In a series of Oct. 2021 social media posts, Muhammad accused veteran schoolteacher Tamar Herman of abusing a seven-year-old Muslim student by “forcibly” pulling off her hijab while “the young student resisted.”
Herman insists this didn’t happen and contacted Muhammad to offer her side of the story. But when Herman texted Muhammad to say her post was “completely false and terribly damaging,” Muhammad ignored her. Now, Muhammad says she had no idea who Herman was, which appears to be false.
The incident generated national attention when the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its New Jersey chapter demanded Herman be fired.
“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.”
School administrators were overwhelmed by the public response. The Investigative Project on Terrorism has seen dozens of social media posts that not only called for Herman to be fired but threatened her physical safety.
Herman hasn’t been allowed back in the classroom since.
Last October, she sued the South Orange Maplewood school district and a consultant it worked with in federal court for their roles in a “malicious and antisemitic campaign” against her, as well as violating her due process rights.
Herman 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 were largely accurate and, therefore, not defamatory. Muhammad and Maksut support CAIR’s claim.
In her response filed Tuesday, Herman argued 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 wrote. “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.”
Herman has been teaching for 30 years “with a stellar reputation.” She insists the entire episode was a misunderstanding. The seven-year-old girl normally wore a form-fitting hijab to class, but on the day in question, she wore a sweatshirt with a hood covering her eyes. 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 to Muhammad or CAIR, but she was never given the chance.
“The evidence of actual malice—reckless disregard for the truth—is overwhelming,” Dykema wrote. “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, 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.”
“There’s always been a conflict with the Muslims and the Jews,” he added. “That’s why they are fighting in Palestine.”
The teacher may say the incident was a mistake, he said, but “it was no mistake to her.”
According to Herman’s lawsuit, Cassandra Wyatt initially told the school principal that she understood the incident was a misunderstanding, but this changed when she learned 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 on social media.
“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,” she ranted. “SHES JEWISH!”
Though CAIR claims to oppose antisemitism, it has not said a word about the Wyatts’ demonstrable Jew-hatred. This speaks volumes about CAIR’s real views on Jews.
Muhammad’s lawyers claim that Herman “is litigating a personal and political grievance.”
But in a written statement, Herman said, “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 said.
She knows now. But it hasn’t changed anything. The word of antisemitic parents is more credible to Muhammad than that of a veteran teacher with no history of bigotry.
Muhammad’s post particularly stung Herman because she considered Muhammad a friend. Muhammad attended the elementary school where Herman teaches. They go to the same gym, work out with the same trainer and even exchanged phone numbers at one point.
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 said she texted and called her trainer “immediately after Herman texted me.” 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 … as a friend from the gym,” Herman said. “If Muhammad did not know me, she would not have known to contact her trainer to confirm my identity.”
None of this has given Muhammad pause. “I did not and do not believe the Student, Wyatt’s mother or my mother was lying,” Muhammad said.
CAIR argues that, since Herman acknowledges pushing the girl’s hood back, its statements about the incident are “substantially true.” Whether it was an innocent mistake or an Islamophobic attack is supposedly 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 wrote.
If the case is allowed to move to discovery, it could 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 emphasis on Herman being Jewish and Herman’s claim that Wyatt brought her daughter to Herman’s home, unannounced, in Jan. 2022. There, Herman says, Wyatt acknowledged the incident was a misunderstanding and said her daughter loves and misses Herman.
CAIR officials and internal communications could be examined to find out why they chose to jump on the issue.
To Muhammad and CAIR, however, none of this matters. Not Wyatt’s flagrant antisemitism. Not Herman’s previous relationship with Muhammad. Muhammad and CAIR continue to stand on an entirely uncorroborated account that casts an innocent, seconds-long encounter as a hate crime.
A ruling on the defense motions to dismiss is expected at the end of the month.
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.