Learning tolerance

 
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By Barry van Driel

Islamophobia is common in western society, so the classroom is a good place to start combating it.

25 November 2010

If ever a book was overdue, Teaching against Islamophobia is it. This edited volume of very diverse contributions deals with a phenomenon that I would want to describe as the first real obsession of the 21st century:  the unease of Western societies with Islam and Muslims.  Unease is perhaps too mild a term for the mudslinging, accusations, fears and sheer paranoia that seem to have taken hold of large swathes of the public and media across North America and Europe. The vitriolic attacks on everything Muslim have been unleashed from both the right and the left side of the political spectrum.

This book represents a committed and comprehensive attempt to remind those in society who define themselves as educators that embracing issues of social justice and equity implies taking sides in the Islamophobia debate. The editors rightfully view Islamophobia through the lens of racism. In the UK, this has led to the use of the term anti-Muslim racism instead of Islamophobia.

Though the authors claim in their forward that the book is aimed at teachers, the contributions make it clear that it is intended for a much broader audience and that it has been especially written to make all of us (the non-Muslims primarily) reflect on our attitudes and misconceptions and to rethink many of our assumptions.

Living in Europe, I was pleased to see a primarily American book provide a North American perspective on the issue of Islamophobia, while also bringing in European issues in a few key places. In that sense, the book truly has an international character.

The 20 chapters in this book cover a wide range of topics, and it moves from more theoretical and socio-political discourse to a discussion of more practical issues.

In chapter 1, Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg set the theoretical tone for the rest of the book. Their comment that “learning from difference means that teachers are aware of the histories and struggles of colonized groups and oppressed  peoples” signifies how the authors reject the very common approach in multicultural and intercultural education that avoids discussing historical injustices and controversial issues so as not to upset people. References to empathetic understanding, solidarity and valuing of differences help position their pedagogical approach.  Their deconstruction of the propagandistic arguments being used by, for instance, the Fordham Foundation to promote the West as enlightened and majority Muslim nations as inherently inferior and a threat.

Chistopher Stonebanks builds on this analysis by looking at the manner in which intolerant attitudes towards Muslims and Islam are promoted by popular culture and are not considered, by and large, to be prejudicial. He also discusses the controversial concept of Islamophobia. Any treatise on the topic is enriched by looking at alternative and perhaps more accurate concepts. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes some 67 countries from Canada to Russia, speaks of ‘intolerance against Muslims’.

The last two chapters of Part 1 have been written by several Muslim teachers and address the misconceptions they encounter among their students regarding the core principles of Islam, the role of women, perceptions of violence, the spiritual meaning of the concept of ‘jihad’, and more.

Screen villains

Part 2 of the book looks at public, media and political discourse related to Islam. Shirley Steinberg returns to the topic of media discourse by examining 17 films where there is a significant presence of Arabs and/or Muslims. Her analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims/Arabs depicted in films – for most films the two are interchangeable categories – are viewed as barbaric, dangerous and uncivilised. They are somewhere between human and animal. White men are viewed as the heroes who will save locals and the West from these evil, stealing, cheating people. Arab and Muslim women are almost exclusively portrayed as oppressed and/or fanatical.

Steinberg also traces how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in television programmes in the United States and finds that though there a few positive depictions of Muslims, they are, by far, in the minority and becoming less common in recent years. Steinberg especially deconstructs popular television shows, such as Cable TV’s Sleeper Cell and 24. On the whole, Muslims are perceived as potential threats and especially as the ‘enemy within’.  Given their evil demeanour and the threat to the United States they do not deserve the same rights as others in society.

Jehanzab Dar looks at the demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comic books, which tend to be poorly developed caricatures of the ugly Arab stereotype. The author does devote some attention to several more recent positive cartoon depictions.  The series The 99 is especially mentioned as an example of how popular media (in this case comic books) can provide more accurate depictions of Muslims and Arabs.

Michael Giardina, moves away from analyses of popular culture somewhat and looks at how political individuals can be demonised through associations with Islam. He focuses on the rhetoric and imagery used to discredit US President Barack Obama by right-wing conservatives.

