Muslims are among the most discriminated groups in current day Western-Europe where many people hold the view that Islam is an alien religion and incompatible with mainstream values (Hagendoorn and Sniderman 2007
; Strabac and Listhaug 2008
). Due to this Islamophobic climate, it can be rather difficult for Muslim children to grow up there. An increasing number of these children attend Islamic schools (Dronkers 2016
; Maussen and Bader 2014
) that aim to provide them with a safe environment to develop and express their religious identity, and a shelter against religious discrimination. Islamic schools allow children to feel good about their religious background and thus about themselves. However, despite this “safe haven” function, the role and impact of Islamic education in Western countries have not gone undisputed. Critics have argued that Islamic schools may undermine social cohesion and promote segregation by making children ill prepared to function in non-Muslim or secular societies, or worse, by turning them away from these societies altogether (Elbih 2012
; Hussain and Read 2015
; Zine 2007
). Yet to date, there are very few empirical findings to support or reject these fears and criticisms.
The present research makes a unique contribution to the literature by examining how teachers in Islamic schools can affect both the self-esteem and the national identification of their Muslim students (aged 8–14 years). Both self-esteem and national identification are crucial adjustment outcomes for children who live in a country where their religious group is highly stigmatized. Rather than comparing the impact of Islamic versus non-Islamic education, the study investigates how children’s self-esteem and national identification are associated with teacher-related factors within Islamic schools, and it examines whether these factors can counteract the (anticipated) negative impact of children’s perceptions of religious discrimination directed against themselves (personal discrimination) and their peers (group discrimination). As such, this research could inform practical attempts to help Islamic school students cope with discrimination and to promote high self-esteem and a sense of identification with a country where many people are negatively inclined toward their religion.
The study used a quantitative approach and sampled 35 primary school classes from around a third of all Islamic schools in the Netherlands. Although Christianity was and is the dominant religion in the Netherlands, it is one of the most secular countries in the world (De Graaf and Te Grotenhuis 2008
). However, the country also has a substantial Muslim population, and since the 1980’s, Islamic schools were established there in order to provide Islamic instruction and to raise the academic performance of Muslim students (Merry and Driessen 2016
). In the Dutch school system, primary school children tend to have one or two teachers the whole year round, and this makes these teachers significant adults in their daily lives. As teachers can function as secondary attachment figures for primary school children (Verschueren and Koomen 2012
), children’s perceptions of the student-teacher relationship were examined. Many teachers in Muslim schools are non-Muslim teachers with a Dutch background (Driessen and Merry 2006
; Dronkers 2016
). These non-Muslim Dutch teachers could potentially act as “a bridge to Dutch society” for children in Islamic schools who may otherwise only have limited contact with native Dutch or non-Muslim people (Driessen and Merry 2006
). As such, it was examined whether a close relationship with the teacher, especially a non-Muslim one, is associated with Muslim students’ self-esteem and national identification. Additionally, the role of the teachers’ implicit attitude toward Muslims versus non-Muslims was examined. As will be explained, this variation in religious background and/or attitude may have important implications for the national identification and self-esteem of Muslim children in a non-Islamic country such as the Netherlands.
Personal and Group Discrimination, Self-Esteem, and National Identification
Research has shown that children report less ethnic discrimination when they have fewer ethnic out-group classmates (Thijs, Verkuyten and Grundel 2013). In Islamic schools, all children are Muslim and this means that they are protected from religious peer discrimination in their school environment. Still, discrimination can take place outside schools, and Muslim children can be aware of prejudice directed toward their group even if they are not discriminated themselves. Research has shown that minority youths’ perceptions of personal and group discrimination are considerably related but also that they perceive more discrimination against their fellow group members than against themselves (Armenta and Hunt 2009
; Verkuyten and Thijs 2002
), a phenomenon known as the Personal/Group-Discrimination Discrepancy (PGDP; Taylor et al. 1990
). This discrepancy was expected to be present in the current study as well.
