Ibtihaj Muhammad made history as the first hijab-clad athlete on the U.S. Olympic team. The bronze medal winning fencer from the 2016 summer games was featured on magazine covers, spawned a line of sportswear and even a Barbie doll.
But in court papers filed late Tuesday, a New Jersey elementary school teacher says Muhammad deserves a different reputation: Liar.
In October 2021 social media posts, Muhammad accused veteran schoolteacher Tamar Herman of abusing a 7-year-old Muslim student by “forcibly” pulling off her hijab as “the young student resisted.” After exposing the girl’s hair to the class, Herman then told her that “her hair was beautiful and she did not have to wear hijab to school anymore,” Muhammad wrote.
Herman insists that didn’t happen and contacted Muhammad to offer her side of the story. But when Herman, who had Muhammad’s cell phone number, texted to say her post was “completely false and terribly damaging,” Muhammad ignored her. Now, Muhammad says she had no idea who Herman was.
Muhammad’s claims, filed last month, “are outright falsehoods,” Herman says. And they are “further evidence [of] her actual malice, i.e. reckless disregard for the truth.”
CAIR Blows Up Incident into National Story
The issue generated national attention when the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its New Jersey chapter called for Herman’s firing.
“Our children must be protected from anti-Muslim bigotry and abuse at school,” CAIR’s national office wrote. “The teacher who pulled a second grader’s hijab off in class must be fired immediately.”
“Anything less,” CAIR’s New Jersey chapter added, “is an insult to the students and parents…”
School administrators were overwhelmed by the public response. IPT has seen dozens of social media posts that not only called for Herman’s firing but threatened her safety as well.
Herman hasn’t been allowed back in the classroom since.
Last October, she filed suit in federal court against the South Orange Maplewood school district and a consultant it worked with for their roles in a “malicious and antisemitic campaign” and for violating her due process rights. She also sued Muhammad, CAIR, its New Jersey chapter and its director, Selaedin Maksut, in state court alleging defamation. CAIR moved to dismiss the case in February, saying their statements largely were accurate and, therefore, not defamatory. Muhammad and Maksut embraced CAIR’s filing.
In her response filed Tuesday, Herman argues that none of the parties made any effort to determine if the accusation was true.
“Muhammad, despite her claims to the contrary in support of her motions, knew Herman well and had the ability and opportunity to communicate with Herman about the allegations, yet inexplicably declined to do so,” attorney Erick Dykema writes. “Maksut, CAIR, and CAIR NJ, for their part, clearly didn’t care about the truth—they simply parroted Muhammad’s false accusations without any concern for their accuracy.”
It is too soon for the court to consider the defense motions, Dykema writes. The basic facts are in dispute, and no discovery has taken place which would help determine what is true.
Herman has been teaching for 30 years “with a stellar reputation.”
She insists the entire episode was a misunderstanding. The 7-year-old girl normally wore a form-fitting hijab to class, but on the day in question, she had on a sweatshirt, with the hood covering her eyes during a lesson. Herman asked the girl to pull it back, thinking the hijab was underneath. But when the girl didn’t respond, Herman says she gently brushed the hood back.
When she saw no hijab, Herman says she quickly pulled the hood back into place, covering the child’s hair, and apologized.
Herman would have told this account to Muhammad or CAIR. But she never was given the chance.
“The evidence of actual malice—reckless disregard for the truth—is overwhelming,” Dykema writes. “… Muhammad based her social media posts on a thirdhand account of events emanating from a most unreliable source, that being a young child.”
The girl’s parents, Cassandra and Joseph Wyatt, each have made antisemitic statements about Herman and the incident involving their daughter.
Jews “monopolize a lot of stuff for money,” Joseph Wyatt told the Washington Post. “The Jews — the Semitics — they run Hollywood. They run a lot of stuff. It’s all Jewish names.”
Whatever happened between his daughter and Tamar Herman was about religion, “no doubt,” he said. “There’s always been a conflict with the Muslims and the Jews … That’s why they are fighting in Palestine.”
The teacher may say it was a mistake, he said, but “it was no mistake to her.”
The child’s mother, Cassandra Wyatt, has changed her story and made her own social media posts admitting that her reaction changed once she learned Herman is Jewish. According to Herman’s lawsuit, the girl’s mother initially told the principal that she understood the incident was a misunderstanding. But she quickly changed tone upon learning Herman is Jewish.
” “I JUST FOUND OUT THE TEACHER IS JEWISHHHHHHHHHH ������������� . . . that’s why I believe she did it now I’m furious,” Wyatt wrote.
“A JEWSIH (sic) TEACHER THAT TAUGHT AT A JEWISH SCHOOL & A PUBLIC SCHOOL FOR 30 YEARS PULLED MY MUSLIM 7 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER HIJAB OFF HER HEAD CLAIMING IT WAS A HOODIES” “SHES JEWISH!”
For all of CAIR’s public claims to stand against antisemitism, as we have noted, the fact that it has not said a word about the Wyatts’ demonstrable antisemitism speaks volumes about CAIR’s true views on Jews.
Herman Refutes Muhammad’s Claim She Did Not Know Herman
Despite the story’s shaky foundation and the ongoing damage to Herman’s career and reputation, Herman “is litigating a personal and political grievance,” Muhammad’s lawyers write.