Nations of Islam

Part 3 shed light on “Muslims you never knew” by covering topics outside the main discourse relating to Islamophobia.

Several essays examine a topic often forgotten in the discourse about Islam and Muslims in the United States – the relationship of the African-American community to Islam. Preacher Moss, who refers to himself as an ‘undercover Muslim’, takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at African American perspectives on Muslim identities.  The more serious essence of his treatise is that “African American Muslims are marginalized as African Americans and ignored as African American Muslims”.

Samaa Abdurraqib provides highly insightful information about the historical relationship of the African-American community in the United States to Islam. She explains, right from its inception, Islam has been present in the United States – citing that perhaps 10%-15% of slaves brought to the United States were Muslim. She goes on to explain how this dimension of black history in the United States has been ignored in education and in the media, as has the diversity among US Muslims. The author’s main point is that Islam is not a foreign religion in the United States, as frequently claimed, but that it has long-established roots.

In a chapter that is bound to lead to significant discussion and debate among educators of all stripes, Younes Mourchid examines the contested relationship between alternative sexual orientations and traditional Islamic values. Mourchid builds his chapter on interviews with 20 LGBT Muslims. The author shows how such individuals, in often complex and contradictory ways, almost always struggle with their identity formation.

Some tend to internalise homophobic attitudes, blaming themselves for causing friction in the family, for instance, while others might internalise Islamophobic attitudes, blaming Islam for rejecting this core part of their identity. The campaign to make homosexuality acceptable in Muslim communities faces many challenges and is an uphill struggle. Mourchid closes with a discussion of whether those who hold traditional religious attitudes and reject homosexuality can be labelled ‘homophobic’.  His answer might surprise some readers.

Awad Ibrahim also seeks to provoke debate by examining the role of atheists and other non-believers within Islamic societies and ends with what he calls ‘The St Petersburg Manifesto’. This Manifesto is directed at both Muslim and non-Muslim faith communities and argues for a number of freedoms to be implemented in predominantly Muslim societies, such as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and the separation of religion and state.

Back to school

Part 4 brings us closest to the title of the book by providing some very concrete suggestions for materials that can be used in classrooms at all levels to combat Islamophobia, while also examining these materials critically.

Carolyne Ali Khan takes a critical look at a variety of educational programmes and materials that students in US schools are exposed to. In a very insightful discussion of several organisations and programmes that claim to promote understanding and ‘tolerance’, Ali Khan shows how they do the opposite.  She critically assesses, for instance, the messages and approaches promulgated by the New York Tolerance Centre and the American Textbook Council. The author’s discussion of these and other respected sources shows to what extent anti-Muslim bias has penetrated mainstream and even ‘tolerance’ education.  She ends her chapter by presenting some ‘uncommon knowledge’ about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Khan comments that many in Pakistan “are not the lunatic fringe. They are intelligent, complex and rational; they sing, dance and read and (perhaps most shockingly) they laugh, merrily poking fun at themselves and at the world”.

Anastasia Kamanos Gamelin looks at the intersection of gender and education in Saudi Arabia, a country known for denying women a number of fundamental rights and with a very traditional view of gender roles.

Fida Sanjakdar focuses on sex education in Australia and the view of Muslim communities regarding this always contested topic.  She notes that, in Islamic school curricula, almost no attention is devoted to sex education and this omission, in her view, represents a violation of the Islamic principles of a holistic and democratic education.

Krista Riley looks at the ways that literature, in particular young adult literature, can be used to “address themes of oppression and to promote critical reflection and social justice activism”. She does this by analyzing the book Bifocal, a fictional story about the arrests made of young Muslim men in Toronto in 2006 and the racist backlash at a high school after the arrests.

In the book’s final chapter, Melanie Stonebanks presents three potential classroom resources – illustrated picture books with Muslim main characters – that could be used as first steps to combating Islamophobia.  She concludes that, though the texts are far from perfect, they could be useful if used appropriately and with a critical eye.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Barry van Driel. All rights reserved.

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