Discrimination signals that an important part of the self, i.e., the group one belongs to, is negatively regarded and not accepted by others (Schmitt and Branscombe 2002
), and this is especially problematic for young people who have to find their place in society (Schmitt et al. 2014
). In forming their opinions about the self, children are strongly dependent on others, and researchers have documented a process of “reflected appraisals” whereby their evaluations of themselves are partly based on (their perceptions of) others’ opinions about them or the groups they belong to (Harter 1999
). Numerous studies have shown that perceived discrimination has detrimental effects on the self-esteem of disadvantaged minority youth but the effect of personal discrimination is typically more pronounced than that of group discrimination (for a meta-analysis, see Schmitt et al. 2014
). Both personal and group discrimination convey negative messages about one’s group membership which children may to come to internalize. Still, personal discrimination may have more negative implications for the self than group discrimination. Although group discrimination implies a devaluation of the group one belongs to, it is not directly targeted at the self. In fact, Muslim children may feel better about themselves if they perceive more discrimination against their religious in-group peers versus themselves, because it indicates that others’ opinions of them as individuals are relatively positive (“I must be really nice if they are so often discriminated while I am not”; see Bourguignon et al. 2006
). This positive effect may counteract the negative impact of the devaluation of their religious group.
In countries where the majority is non-Muslim and Islam is regarded with suspicion by substantial parts of the population, perceived religious discrimination could also threaten the national belonging of Muslim school students. According to the so-called rejection-disidentification model (Jasinskaja-Lahti and Liebkind 2009
), people tend to psychologically withdraw (disidentify) from groups they feel rejected by, and research has supported this model by showing that perceived discrimination undermines the national identification of Muslim adults (Maliepaard and Verkuyten 2018
) and youth (Fleischmann and Phalet 2018
) in Western societies. This previous research has not compared the effects of personal and group discrimination. However, it can be anticipated that Muslim children’s sense of national identification is more affected by the latter by the former than the latter. However painful individual experiences with discrimination can be, these experiences may be temporary and the future might look less pale. However, the impression that fellow group members are discriminated against indicates that anti-Muslim prejudice is widespread in society, and thus can be expected to have stronger implications for children’s national belonging (cf., Stevens and Thijs 2018
The Importance of the Student-Teacher Relationship
There is ample evidence that the quality of the student-teacher relationship is crucial for the academic, psychological, and social adjustment of primary school children (e.g., Roorda et al. 2011
; Rudasill et al. 2010
). Much of this positive impact can be explained from a so-called extended attachment perspective, which claims that teachers can function as secondary or surrogate attachment figures to children who can provide them with the necessary security and confidence to approach their worlds and with emotional support in times of stress (Verschueren and Koomen 2012
). Children who share warm and close bonds with their teachers learn that they are socially accepted and worthy of love and affection, and research has shown that these relations promote the development of high self-esteem (Ryan et al. 1994
; Verschueren et al. 2012
). Additionally, there is some evidence that positive relationships with teachers can protect against the negative effects of discrimination. Trust in their teachers makes children more resilient in dealing with stressful life events (Pianta et al. 2003
), and a longitudinal study among immigrant adolescents in Sweden found that personal ethnic peer harassment predicted lower self-esteem over time, but also these effects were not significant for students who reported positive bonds with their teachers (Özdemir and Stattin 2014
). Thus, it was expected that Muslim children who experience more closeness in the relationship with their teachers have higher self-esteem, and also that their self-esteem is less negatively affected by their perceptions of discrimination.
Additionally, the current study tested whether the student-teacher relationship plays these promotive and protective roles (see Motti-Stefanidi and Masten 2013
) for children’s national identification. Although Islamic schools are not representative of the dominant culture in Western societies, they are state funded and part of the national educational system (Dronkers 2016
) and thus expected to prepare their students to participate in the larger society (Barrett 2007
). Accordingly, it is reasonable to anticipate that Islamic school students who share a positive, high-quality relationships with their teachers experience a stronger connection to their schools and thus to the country they live in. It can also be expected that the national identification of these students is less strongly affected by their perceptions of discrimination. The reason is that these positive bonds with their teachers will provide children with the confidence and security to cope with the prejudice against their group, and thus undermine their tendency to withdraw from the national group. These hypotheses have never been systematically investigated but they are clearly consistent with findings by Hussain and Read (2015
). These authors conducted an extensive field study at three Islamic schools in the US and the UK, and they concluded that these schools can facilitate rather than undermine the future integration of their students by “giving them the confidence to interact with those from outside of their faith community” (p. 563).
Teachers’ Religious Background and Implicit Religious Attitude
In addition to the degree of closeness that children experienced with their teachers, this study examined the religious background and the implicit religious attitude of the latter. Teachers in Islamic schools are not all Muslims, and they can differ in their attitude toward Muslims and Islam. Indeed, research among a large sample of primary and secondary school (public and private) teachers in Flanders (Belgium) found considerable between-teacher variation in the attitude toward Muslim students. This variation was only partly explained by teachers’ own religious background (Agirdag et al. 2012
), which implies that both factors are sufficiently independent to include as separate predictors.
