view to assessing both its effects and its potential to alienate minority communities."

After Ben Macpherson and Gordon Munro left, their places on the panel were taken by Councillors Amy Mcneese-Mechan (Leith Walk, SNP) and Susan Rae (Leith Walk, Scottish Green Party).

Hassan Rabbani (imam and education and outreach officer, Annandale Mosque) said:

"Mosques have a pivotal role"

"As an adult, I'd feel horrified to be subjected to these remarks. I just couldn't imagine how a young child would react to them.

I was with my wife on Nicolson Square and she wears a face veil. There's four or five people behind her who start shouting ISIS, bomber, bomb bomb. I had my one year-old daughter with me so I was really scared that something would happen. We went into the Bismillah meat shop. I came out and they followed us again.

My wife said we need to take a video and I said, are you crazy? She says, this has happened to me before and takes a little video. We go home, we report it to the police. The police have been fantastic, they gave us support. Just two weeks ago we went to court. I waited for five hours. The suspect pleaded guilty and I came home after that. It was the first time I'd ever been to court."

He added:

"I think mosques have a pivotal role. I think as an imam I need to start speaking to younger people about their school and how well they're doing in school. I don't think I've been doing that enough. One important thing I've been trying to do is contacting schools so they can come into the mosque and have a visit. For a lost of non-Muslim students, I think the only experience thay are going to get of Islam is here in Annandale so I tried to make it as positive as I could, so when they leave the mosque at least they have some good words to say about Islam."

"The last time I heard anything that fruitful from a politician was in 2000"

Arzu Merali is head of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and co-author of a recent book on Muslim experiences of hate in the UK, and contributed a foreword to Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools. She said:

"The last time I heard anything that fruitful from a politician, coming as I do from London was when we launched our first report on Islamophobia in 2000 when a minister from the Home Office, who was a minister for race relations, came to listen. Now, that was seventeen years ago. What can I say? The report that I co-authored recently – 2015 it was published – looks at two sets of data we collected. We put similar questions in 2009 and 2014. On every single experience, there is a deterioration and sometimes it's catastrophic. One that is extremely important here, experiences at places of education, bad experience nearly doubled. Samena's work here provides the meat to that statistic.

Ultimately, I think most of us in this room knew this was happening. We have data now and we have to run with it.

There was a mention of there being a bullying crisis in schools. Yes, that's true. I think it may be that we have societal factors like Islamophobia eliding with the fact that you have this  bullying crisis. But I don't think it's as simple as that.

What was missing is this particular point. There is a commitment to tackling bullying across different countries in the United Kingdom. When it comes to the issue of Islamophobia, even when there are policies, what children face, what parents face, what Muslims face, is institutional racism. If you take the Macpherson definition – it's a great definition actually – it says it's not about intentionality, it's about the nature of the organisation.

So the point I want to raise here is that in chasing this up with the authorities you need to directly address this."

Islamophobia in Scottish Schools can be downloaded here (pdf):