Empathy & Solidarity to Counter the Wave of Anti-Muslim Bias

In the wake of recent anti-Muslim attacks by Trump and others, students read and discuss profiles of diverse Muslim Americans, consider how they may be feeling about recent events, and read a letter to "Non-Muslim Allies" about ways to stand up for those who are being targeted.   

To The Teacher

In recent weeks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has become increasingly hostile and hateful.  Muslims are only one group Trump has singled out for abuse. He has charged Mexican immigrants with bringing drugs across the border and being rapists. Throughout his campaign he has also singled out women, whom he has insulted, belittled and sexualized.  He has referred to women as "essentially aesthetically-pleasing objects." He has used the words "gold diggers" to describe women and has called them "pigs," "dogs," "slobs," and "disgusting animals."  

But the Islamophobia (irrational fear of Islam) Trump is fueling is especially destructive.  Muslims are seen as fair game not just by Trump but by others in the Republican field as well.  The hateful rhetoric he has used against Muslims doesn’t appear to come at the same political cost as the bias, slurs and negativity about other groups.  On the contrary it seems to be fueling Trump’s popularity among Republicans, while inciting violence and other discriminatory actions against Muslims across the country. This represents a larger, troubling shift in politics and in U.S. public opinion in general. 

Trump’s statements go well beyond what other Republican candidates have said. For instance, other Republicans distanced themselves from his false claim that Muslim populations in New Jersey celebrated the planes flying into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and from his proposal for a national registry of all Muslims in the U.S. and for closing the borders to Muslims. However, these statements are part of a broader trend within a Republican field that has been willing to blame and punish all Muslims for the violent acts of a few.  This has been especially true since the attacks in Paris on November 13 and the San Bernardino attack on December 2. 

This lesson cultivates empathy for Muslim Americans and helps students think about how they can stand up for those who are being targeted. (Please also see related TeachableMoment lessons on Countering Anti-Muslim Bias and on Islam & Islamophobia.)




Ask students to talk about a time in their lives they were harassed or observed someone else being harassed.  What happened?  How did it make them feel?

Next ask students to talk about a time in their lives when they had someone stand by them, a time they felt supported by a friend, family member, classmate, teacher, or possibly a stranger.  What happened?  How did it make them feel?

Check Agenda and Objectives



NY Times Interviews: Individual Muslim Reactions to the Changing Political Rhetoric

Split your class into small groups of four or five and assign each group to read two or three of the vignettes of the people interviewed in the New York Times piece "Do You Know Me? Do You Know My Heart?"

1. Raheel Siddiqui
2. Ayesha Khan
3. Bahaa Ellaithy
4. Adeel Rana
5. Takhia Hussein
6. Halima Toure
7. Imam Khalid Latif
8. Muhammad Ali

Explain that these Muslims, living in New York City, were interviewed by Liz Robbins after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States.  Elicit and explain that this was only the last in a series of incendiary anti-Muslim comments made by Trump and other Republican candidates in recent months.  See the To The Teacher materials above.

In their small groups, invite students to read the statements and look at the pictures of these Muslims and share what they notice about the people in the pictures.  Ask them to discuss among themselves some or all of the following questions:

  1.  Compare these vignettes of Muslims living in NYC: What are the similarities and differences about their lives, and experiences? 
  2. How do you think these people were feeling in the U.S., growing up after September 11, 2001? How do you think they have been feeling in recent weeks?  Why?
  3. How were these people treated, growing up, after September 11, 2001, and/or in recent weeks?  Explain.
  4. Can you relate to any of these people’s experiences?  Explain. 
  5. How do you feel about reading these excerpts?

Back in the large group, facilitate a discussion about what was shared in the small groups, using similar questions to the ones above.  


Becoming an Ally

Next invite students to read the following Facebook post from December 7, 2015, by Sofia Ali-Khan, then discuss it using some or all of the following questions:

  1. What are your thoughts and feelings about this blog post?
  2. How is Sofia preparing her family?  Why?
  3. What is Sofia’s religion?
  4. What else does she tell us about herself?  Why do you think she wants us to know this?
  5. What do you think about the recommendations that Sofia makes to her non Muslim friends? How do you feel about these suggestions?



Share one thing you’ll stop doing, start doing or keep doing as a result of today’s lesson.



Letter from Sofia Ali-Khan


Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: "be sure that your passport is in order." It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election.

When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.

I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:

If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.

If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say "peace" if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.

If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.

If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.

Talk to your kids. They're picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.

Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.

Set up a "learn about Islam" forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.

Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.

Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.

Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.

Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you. Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts. Share freely.