Although there is no reason to expect that the religious background of the teachers would relate to the self-esteem of Islamic school students, it probably affects their sense of national identification. Muslim children who grow up in a non-Islamic country have to develop a national identity that is shared with others who either are not religious or have different religious beliefs. According to the Common In-Group Identity Model (Dovidio et al. 2007
), the development of such a shared identity would be stimulated by contacts with these other people. Students in Islamic schools have no opportunities to interact with non-Muslim classmates, but they can have a non-Muslim teacher. Research in Dutch non-Islamic primary schools has found that ethnic minority children who shared positive relationships with their ethnic majority teachers were more likely to think positive about the ethnic majority group in general, especially when they had few majority classmates to interact with (Thijs and Verkuyten 2012
). This finding is consistent with Intergroup Contact Theory (Allport 1954
; Pettigrew 1998
) and indicated that, in the absence of out-group peers, teachers can be important contact figures for their students. Hence, in the present study, it was tested whether Islamic school students with a non-Muslim teacher would have stronger national identification compared to their peers with a Muslim teacher.
Next, given the strong debate surrounding the position of Islam, it might be difficult for teachers to express what they really think about Muslims, especially if they work at an Islamic school. The present study therefore used an implicit association test (IAT; Greenwald et al. 1998
) to assess teachers’ attitude toward Muslims versus non-Muslim natives. The advantage of implicit attitude measures compared to self-report measures, such as questionnaires, is that they are less sensitive to socially desirability concerns. In a variety of domains, implicit measures are found to add to the prediction of variations in human behavior that are not accounted for by self-report measures (for an overview, see Greenwald et al. 2009
). Especially with regard to controversial topics, such as ethnic or religious prejudice, implicit measures appear to be more predictive of subsequent behavior (Greenwald et al. 2009
). In the domain of education, earlier studies have shown that the implicit attitudes of teachers can have important consequences for their students (Peterson et al. 2016
; van den Bergh et al. 2010
; Vezzali et al. 2012
). For instance, teachers’ implicit ethnic prejudice has been found to affect ethnic minority students’ achievement (Van den Bergh et al. 2010
) as well as students’ own attitudes toward other ethnic groups (Vezzali et al. 2012
The very reasoning that predicts negative effects of perceived discrimination on children’s self-esteem also predicts a positive impact of teachers’ implicit attitude. Islamic school teachers who are favorably inclined toward Muslims are more likely to demonstrate this favorability in the behaviors and communications with their students. And such positive messages about their group can promote the self-esteem of Muslim children via the process of reflected appraisals (Harter 1999
). Yet, and probably inadvertently so, the implicit religious attitude of Islamic school teachers may also undermine the national identification of their students. The reason is that a positive evaluation of Muslims versus non Muslims also implies a comparatively less positive evaluation of the latter, and in Western countries the majority of the population belongs to that group. As teachers’ beliefs and practices can affect their students’ beliefs toward society (e.g., Banks 2001
), teachers with a comparatively less positive attitude toward non-Muslim natives may communicate this attitude to their students. Thus it is possible that teachers’ implicit attitude toward Muslims versus non-Muslims diminishes their students’ sense of national identification.
It is also important to consider the interaction between teachers’ religious background and implicit religious attitude. According to Self-Categorization Theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher and Wetherell, 1987
) people are more likely to rely on in-group members than on out-group members to provide them with relevant information about the social world. And this would imply that the anticipated effects of teachers’ implicit attitude on children’s self-esteem and national identification would be stronger for Muslim versus non-Muslim teachers. Yet it also thinkable that children are more focused on non-Muslim teachers’ (implicit) communications about Muslim versus non-Muslims because such communications are informative about what the “outside world” thinks of their group. As a consequence, the implicit attitude of non-Muslim teachers could be more influential than that of Muslim teachers. Both possibilities were explored in this study.
There is considerable debate about the contribution and effects of Islamic education in Western societies. Islamic schools provide Muslim children with a safe context where they can openly practice their religion and do not have to worry about religious discrimination and Islamophobia. Yet children who attend these schools have considerably less opportunities to meet peers from other- or non-religious backgrounds, and theoretically this could undermine their future integration in societies where Muslims are a stigmatized minority (Thijs and Verkuyten 2014
). Researchers can test the empirical foundations for these and other arguments by systematically comparing the effects of Islamic versus non-Islamic education. However, given the growing presence of Islamic schools in many Western societies (Dronkers 2016
; Maussen and Bader 2014
), it is more practical and perhaps more interesting to know how different factors within
these schools affect how children feel about themselves and the country they live in. This study is the first quantitative research to provide this much needed knowledge, and educators could use it insights to help Islamic school students deal with religious discrimination and foster their self-esteem and national identification.
