By Dr. Abbas Barzegar & Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR National
Almost twenty years have passed since Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania.
Although most Americans can vividly remember watching the horror of 9/11 unfold on live television, an entire generation of American children has grown up without any firsthand memories of the attack.
Most of today’s college students were too young to know or notice what happened on 9/11, while all middle school and elementary school students had not even been born when the attack happened.
With this in mind, many public schools across the United States teach lessons regarding 9/11 on the anniversary of the attacks. Some schools play video documentaries about the attack. Some hold a moment of silence for the victims. Some host school-wide memorial events. Some play live footage of ceremonies in New York City and elsewhere. Some do all of this and more.
Although educating young Americans about 9/11 is obviously important and necessary, it is just as important that educators teach such lessons carefully and accurately using appropriate materials from vetted sources.
According to a survey of over 1,000 teachers nationwide conducted in 2019 and covered by Time Magazine, “71% said they use websites, 33% said they use specific curricula produced by non-profit and educational organizations and 23% said they use textbooks to explain 9/11 — and about 20% of participants said they didn’t have the curriculum or materials they needed to discuss 9/11 and the War on Terror.”
As members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, our nation’s largest civil rights organization, we have no doubt that this survey is accurate.
Although the vast majority of teachers likely address 9/11 in reasonable and effective ways, our civil rights organization does receive complaints from parents and students about 9/11 lesson plans that are inaccurate, inflammatory, or outright bigoted.
For example, a teacher may play a biased documentary about 9/11 produced by anti-Muslim sources who pin the blame for the attack on Islam itself or Muslims at-large instead of Al-Qaeda.
A teacher may use assigned reading material taken from anti-Muslim websites that similarly link the attack to religion.
A teacher may discuss 9/11 in graphic detail with elementary school students, who are almost certainly too young to comprehend the attack, much less understand the difference between the Muslim extremist group founded by Osama Bin Laden and their Muslim classmate with an Arabic name.
In the worst case scenario, a teacher openly uses the 9/11 anniversary as an opportunity to stoke anti-Muslim bigotry in the classroom. In multiple states, we have received complaints about public school teachers using handouts from BillionBibles.org, an anti-Muslim hate website founded by evangelical Christians.
Although such conduct absolutely does not reflect how the average teacher handles the classroom, it does happen and it is dangerous. Such lessons not only risk confusing all young students; they create a very real risk of long-term bullying against Muslim students.
Imagine a Muslim fifth grader who watches silently as his teacher plays video footage of an airplane slamming into the World Trade Center, attributes the attack to “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” and claims that Muslims around the world celebrated 9/11 or failed to condemn it.
This is not merely a scenario; this is real fear for too many Muslim families and students on every anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
How, then, to solve a problem that arises almost every year?
First, teachers should carefully vet the 9/11 materials they use — particularly any video documentaries and documents found online. Teachers should run such materials by both school administrators and external experts to ensure that the content is accurate and created by appropriate sources.
Second, schools should give serious thought about which grade levels are old enough and mature to sit through a 9/11 lesson plan. High school and middle school students studying recent history obviously need to learn about the attack and its impact on our nation over the past twenty years. But elementary school students can almost certainly wait to learn graphic details about the attack.
Third, school-wide memorials and moments of silence are laudable ways to remember the victims of 9/11. If schools host memorial events featuring guests who discuss the attack, it is important to only feature vetted and educated speakers. It’s also a good opportunity to bring in diverse collection of speakers who reflect the diversity of America, including Muslims.
Fourth, teachers with Muslim students in the classroom — or students often confused as Muslim, such as Sikhs — should consider consulting with parents about the lesson plan in advance to ensure that their children do not experience bullying as a result of a botched classroom exercise.
Finally, addressing anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia as a consequence of 9/11 should be a key component of teaching about that pivotal moment in our country’s history.
Just as we discuss internment of Japanese American citizens in the context of Pearl Harbor and World War II, we must also discuss the sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim, as well as how 9/11 sparked radical changes in national security policy and American foreign policy, often to the detriment of Muslims here and abroad.
For this dimension of the curriculum, school districts should harness their social studies and diversity, equity, inclusion work to address anti-Muslim bigotry, which threatens to warp the minds of all students at a young age, not just Muslim students. Schools can also look to lesson plans about Islam and Islamophobia created by organizations like Teaching Tolerance.
By taking such steps, schools can help ensure that our youngest generation learns the facts about 9/11, which drastically changed the world they entered, in a safe and productive learning environment.
Dr. Abbas Barzegar, PhD serves as the Research & Advocacy Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Esq. serves as Deputy Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.