Teaching in an Age of Islamophobia

Dr. Brett Potter
Adjunct Professor
School of Religion

Last month, a Canadian university student walked into a mosque in Quebec City and gunned down six innocent people – critically wounding five more – who had simply been there to pray. This horrific event in a place of worship followed a grim week where the United States government issued a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, a decision widely condemned as religious discrimination and resulting in countless stories of mistreatment, confusion, and fear. The American Academy of Religion’s official statement on the “Muslim ban” points out the way this policy “poisons the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general.” The fact is that many people in North America, including parts of Canada, have little understanding or experience of Islam, which creates an opening for fear-based distortions and mischaracterizations – in short, for the rising tide of Islamophobia which has resulted in escalating violence, threats, and assaults against Muslims in recent years in both the U.S. and Canada.

Such stories of xenophobia, exclusion, and violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are uncomfortably close to home. Especially in our generally tolerant and pluralistic Canadian context, we find these events shocking and surprising. One thing they ought to remind us of, though, is just how important teaching and learning about religion is, especially for university students. It is not too much of a stretch to say that education – learning how to think – is the best countermeasure against propaganda, which tells you what to think. A university course in world religions offers the opportunity to correct misperceptions and allow students of whatever religious or non-religious background to engage with complex spiritual traditions like Islam from a non-reductive, non-ideologically driven perspective. Religious studies is the polar opposite of the online propaganda that has “radicalized” white nationalist killers like Dylann Roof and Alexander Bissonnette to enact terrible acts of violence on faith communities – it opens up questions rather than closing young minds.

In a media-saturated world where misunderstandings, inflammatory rhetoric, and distortions of truth are ubiquitous, teaching about the diverse array of global religious traditions is thus itself a subversive act – cultivating knowledge instead of ignorance, critical engagement instead of sound bites. Exploring religion from an inclusive, integrative, yet critically rigorous perspective works against ideologies of nativism and xenophobia by exposing students to differing points of view and alternative narratives – in short, to diversity rather than narrow-mindedness.

I would even go so far as to say that the academic study of religion also helps cultivate empathy and understanding, two qualities seemingly in short supply in 2017 but desperately needed in a political situation marked by fear and suspicion. In the Religion and Social Ethics course I taught at Queen’s this past fall, we took as a central image the figure of the stranger. Hospitality to the stranger or alien is a theme common to all major religious traditions – from the Jewish imperative to treat the stranger with respect since the Hebrew people were once themselves “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34) to the Buddhist emphasis on kindness and welcome to all, regardless of class or creed. Though in practice religions can and certainly have become dangerously exclusive – trading in hospitality for hostility – the majority of religious communities hold out the ideal of embracing the other, not harming them, as a central ethical tenet.

Religious studies as a discipline does not ask students to become religious, or to choose a particular religious tradition or community; it focuses on context and change rather than doctrine and law. Yet at its best, religious studies, much like the belief systems it investigates, encourages open-mindedness and hospitality, especially to the “stranger” who may act or believe differently. I have been have fortunate to have students ranging from committed atheists to just about every religious orientation – Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Mormon – a benefit of teaching in diverse Southern Ontario. Teaching and learning about religion is a means to a deeper understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why people live, love, and pray the way they do. This understanding, paired with empathy and open-mindedness, helps cultivate students of any or no faith who are not easily swayed by ideologies of hate and prejudice.

What Holiday Is Next?

Andie Alexander
MA Student, University of Colorado, Boulder

15338631_10209539852425782_4957821200466599305_nThe other week (about mid-January), I was having coffee at Starbucks with a friend when I noticed that they gave me one of this year’s controversial red holiday cups. (Don’t worry, this isn’t another Starbucks red cup diatribe.) But it initially struck me as odd that I would be drinking coffee out of a holiday cup in mid-January, long after the so-called “holiday season” had passed. Though, there was something kind of nice about getting this red cup—it made me feel like the holidays weren’t quite over. This was a nice change for me because my family, like many people where I’m from in Montgomery, Alabama, tend to take down all of our holiday decorations in the days following Christmas (and certainly before the new year!). I’ve always wondered why there was such a build up to the holiday, only for all of the festive decorations to come down almost immediately after.

