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.

Adolescent Perceptions and Experiences of the Hijab: a Qualitative Canadian Study

Emma Funnell-Kononuk
Faculty of Education Student, Queen’s University

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Wearing a hijab is a visual marker of Islam and instantly identifies a girl as Muslim. Muslim females regularly experience Islamophobia, a dislike or prejudice against Islam and Muslims, due to this visual association. Canadian girls frequently feel the effects of Islamphobia; girls have been expelled from school and barred from sports such as tae kwon do and soccer. A 2015 hate crime in Toronto, Ontario left a Muslim woman beaten and robbed after attackers tore off her hijab, punched her, called her a “terrorist,” told her to “go back to [her] country,” and stole her money and cellphone. The event occurred just outside a public school; it was 3PM and she was headed to pick up her children. Media representation and political commentary has incited debate about what veiling means and what locations (if any) should permit veiling. This conversation is largely based on an association of veiling with patriarchal values. For instance, in March of 2015 then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that wearing the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” and that it is “offensive” for someone to cover their face using clothing like a niqab during the citizenship ceremony. Veiling is a highly debated topic within modern Canadian society, and these opinions effect Muslim Canadian women and girls.

hijab-girlIn 2012, nine-year-old Rayane Benatti was not allowed to participate in her team’s final soccer game in Gatineau, Quebec because her hijab was deemed ”unsafe” and she refused to remove it.

Due to recurrent debates and disagreements, qualitative and quantitative research regarding Muslim women’s veiling practices is a growing field worldwide. However, the perspective of adolescent girls is not often considered. It is important to include perspectives of youth with regards to any religion, as their experiences regularly differ from that of adults. I completed an Undergraduate Summer Student Research Fellowship (USSRF) this summer to explore the experiences and perceptions of Muslim adolescents regarding the hijab in a midsized Ontario city. I collected data through a focus group of four Muslim girls and two Muslim boys aged 12-15. All of the female participants wore a hijab when they went to a mosque, but at the time of the focus group, two of the four girls self-elected to wore a hijab to school (hijabi) and two did not (non-hijabi). They shared their experiences regarding hijabs in a public school environment, and described occurrences involving peers, teachers, and expectations. Sample questions included: What does the hijab mean to you? Do you feel like your teachers treat you differently when you are wearing a hijab? Coding the data led to eight distinct categories and two higher order concepts: 1. Reasons that adolescent girls choose to wear or to not wear the hijab and 2. The recognition that the hijab is a representation of Islam, and concern that Islam is misunderstood by those around them and by the media.

Findings suggested that adolescent girls consider a variety of factors when choosing whether or not to wear a hijab, such as practicality and their individual sense of style, along with more internal reasons. Both hijabi girls believed that people, Muslim or not, viewed, and should view, their hijab solely as a piece of clothing. As one of the girls put it, “A hijab is just an extension of your clothes. It does not make you any different in here [gesturing to her heart]; it just makes you different out here [gesturing to her face and body].” Another said that the hijab is “just a scarf on the top of your head” and does not change anything about who you are as a person. She continued, “I don’t say to some person, hey you should not wear short shorts. Oh you should not wear a crop top. So why should they tell me not to wear a hijab?” All participants agreed that everyone has the right to choose how to dress without fear of judgement or insults. One participant said her hijabi friend was asked questions by classmates that she deemed annoying and this discouraged her from wearing a hijab at school. She said people’s questions, such as “Do you shower with that, do you sleep with that, do you ever take it off?,” were “insensitive” and that even if they didn’t intend to be rude, it is important to “respect people’s differences in class.”

When I asked what the most important thing I should take away from our conversation was, every participant said something related to the diversity found amongst Muslims and their concern that Islam should be represented accurately. Discussion surrounding the hijab sparked an underlying discussion about what it means to represent Islam. They all recurrently shared fears that the act of one Muslim or Islamic group would be considered an accurate representation of all of Islam. They felt they needed to prove to friends, teachers, and other non-Muslims that Muslims are different from what is shown in the news. One of the male participants said people need to remember that if members of ISIS say they are Muslim, then “they might still be Muslims, but they are not good Muslims.” They explained that within Islam there are a wide variety of interpretations, beliefs and experiences. They felt that this diversity was part of what connected them to their faith.

