It was ironic. As the organizers of Global Islamophobia Awareness advertised and supported an event to educate people on prejudice, they experienced the hatred themselves.
Leading up to the 2015 event, Cleveland High School student Amina Moalin, 17, and other youth organizers photographed promotional material for the student-led event, full of teenage goofy hand gestures and silly smiles.
Not long after, a teacher found the image on a website filled with Islamophobic remarks and vitriolic attacks toward Moalin and others. On top of this, they have seen images of themselves on pickets with their faces crossed out.
These experiences made them feel vulnerable. But vitriol like this, coupled with post-9/11 rhetoric and the 2015 Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shooting, is why they decided to organize. Before the 2015 incident that killed three Muslim students in North Carolina, Rainier Beach High School senior Ahlaam Ibraahim hadn’t experienced this level of Islamophobia.
“It wasn’t such a big thing, but now when it became life or death, we felt like we had to take action in some sort of way,” she said.
After months of planning, Ibraahim and a dozen other students will come together May 14 for the youth-organized education day event called Global Islamophobia Awareness Day. The event includes a series of workshops at Victor Steinbrueck Park that touch upon myriad issues, including the history of Islamophobia and Islamic contributions to society.
“We wanted to connect the Muslim community in the area together,” said Ibraahim, who began organizing weekly meetings in 2015 to learn more about Islam. From there, students planned their first event last year and were met with great success. Ibraahim has developed a network of youth organizers working within their communities to end Islamophobia through education. She and other Muslim high school students from across the country connected over Google Docs, which are translated in Spanish as well.
“We don’t want to be 80 years old on our deathbed... saying I wish I did something when I was young to help better the situation for Muslim people,” Ibraahim said.
Teenagers prepared all of the materials and trainings for this year’s event, which will go deeper into the topics the group discussed last year. For example, last year’s workshop included a lesson on the hijab; this year a workshop exploring women’s rights in Islam will dig deeper.
“The reason we’re focused on girls is because people think Islam is sexist and that our religion doesn’t allow women to have a voice, which isn’t true,” Ibraahim said. “So we just want to empower girls and tell them you can actually make a change.”
Naimo Yusuf, 19, is hosting the workshop examining the history of Islamophobia, and was motivated to join the students because of her experience living in India as a young girl.
“They practice the religion strongly, and there are a lot of different religions in India but the people coexist with each other,” she said. “Here there is discrimination, but over there they respect every religion.”
She witnessed this respect in many forms, but one that stood out to her was on a soccer field in India where her brother’s teammates who were not Muslim stopped a match to let them pray.
“It made me more passionate to learn and educate people too,” Yusuf said.
With the increase in hate crimes, the high school students deal with frustration from peers and strangers constantly. Because the organizers are mostly women, the prejudice they experience is tripled to include religion, race and sex.
“It’s annoying. I just want to have a normal day without me telling you I’m not a terrorist,” Ibraahim said.
The harmful rhetoric in the current presidential election season is adding to the fear.
“I’m scared every day,” Yusuf said. “Especially the Trump supporters. They don’t care what they say, they just let it out. I’ve seen videos of how they were calling out Black people … for what? For wearing a hijab? For appearing to be a Muslim?”
The event organizers said that education is the ultimate key to undoing the misinformation about Islam that has been perpetuated through negative stereotypes in the media. Education is White-centric, ignoring the lives of Muslims.
Examining Islam reveals a host of differences between the religion they practice and groups such as Al Qaida and the ISIS, Ibraahim said.
“If you look directly in it, their motivation is more political not religion,” she said. “Our religion is being dragged. A lot of people use religion in the name of getting what they want — colonizers did that, but we’re not taught that.”