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Text from the "Children: Our Most Valuable Resource" Presentation

By Wahida Valiante

 

An issue that has been completely overlooked until now by North American media and the Muslim community on the whole, is the impact of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 on young Canadian Muslim children.  Not only have they been traumatized by media exposure to 9/11; their anxieties have been further elevated by subsequent military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.  In addition, they and their community have become the target of relentless media attacks on their religious and cultural identity. Like the First Nations children before them, they too have become  “others,” the ones who are "not like us.”

Just imagine growing up in an environment where you are constantly told that you are "not like us" because you worship another God (Allah) who is "not like" the Judaeo-Christian God.  You are set apart by a different colour, race, ethnicity, and culture; thus, you can never be equal to "us."  In such an environment, children tend to internalize feelings of being inferior  to “others” who are not like them.

Children in general have little life experience and very few tools at their disposal to help them react or respond to such negative stereotypical images of their belief systems and selves.  In many instances, societal violation of their security and sense of belonging has led children to experience acute anxiety, fear, isolation, and loss of self identity. In trying to escape such negative feelings, vulnerable children may develop faulty mechanisms for coping and become withdrawn, overly aggressive, anxious, or engage in self-destructive behaviour.  As parents, we are finding it exceedingly difficult to shield our children from external forces of hate and racism that are fanned in great measure by the media, and to prevent them from further internalizing these feelings of inferiority and otherness.  

Even before the tragic events of 9/11, the Canadian Muslim community was under siege through negative media attention and was keenly aware that this has a cumulative negative effect on the psychological and emotional well being of its children. To respond to this complex and dangerous situation, the Canadian Islamic Congress in 1998 undertook its ongoing study project “Anti-Islam in the Media," as part of its mandate to advocate on behalf of the Muslim community.

Since then, CIC has conducted annual media research to provide statistical data on occurrences of anti-Islam language to the senior management of national newspapers. The goal has been to engage them in recognizing that journalism is an equity issue; news can be delivered without causing undue damage to the safety and security of the Canadian Muslim community and its children.  Armed with these findings, we were able to achieve some semblance of objectivity prior to 9/11. Unfortunately, those gains have been gradually disappearing under the guise of "fighting terrorism."

Many professors of journalism found the CIC studies to be an effective tool in providing feedback to newspapers and in promoting more objective and balanced news coverage, both from the Middle East and within Canada. As a result, our annual "Anti-Islam in the Media" report was the recipient of an award of excellence from an anti-racist foundation. It is now being used as a case study document in journalism courses at several Canadian universities. Here is what several prominent professors of journalism have said about it:    

"As a scholar, analyzing bias in the media for the last two decades, I believe the pioneering research of the CIC on the nature of anti-Islam bias in Canadian newspapers has been instrumental in increasing a greater awareness and sense of responsibility by many Canadian journalists and editors. It can be argued that the research and the dissemination of the findings of these studies have helped to reduce the frequency and the intensity of anti-Islam language and images. In a recent book by Frances Henry and I (University of Toronto Press, 2002), Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the English-Language Press, we specifically note the important contribution that the CIC has made in its careful and consistent monitoring of the press. In my classroom, I use these research findings as an educational tool in helping students identify bias in the news. As well, the CIC presents a powerful model of effective community mobilization in the search for a more responsible and non-biased media." (Prof. Carol Tator, Course Director, York University)

In addition to its media study work, the CIC has also been engaged in providing accurate information about Islam and Muslims to institutions, organizations, academics and the wider Muslim community itself.  Since 9/11,  I have been asked by the teachers of Islamic schools to speak to their children, as a way of responding to anxieties and concerns they have regarding their own security and of their family members, friends, and neighbours.  Many of these young students  have close ties with their relatives in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and other countries where conflict is taking place. Images of bombs, missiles and rockets falling on civilians affect them greatly and this has potential to cause them secondary trauma. 

We know that v iolence has harmful effects on those who experience it, both directly and indirectly.  Children who continually live with violence may become traumatized and develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those who associate with victims of violence may also become traumatized and experience what is called secondary trauma, and may develop symptoms of PTSD.

 A group of more than two-hundred children aged 8-16, with whom I spoke recently, exhibited high levels of anxiety over their safety from terrorism, as well as from hateful messages embedded in television and entertainment programs.  They also expressed sadness and grief at the loss of loved ones killed in different parts of the Muslim world.  One eight-year-old girl, Noor (her name means "light") wanted to know "why do they hate Islam and Muslims?" because it scared her.  Another nine-year-old boy wanted to know "why do people call all Muslims terrorists?"  Many of them wanted to know  if their schools or homes were safe from terrorists and from America's so-called "war on terrorism."  Many expressed feelings of insecurity after hearing reports of fathers being taken away from airports, arrested, and then deported to other countries.

Older children asked many in-depth questions about what they could do if this happened in their families. Unfortunately, there are no programs available in schools to provide counseling or support to children who at this point in history are going through very difficult and emotional times.  It is surprising that the Ministry of Education has not moved to address this need, since Muslim children are at a greater risk of becoming depressed, anxious, and in some cases, aggressive or withdrawn.  Our children must be helped to recover from this trauma to their sense of self, for what they see, read, experience and hear on television, radio, print media, and Hollywood, all presents a predominantly monolithic view of Muslims as terrorists and their faith as violent.

The Canadian Islamic Congress looks forward to working with the National Children’s Alliance, especially with the First Nations communities, to serve the interest and the well being of all our children. They are our most valuable resource.  And we would like to recommend the following as a comprehensive approach in dealing with the issues of racism, Islamophobia, ignorance and hate; that we work together to persuade the different provincial Ministries of Education to make the teaching of world history -- including the history of First Nations and Aboriginal peoples, and of Islamic civilization -- mandatory in high schools.  Our Canadian children need to learn about each other's past in order to develop acceptance and appreciation of their backgrounds in the present.

Finally CIC would like to join you in research projects on mental health and wellness among the most vulnerable minority children in Canada. We must develop a comprehensive policy dealing with these issues because they impact on all children.