The current results show that Islamic school children report substantially more discrimination against their group than against themselves. This is in line with the Personal/Group Discrimination Discrepancy (Taylor et al. 1990
) but also consistent with the notion that Islamic schools can partly shelter Muslim children from personal discrimination. Next, children’s overall perceptions of religious discrimination were associated with lower self-esteem, but unexpectedly the difference between group and personal discrimination (group/personal discrepancy) had no significant effect which indicates that the impact of the latter was not substantially stronger than that of the former. These findings indicate that religious discrimination undermines Muslim children’s self-evaluations presumably because it conveys a negative message about their religious identity which they come to internalize (Harter 1999
). However, the results do not support the reasoning that perceiving more discrimination against one’s fellow in-group members versus the self promotes self-esteem as this helps people to feel good about themselves as individuals (see Bourguignon et al. 2006
). Perhaps this reasoning is adequate but simply does not apply to Muslim children. Earlier research has reported very high rates of a religious identification among Muslim youth in the Netherlands (Verkuyten et al. 2012
), and as a result it may be difficult for them to separate the implications of what happens to them personally from what happens to their co-religious peers. The relatively strong correlation between perceived group and perceived personal discrimination in the present study (r
= 0.60) as compared to other studies among minority youth (r
= 0.48, Stevens and Thijs in press
= 0.41, Armenta and Hunt 2009
) is consistent with this interpretation. However, future research should directly test this by including a religious identification measure.4
The analyses also supported the hypothesis that Muslim children’s perceptions of religious discrimination undermine their national identification. Unexpectedly, there was no effect of the group/personal discrepancy indicating that group discrimination is not more harmful than personal discrimination in this respect. Again, this might be due to children’s strong religious identification, and future research should test this interpretation. Still, consistent with the rejection-disidentification model (Jasinskaja-Lahti and Liebkind 2009
), it is more difficult for Muslim children in a non-Muslim country to feel a connection to that country and its “original” inhabitants, if they have the awareness that they or their religious in-group peers are not accepted there (see also Fleischmann and Phalet 2018
Next, it was found that Islamic school students who experienced a close, personal bond with their teachers had higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of national identification. Islamic school teachers are in a unique position to counteract the negative effects of discrimination for their students: As potential secondary attachment figures (Verschueren and Koomen 2012
), they can help their students feel good about themselves (Ryan et al. 1994
), and as representatives of the national educational system (Dronkers 2016
) they can stimulate a sense of connection to society at large. Yet, unexpectedly, relational closeness did not diminish the negative impact of perceived discrimination. First, perceived discrimination was found to be associated with lower self-esteem regardless of children’s bond with their teachers. This results seems to contradict findings from an earlier study which showed that positive relationships with teachers protected immigrant students’ self-esteem against the negative impact of perceived ethnic peer harassment (Özdemir and Stattin 2014
). Importantly, however, that previous study was conducted in public schools. In principle, public schools are open to different groups of students, which implies that part of students’ discrimination experiences can take place within the school environment itself. The current research took place within Islamic schools where religious discrimination of Muslim children is extremely unlikely. To the extent that Islamic school students perceive instances of religious discrimination, this most likely happens outside their school context. Apparently, teachers are less relevant for helping children deal with these negative out-of-school experiences.
Second, children’s closeness with their teachers appeared to strengthen rather than diminish the negative impact of their overall perceptions of discrimination on their national identification. A possible explanation for this unexpected finding is that this relationship provides Islamic school children with a sense of safety and local belonging which allows them to turn away from a society they perceive as hostile. Thus, these children could “afford” national disidentification in response to perceived rejection. Still, this should not be taken to mean that close relationships with Islamic school teachers move children away from mainstream society. Relational closeness was negatively related to children’s perceptions of discrimination, and its overall effect on national identification was positive.
