Teacher at Center of Hijab Uproar Sues Olympic Medalist for Defamation

Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic medalist who fences in a hijab, denounced the teacher’s action as abuse in an Instagram post that went viral.Credit...

A seconds-long interaction in a New Jersey classroom unleashed a national firestorm last October as it ricocheted across social media platforms. A 7-year-old girl had come home from school upset, telling her mother that her teacher in Maplewood, N.J., had tried to pull off the hijab the girl wears as an observant Muslim.

Her mother recounted the story on Facebook, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic medalist who fences in a hijab, immediately denounced it as abuse in an Instagram post that went viral. By the next day, Gov. Philip D. Murphy had weighed in on Twitter, and a statewide Islamic organization was calling for the teacher’s “immediate firing.”

One year later, the matter has landed in court. The family sued the school district and the teacher, Tamar Herman. And this month, the teacher filed a defamation suit in New Jersey’s Superior Court that accuses the Olympian and the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Rights and its director of causing “irreparable harm.”

Ms. Herman is also suing the school district, South Orange-Maplewood, in federal court, claiming it was complicit in what she called “relentless discriminatory treatment.”

“What started as a simple misunderstanding between plaintiff, who is Jewish, and one of her second-grade students, who is Muslim, was transformed into defendants’ complicity in a parade of outrageous, false, defamatory and antisemitic statements,” the federal lawsuit, which was filed a day before the state suit, states.

The incident roiled a community known for its liberal values, and tapped into a deep sense of anxiety among many Muslims, who make up roughly 3 percent of the state population and have faced an uptick in bias crime.

And even though many of the facts remained unclear, social media was quickly awash with angry opinions.

“The strong reaction from the local, state and national level is in large part a culmination of two decades of feeling targeted and vulnerable,” said Sahar Aziz, a Rutgers Law School professor and the author of a book about Islamophobia, “The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.”

The teacher said in the defamation lawsuit that she “brushed” back a hooded garment that was blocking the student’s eyes, believing that the girl was wearing her typical “form-fitting” hijab underneath. She said she immediately replaced the head covering and apologized to the girl once she realized her error.

In her state lawsuit, she claims that Ms. Muhammad, the fencer, and CAIR-NJ were “motivated by a combination of greed and a fierce desire to burnish their brands as fighters against Islamophobia,” and that her reputation was so damaged that she can never be hired by another public school district.

The legal papers also cite Governor Murphy’s social media commentary, but he is not named as a defendant.

Filed on Oct. 5 in Union County Superior Court, the state suit also alleges that Ms. Herman is so afraid for her safety in the community where she taught for 20 years and also lived that she has had to permanently move out of her home.

“She’s been ostracized by her community,” said her lawyer, Erik Dykema.

Messages left for Ms. Muhammad and the agency that represents her, Wasserman, were not returned.

Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR-NJ, said he and his organization had been unaware of the defamation claim until Monday.

“We cannot yet comment on this filing, which our legal counsel must review,” CAIR-NJ said in statement. “However, we continue to strongly stand by this student, who had the clear constitutional right to cover her hair for religious reasons without physical interference or humiliation.”

The incident occurred on Oct. 6, 2021, about five weeks after classes began in the northern New Jersey school district.

Ms. Herman has said that the girl’s face was almost entirely obscured by the mask she and her classmates were at the time required to wear to slow the spread of Covid-19, and by what the lawsuits describe as a “hood.”

After realizing the girl was not wearing a hijab underneath, Ms. Herman “immediately brushed the hood back to cover all the student’s hair and apologized,” according to the state filing. “The hood never left the student’s head.”

A lawyer for the family, Robert L. Tarver, has said that the child immediately objected, and held onto the head covering.

A lawsuit the family filed in March, which cited religious discrimination, said Ms. Herman also touched the girl’s hair and “told her that her natural hair was beautiful.”

That lawsuit was dismissed last month, court records show. Mr. Tarver said Monday that the parties were “involved in settlement,” but did not elaborate.

He said he had no comment about Ms. Herman’s claim that she had been harmed.

Because the original accusation involved potential bias over a religious item worn to cover hair and maintain modesty, the district quickly referred the case to the Essex County Prosecutors Office, which led an investigation but declined to file criminal charges.

The teacher has not been permitted to return to the classroom and remains on administrative leave, according to the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the district said she had no immediate information about the teacher’s job status or the federal lawsuit.

The interaction quickly seeped far beyond the school, Seth Boyden Elementary.

Mr. Maksut, who wrote on Twitter that “racist teachers like this cannot be trusted around our children,” appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss his organization’s demand that Ms. Herman be immediately terminated.

Ms. Muhammad is a longtime resident of Maplewood who fenced for the district’s high school team and has written a children’s book about a girl who wears a hijab. The day after the incident at Seth Boyden, Ms. Muhammad, who also has a line of fashion clothing and a Barbie doll made in her image, urged her large social media following to call and email the school.

“Imagine being a child and stripped of your clothing in front of your classmates,” she wrote. “Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused her. This is abuse.”

Over the next few weeks, the district fielded thousands of angry emails and calls. Students at the elementary school were temporarily barred from going outside for gym or recess because of a concern over safety as protesters and network news cameras showed up outside.

Facebook groups popular with parents from Maplewood and South Orange, N.J., neighboring towns about 30 miles from Manhattan that share a school district, were flooded with opinions that escalated in rancor once Ms. Herman’s Jewish faith was injected into the online discourse.

Ms. Herman, in the suits, said she had been subjected to “antisemitic vitriol and hatred.”

Her defamation lawsuit is funded by The Lawfare Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the “civil and human rights of the Jewish people worldwide.”

As a public figure, Ms. Muhammad “should have known better,” Mr. Dykema said.

“And she should have done a little more homework before she started to say the things she said online,” he added.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-19 03:36:38 -0700