The importance participants placed on acknowledging the diversity within Islam holds weight within the field of education. Teachers must have background knowledge regarding religions and the variety of meanings behind religious behaviour. This knowledge is critical in preventing stereotyping or unintentionally holding bias; uninformed teachers create an uninformed learning environment, which may influence the understandings of other students. Teachers should be aware of the reasons a girl in their class may wear a hijab and the concerns they may have. This learning will help them better understand their hijabi students’ views and requirements. Should teachers’ learning inspire questions about hijabs or Islam, participants found it easier when a teacher asked them a question about their beliefs rather than a student because they knew teachers “actually want to know…how to make you feel more comfortable as a student.” They also suggested that if non-Muslims had questions about Islam, a great way to find answers is to speak to someone at a mosque, as opposed to listening to the media. Mandated public school curriculum should include components on a variety of faiths, thereby mandating conversations that can help to encourage empathy and understanding within schools. Finally, it is incredibly important that the voices of youth be heard within the academic study of religion. My hope is that this work inspires further research surrounding Muslim youth and the hijab in a school context and highlights why it is important to include the experiences of young people in the conversation.

 

Omar Mateen and the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Chayce Perkins
First Year Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Arts

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As modern Western society has continued to progress through the processes of modernity, technological advancement has caused the media to become the most effective means of conveying information to the public. As a result, the media and many news outlets in particular generally include a variety of different views and outlooks on current events. Many contemporary issues have been interpreted in a variety of different ways by the media, as well as by those who choose to read or watch it. For example, the recent shootings and terrorist-considered attacks in America have been portrayed by the media in a multitude of ways. Some individuals believe that these attacks should be considered terrorist-based violence, while others have concluded that they stem from core differences in religious belief. In particular, the recent Orlando nightclub shooting was scrutinized as an event which was perpetrated due to religious hatred and prejudice.

In June 2016, 29 year-old Omar Mateen committed what is now considered the deadliest shooting in American history. After entering a nightclub that supported and catered to the LGBTQ community, Mateen shot and killed a total of 49 club patrons, while wounding another 53. Directly prior to this attack, he had sworn allegiance to the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He also claimed that the shooting was “triggered” by the recent killing of Abu Waheeb, a leader of ISIS, perpetrated by the U.S military. Mateen admitted that the American-led intervention within Iraq and Syria triggered his attack, and that he believed the United States had an obligation to stop bombing ISIS. Because of this, most media outlets portrayed this event as a religious hate crime and a terrorist attack.

Although the media depicted Mateen’s actions, as well as the grounds on which he based his actions, as constructed from bigotry, different theories as to why he committed the attack have also been introduced. His portrayed affiliation with Islam was presented by many media outlets in a fashion that was synonymous with stereotypical Islamophobic rhetoric which gave the general public a reason to believe his actions were those rooted in terrorist activity. This popular portrayal was promptly derived from the idea that there was a connection between his affiliation with ISIS and his claimed hatred for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, Mateen being previously described by those who knew him as being extremely racist and homophobic added to the media’s main consensus as to why the crime was committed.

While some of the aforementioned reports about Mateen’s character may be true, the common rhetoric of the attack excluded all discussion on other potential motives and didn’t leave room for critical analysis. Most of the portrayals failed to mention that preliminary reports suggested Mateen had previously attended the same nightclub as a patron himself, and had used dating apps and websites that suggested homosexual behavior. However, this exclusion can be justified due to the fact that there had been no credible evidence to validate these claims. Moreover, there was correspondingly a lack of evidence to suggest that Mateen had any legitimate ties to ISIS.

After critically reflecting on the media’s main portrayal of the attack, it is clear that religion was presented in a negative light. Mateen’s actions supported the generalizations and negative connotations already associated with Islam. Furthermore, the attack also supported the stereotypical generalization that all members of the Islam community are against the LGBTQ community, which is a false representation of their beliefs. By analyzing the main rhetoric of the media’s representation of Mateen’s actions it is obvious that thoughts and opinions are meant to do nothing but encourage Islamophobic thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the portrayal of the shootings provides a biased account of religion in general, as the opinions based on the causation behind Mateen’s decision gives the majority of the Western audience support in believing that Islam can be continued to be associated with terrorism and violence.

vunjq1nde60lvekryh8co-rvqqkumlb5-xlargeThe main authoritative sources that the portrayal refers to included religious officials or representatives. Immediately after the event occurred, many of these figures apologized for Mateen’s actions on behalf of religion, expressing their concerns as to how events such as this force religion to be deemed as harmful or damaging to society. In particular, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed, “violence of this magnitude belongs to no religious, racial or ethnic group.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, and thus a contemporary problem in religion and culture. Mateen’s decision to perpetrate the shooting coupled with his supposed allegiance to ISIS suggests that he must have considered following extremist and Islamic fundamentalism more imperative than following the laws of his country. As modernity and our current context of the world continues to progress and change, Islamophobic views remain prominent in modern day society. Events such as the Orlando shootings remind modern day Westerners that cultural hegemony and the belief that certain cultures or religious views should be considered more dominant, and thus more valuable than populations considered non-dominant.