Bullying can be based on various things. A person, most likely, a school student, might find themselves bullied by others because of their race, gender, sexuality, appearance, academic or athletic performance, personality, and other aspects of their identity.
A solution to the problem as complex as this one must be equally comprehensive. Today, however, I would like to tackle but one element of this problem: religion-based bullying.
Roots of faith-based bullying
Religion-based bullying is a horrible trend that is still going strong in our schools. It happens both in the physical world and online and shows no signs of stopping. It would be preposterous for us to blame it exclusively on children, equally as preposterous as to turn a blind eye to it.
Children, indeed, seldom have a strong understanding of religion: spirituality usually requires some life experience. Children are even less likely to be interested in the small differences between various faiths and creeds.
They can, however, and often are conscripted by grown-ups into the hate of the different. It is our instinct, after all, to fear and distrust “them” who are opposed to “us”. An instinct that goes counter to the ideals of diversity, sure, but still remains an instinct. And as it is with instincts, it can be easily exploited when there is little understanding or willpower.
It is us, the adults, who fuel this instinct in kids. What we say to them or around them doesn’t need to be downright offensive. A little biased comment here. A slightly derisive one there.
And it all builds up into a structure of oppression.
According to Sameer Hinduja’s 2019 report, it is students of Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu confessions who experience faith-based bullying in the largest proportion. More than one-third of all Muslim students surveyed have suffered from bullying because of their religion within 30 days before the survey took place, along with one-quarter of the Jewish students and 23% of the Hindus.
Students of other creeds, such as Catholic, non-denominational Christian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and others, have also been bullied on the basis of their religion.
Even though this percentage is lower for Atheist and Agnostic students, they too have faced bullying based on their absence of religious beliefs.
As I mentioned above, bullying can take place in the virtual world as well. Cyberbullying is a growing concern: its rates have increased by 3% since 2016, and by 12% since 2009. As far as religion-based cyberbullying is concerned, Muslim, Hindu, and Catholic students experience it the most.
Most often, cyberbullying occurs on social media, for example, Instagram and Facebook. It’s necessary for parents to take their children’s safety online very seriously.
Faith-based bullying leads to radicalization
Faith-based bullying has particularly dangerous effects on its victims. Apart from the consequences that all forms of bullying have – anxiety, poorer performance at classes, ideas of self-harm and suicide, substance use, depression, and others – it can lead to even worse issues.
What’s so dangerous about religious bullying is that it targets not only an individual but also something that is a very strong part of their identity. Moreover, religion is a positive part of that identity. Children do get attacked over their bad grades sometimes, but bad grades are not something that a child is going to feel compelled to protect. Religion can be.
According to research conducted by the Institute for Global Change, there are many factors that attract young people to extremist religious groups. Among them are:
- damage to personal and collective identity;
- search for identity, often fueled by depression;
- looking for revenge against perceived or real offenders;
- marginalization from mainstream society;
- seeing revenge against “enemy groups” as a sacred duty.
All these causes can be an outcome of bullying. For example, attacks on one’s faith are harmful to a person’s collective identity. The need to protect it is natural because the victim is protecting not only themselves but their community, the people they love, and the beliefs they hold dear.
At the same time, bullying causes the victims to become angry. It is very hard to think straight, especially for a child, when one is being mocked. And continuous bullying that goes on for months or years may dehumanize the attackers in the victim’s eyes, strip them of any sympathetic qualities. They are enemies, and nothing more.
Young people with an outlook like this are what violent religious groups are looking for. They are angry, they are looking for revenge, and thus they are easy to recruit.
This is why we must do everything to stop bullying, especially the kind that is based on the victim’s religion.
How can we defeat faith-based bullying?
To uproot bullying, it’s not enough to just cure its symptoms. The cause itself must be eliminated, however difficult that might be.
It’s important to treat faith-based bullying as a large problem it is, and not some rare anomaly. Its very existence says a lot of unpleasant things about our society, but we must acknowledge them to defeat them.
As Dr. Hinduja proposes in the aforementioned report, the solution must involve curricular activities aimed at enhancing tolerance among students. Those should include discussion, watching documentaries about tragedies such as the Holocaust to increase empathy towards the persecuted peoples, etc.
Empathy must be supplemented with learning about various cultures and religions. Such lessons have to be nothing short of spectacular and not only introduce students to different creeds but ignite curiosity in them. They must not, and I can’t emphasize it enough, be just a box to check. They have to be a means to inspire children to learn more about religious diversity from their classmates who have different beliefs.
The Influence of Family
Schools are not the only place where children should learn about diversity. To get back to the roots of religious bullying, we must also talk about families. Parents should set a positive example for their children on the matter of religious tolerance.
But as we all know, prejudice is often unconscious. Often, adults can say something harmful about people of a different religion without meaning or realizing it. For their children, though, it may come off as permission to mistreat those who are different. Because of that, it’s not enough to focus on kids only.
To that end, it would be helpful to organize what Dr. Hinduja calls Coexistence Committees at schools. The goal of such committees is to bring parents of various creeds together to discuss and develop school policies regarding religion and other questions. By working together, parents will learn to understand people of different faiths better, and they will bring this understanding home.
Another piece of advice that parents can follow to prevent bullying is to talk to their children and explain to them what bullying may feel like for the victim. While it is undeniably hard for parents to accept that their child may participate in bullying others, the reality is such that sometimes, children are influenced by their peers into doing repulsive things to others.
Sometimes it happens due to the lack of a strong moral compass, and sometimes because children try to eschew conflict with their friends, even though they do understand those friends are wrong. This is why it’s necessary for parents to talk about religion and bullying to their kids, and to talk to them as they would to an adult.
For parents, it may be enough to get a basic understanding and appreciation of different religions. Teachers, on the other hand, have to be very well-versed in the common topics of the doctrines represented in their school. It falls to the school administrations to provide the necessary training.
We still have a long way to go in terms of bullying prevention, and religious bullying in particular. This way is not easy. It may force us to face some unflattering realizations about where we truly stand on the matters of diversity and inclusion.
We must, however, make those realizations. Without them, we will never improve ourselves.
- Religion-based bullying: causes, dangers, solutions – by Sam Chester - September 4, 2019