But in a written statement filed with Tuesday’s brief, Herman says that “Muhammad simply did not care at all whether the facts alleged in the post were true or false – she desired to make the post to create publicity for herself, and her clothing and book businesses, all of which would generate income for her and social media clout for her cause.”
The resulting harm and upheaval was “cruel [and] needless.”
Muhammad says she learned about the incident from her mother, who heard about it from Cassandra Wyatt.
“Until the filing of this lawsuit, I knew nothing about any of the Wyatt family’s views towards Jews or any other religious group,” Muhammad says.
She knows now. But it hasn’t changed anything. The word of antisemitic parents and a second-grader is more credible to Muhammad than a 30-year teacher with no history of anything remotely close to bigotry.
“Indeed, if anything, Muhammad has become more confident in her conclusions,” her attorney writes [Emphasis original].
In addition to its shocking nature, Muhammad’s post particularly stung Herman, who considered her a friend. Muhammad attended the same elementary school where Herman teaches. They go to the same gym, work out with the same trainer, and even exchanged phone numbers after Herman asked about Muhammad returning to the school to speak to students.
Long before the incident, Herman hung a poster of Muhammad outside her classroom. She used Muhammad in her lessons about “perseverance, persistence, dedication, overcoming obstacles, overcoming adversity, and achieving excellence in spite of it all.”
The two sides seem to agree that Herman contacted Muhammad to say the statements were false. Muhammad says she has no memory of previous interactions with Herman and does not know how Herman got her phone number.
But in her own declaration to the court, Muhammad says she texted and called her trainer “immediately after Herman texted me” to figure out who was texting her about the social media posts. The trainer confirmed that Herman attended the same gym and that the text came from Herman’s phone number.
That, Herman believes, exposes Muhammad’s lie.
“I did not identify myself in her text as a friend from the gym; if Muhammad did not know me,” Herman writes, “she would not have known to contact her trainer to confirm my identity.”
Again, none of this has given Muhammad pause to re-examine what she wrote. “I did not and do not believe the Student, Wyatt’s mother, or my mother was lying,” Muhammad says.
The present tense reference is odd, given that Muhammad, unlike CAIR, removed the original social media posts about Herman. CAIR’s are still online.
A Difference of Opinion?
It was Muhammad’s social media posts that turned the incident into a national news story. It also, Herman’s attorneys say, “created a firestorm of public outrage with explosive and lasting consequences, including but not limited to: Herman being subjected to threats to her physical safety, antisemitic vitriol and hatred, relentless harassment from strangers, merciless bullying and ridicule, shaming in local and national news stories.”
But because Herman acknowledges pushing the girl’s hood back, CAIR argues, its statements about the incident are “substantially true.” Whether it was an innocent mistake or a racist, Islamophobic attack that merits immediate termination is a simple difference of opinion and not a matter for the courts.
Tuesday’s response devotes considerable attention to this argument.
It is akin to arguing there’s no difference between “tapping someone versus hitting someone, or assisting an elderly person down a staircase versus shoving an elderly person down a staircase,” Dykema writes.
In addition, case law about defamation and minor inaccuracies “do not encompass allegations that transform a neutral act into an aggressive, bigoted, or violent one.”
He is asking the court to accept an amended complaint which could render the pending motions moot.
Where CAIR and Muhammad see a difference of opinion, “Muhammad’s exaggerated language substantially distorted and twisted what happened during the interaction between Herman and the Student, transforming Herman’s caring actions into imagined abhorrent actions,” the amended complaint says.
If the case is allowed to move to discovery, it could help sort out the competing narratives. The school principal could be deposed to determine whether Cassandra Wyatt did initially describe the incident as a misunderstanding. Cassandra Wyatt could be asked about her shifting responses and her emphasis on Herman being Jewish. She also could be asked about Herman’s claim that Wyatt brought her daughter to Herman’s home, unannounced, in January 2022. There, Herman says, Wyatt again acknowledged the incident was a misunderstanding and said her daughter loves and misses Herman.
CAIR officials and internal communications could be examined to see what thoughts went into their decision to jump on the issue.
A Seminal Case?
This case will turn on many factors, including New Jersey statutes, case law and more. But for the public, it is about reasonable standards. Is it reasonable to demand teachers know that a sweatshirt hood on a 7-year-old is serving as a hijab? Is it reasonable to continue to slur someone as a bigot and tarnish a 30-year career over a brief incident?
Is it reasonable to blindly accept the word of a parent who repeatedly expressed raging antisemitism? Remember that Wyatt initially was willing to accept Herman’s account until learning the teacher was “JEWISHHHHHHHHHH.”
To Muhammad and CAIR, none of this matters. Not Wyatt’s flagrant antisemitism. Not Herman’s previous support for Muhammad or her choice to use Muhammad as a role model for her second graders.
They continue to stand on an entirely uncorroborated account that casts an innocent, seconds-long encounter as a hate crime worthy of ruining Tamar Herman’s life.
A ruling on the defense motions to dismiss is expected at the end of the month.
This column was originally published at The Investigative Project on Terrorism
The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.