Is school the right place to know Islam?
Can we understand and react to global terror without ‘essentialising’ Islam itself i.e. without treating as absolute notions, such as ‘Islam cannot be practised without harming those who don’t’?
Is school the right place to know about Islam? What can school-goers gain from learning religions?
Until 9/11, Islam and Muslims evinced little popular or academic interest. But in the last one decade alone, Islam has become the singularly most disapproved religion. This has affected not just how Muslims are perceived but also how they go about their own lives and how they practise Islam (more on this later).
Learning world religions right at school may no longer be an exotic academic excursion, but a growing requirement, simply because school-goers will learn about Islam anyway. They will do so through what I call ‘alternative multiple memories’, such as the news media that seldom tell the whole story; or hearsay, which by definition, is distorting; or through drawing-room conversations, which draw on more fiction than facts.
So, when children leave schools, whether in Dallas or Delhi, it isn’t very useful to let their opinions to be shaped solely by circulating stereotypes in ‘alternative multiple memories’.
This is happening, I mean, attitudes towards Muslims suffer from significant slants. A Gallup poll on how Americans viewed Islam early this year did not only reveal the “most negatively viewed” religion. It also revealed that most people did have an opinion about Islam, as opposed to those who excused themselves from or refused the survey.
So, 31% said they were not “at all favourable” to Islam, 22% said they were not “too favourable” and 33% said they were “somewhat favourable”, but only 5% said they did not know what they thought of Islam. The summary finding is that more than 43% Americans acknowledge feeling “a little” prejudice toward Muslims — which is more than twice the number of those saying the same thing about Christians (18%), Jews (15%) and Buddhists (14%).
There are pitfalls of school-goers grappling with Islam as adults in the real world without a prior — or a priori — concept of nominal Islam. Floating binaries of the academic world — such as “Islam-West” and “Muslim-non-Muslims” – could be stumbling blocks rather than useful tools in engagement. (For how these terms “obscure critical points of engagement”, see Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, Ed. Roxanne L. Euben & Muhammad Qasim Zaman 2009).
Students are encountering Islam in the most off-putting of ways, from German chancellor Angela Merkel’s sigh of “failed multiculturalism” to a Saudi-styled curriculum in weekend Muslim schools teaching corporal Shariah punishments in Britain.
Exposing school-goers to a basic understanding of world religions can help them contextualize many developments in the real world which feed into their minds through hectoring headlines.
The choice is between knowing Islam through select individuals or groups, such as the al-Qaeda, or through millions of other Muslims.
For example, what is radicalization? Or who is a radical? Most school-goers would associate Islam/Muslims with these words straightaway, without applying it non-judgementally. Most standard definitions describe RADICALISATION as a process whereby individuals or groups endorse or ultimately participate in violent acts for political gains (Refer to De-radicalisation and Disengagement in Prisons – Lessons from 15 Countries from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London).
The good thing is that realization has already dawned and attempts are being made to help students, including Muslims, make sense of concerns emanating from the Muslim world.
This year, New York’s all-girls Hewwit School has introduced The Breadwinner (Groundwood, 2001) by Deborah Ellis and Andrew Clements’s Extra Credit (Atheneum, 2009), along with a National Geographic history reference, The Islamic World (2005), to K-12 graders (kindergarten to grade 12). The two novels are based on regions encountered in world history. The aim is to “deepen understanding of disparate voices and histories that define our modern world”.
New York’s Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which teaches educators and students intelligent engagement, has subjects like “Engaging the Muslim World” for teachers. It also has a current hot topic: “NYC Muslim Community Center: Why There? Why Not?”.
So, there you have it. Let the school-goers learn about Islam in a way that will help engagement, rather than disrupt it. Why not?