Next to children’s subjective perceptions of the student-teacher relationship, the effects of teachers’ religious background and implicit religious attitude were examined. In Islamic schools, children have no opportunities to interact with non-Muslim peers, whereas these interactions could contribute to a shared national identity (Knifsend et al. 2017
). However, it was found that children with a non-Muslim teacher reported more national belonging than students with a Muslim teacher, which indicates that non-Muslim teachers have a considerable role to play as a bridge to society for Islamic school students in a non-Muslim country. Apparently, contact with these teachers makes it easier for them to feel part of a common national in-group that is largely composed of religious out-group members (see Dovidio et al. 2007
Unexpectedly there was no main effect of teachers’ implicit religious attitude on children’s national identification. However, there was a significant interaction with teachers’ religious background, and the religious attitude of non-Muslim teachers was associated with a weaker sense of national identification in their students. Presumably, teachers with a relatively positive attitude toward Muslims communicated a comparatively less positive evaluation of non-Muslim natives to their students, and this evaluation had a negative impact on children’s identification with their non-Muslim country. The fact that the implicit attitude of only the non-Muslim teachers was found to matter could mean that Islamic school children are more attentive to the religious evaluations of the non-Muslim majority and consider them to be more knowledgeable about that group. It also means that the positive effect of having a non-Muslim teacher can be undone if he or she has a comparatively less positive attitude toward non-Muslim natives. Possibly, non-Muslim teachers with such an attitude are seen as less exemplary for “the non-Muslim out-group”, which undermines the contact potential of children’s interactions with these teachers, and hence their contribution to the development of a common national identity (see Thijs and Verkuyten 2012
). Not surprisingly, Muslim teachers scored higher on the implicit attitude measure than their non-Muslim colleagues, but their religious preference did certainly not undermine the national identification of their students.
Finally, the analyses did not support the expectation that the children had higher self-esteem if they a had a teacher with a comparatively positive attitude toward Muslims versus non-Muslims. Perhaps, these teachers only demonstrated a less positive attitude toward non-Muslim natives a suggested above. And this was probably irrelevant for how the children evaluated themselves. Another possibility is that the school environment of the children explicitly supported their religious identity which would make their self-evaluations less dependent on the religious attitude of their teachers. Future research is necessary to test such interpretations.
In evaluating the present study, some qualifications and limitations need to be considered. First, as indicated above, the (non)impact of teachers’ implicit attitude can be interpreted in different ways. Like many other IAT measures (Greenwald et al. 2009
), the present instrument juxtaposed teachers’ evaluations of two groups (Muslims versus non-Muslims). This means that one cannot establish whether the effects of teachers’ implicit attitude are due to their positive evaluations of Muslims or rather their less positive evaluations of non-Muslims. Future studies should use separate measures to disentangle these different implicit attitudes. Second, the use of cross-sectional data undermines the ability to make causality claims. For example, one cannot rule out the possibility that Muslim children with lower self-esteem or a weaker sense of national identification are more likely to perceive discrimination directed against themselves or their group, respectively. It makes theoretical sense to regard self-esteem and national identification as outcomes of perceived discrimination, and it is very unlikely that teachers’ own religious background and attitude depend on their students’ national identification and self-esteem. However, future research should use cross-lagged models to test the direction of effects assumed in the present study. Third, this study relied on children’s perceptions of the quality of the student-teacher relationship. This choice can be defended by stressing the psychological importance of children’s relationship experiences (Koomen and Jellesma 2015
), but it would be worthwhile to replicate the present findings with teachers’ reports of the student-teacher relationship. Finally, this study took place in the Netherlands where primary school children tend to have the same single teacher across the whole year. It is important to replicate its findings among Islamic school children in other Western countries.
Despite its limitations, the present study has some practical implications. For one, Islamic schools should actively promote religious diversity amongst their teaching staff in order to stimulate a sense of national identification in their students. And importantly, the non-Muslim teaching staff should not be negatively inclined toward non-Muslims natives to have this positive impact. As the present findings indicate, non-Muslim teachers who chose to work in Islamic schools are unlikely to prefer non-Muslims over Muslims. Yet it could be worthwhile for these schools to overcome this “self-selection”, and also employ non-Muslim teachers who are slightly biased toward “their own group”, just as their Muslim colleagues. Next the current findings indicate that Islamic school teachers could be trained in helping their students cope with religious prejudice. Close relationships with their teachers allow these children to feel good about themselves in spite of the discrimination against their group. Yet teachers should be made aware of the possibility that these relationships could inadvertently facilitate a process of national disidentification for students who perceive much of this discrimination. Thus the challenge is to provide a safe base that allows children toward rather than away from mainstream society.