Both where I live in Colorado and where I’ve lived in Alabama, there is at least one designated holiday music station on the radio that starts playing holiday tunes the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, and it plays only those until Christmas. But as soon as Christmas is over, i.e., December 26, these radio stations go back to playing their regular music, and in a moment, this month-long holiday build up is over. Christmas is done. Move on. Now, of course, many people may have another day or two off of work (depending on what day of the week Christmas falls), and folks may still be celebrating with friends and family, but all of the social signifiers telling us it’s Christmas, e.g., songs on the radio, store decorations, home Christmas décor, etc., are all put away. Stores have big sales to get rid of their holiday decorations and the excess of goods that weren’t purchased before Christmas.

So why is it that in most parts of the United States there is no dénouement to transition out of the holiday comparable to the build up we see beginning, just following Thanksgiving? Now whether we should start playing holiday music immediately following Thanksgiving is not the issue—though the abrupt change there, too, is also curious. But let’s stick with Christmas… This immediate move away from Christmas that I’ve experienced, strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Apart from the month-long build up, many places, both within the U.S. and North America and certainly other parts of the world, continue to celebrate the holidays well after the passing of December 25th. For people in these places not only continue their celebrations, but also tend to leave their Christmas decorations up until January 6th, or Epiphany. Epiphany, the twelfth day following Christmas, is celebrated in the Christian traditions as the baptism of Jesus and also the revelation of Jesus as God. This holiday is celebrated around the globe in many Christian traditions and considered the culmination of Christmas in ways.

But growing up in the American south, I was never aware of this feast day or continued Christmas celebration. As far as I knew, the holiday was done and the decorations came down. If you were to wander into a store on December 28th, you’d be hard pressed to see the lights and Christmas decorations still hanging up—instead, they’d likely be in the sale section and the store would have signs and decorations up for either New Year’s or Valentine’s Day or they’d have all the foods and decorations one might need for a Super Bowl party.

Perhaps it’s that desire for more of a transition that made me appreciate getting that mid-January leftover red Starbucks cup. After all, I always bug my parents about wanting to keep the Christmas decorations up longer. But what really made me consider this sort of liminal period of the holidays was not just that I got this red cup, but that not two days later when I walked into Target to pick up a couple of things, they already had their Valentine’s decorations, cards, and heart-shaped and –themed items on display.

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This has become the standard procedure for many department stores in recent years, it seems. I often joke that I have to go to Target to find out what holiday it is. Now, I don’t mean for this to sound overly cynical, of course, but I do wonder what prompts this immediate transition out of Christmas—is it an economic issue? I’m not sure. But in learning about this feast of Epiphany and differences in holiday celebrations, it strikes me as a question worth exploring more—and not only because I want to keep our decorations up longer. I’m not suggesting that we should be celebrating in a particular way, but seeing the quite drastic differences in the winding down of the holidays certainly prompts me to ask what sort of interests are driving that abrupt change and how those interests shape our varying understandings of holiday celebrations and practices. Until then, enjoy those few lingering red cups while you can.

 

Andie Alexander is an M.A. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on identity construction, discourses on classification and boundary construction, the practicality of definition, and public/private discourses with regard to issues of social group formation and nationalism in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

What Counts as Non-Religious?

James Kwateng-Yeboah
School of Religion MA Student

What counts as non-religious or spiritual-but-not-religious? Who decides the designation of these terms? Are they self-defined representations or scholarly constructs? How useful are these terms, given their largely Western and Christian-influenced heritage?

In recent years, the number of people who answer ‘no religion’ to the question ‘what is your religion?’ has increased stupendously. I do not intend to fully problematize these categories here; nevertheless, I am of the view that the terms non-religious and/or spiritual-but-not-religious (1) evoke theoretical concerns, (2) have political implications, and (3) concern matters of societal well-being. Theoretically, are the “nones” meaningfully non-religious or simply indifferent to matters of religion? Politically, who decides the meaning of these terms? The highly trained scholar with his/her linguistic and theoretical tools? Or the ordinary people, who are in touch with their everyday experiences, the very subjects of the phenomenon? Or both? From a societal concern, how does the ethos engendered in the non-religious/spiritual-but-not-religious contribute to pro-social behaviour or societal well-being? In sum, understanding ‘religion’ is necessarily incomplete if the meaning of non-religion is neglected.