02/06/2017 11:20 EST | Updated 02/06/2017 11:20 EST

An Unreasoning Hate: Discussing Islamophobia With ESL Students

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I experienced a very uncomfortable moment with a class of mine, just a few weeks ago.

We were discussing race and ethnicity, and I began - as I often do with topics like this - by exploring my students' existing opinions. My classroom contains people from all over the world, so I tend to get a variety of viewpoints. One thing stood out, though: when I asked for the stereotypes of 'a Muslim' (whatever that might mean) I received a depressing and familiar litany of adjectives:

iolent. Selfish. Arrogant. Scheming. Extreme. Old-fashioned. Arcane.

This isn't the first time I've heard these words used to describe Muslims. However we may feel about this stereotyping (personally, it boils my blood) our society has crafted and perpetuated myths about Islam which present a badly skewed, dangerously myopic view of a complex and ultimately peaceful faith. "With anti-Islamic sentiment trending in recent months, and a new administration setting out an immigration and security agenda which portrays Muslims as a threat, it's the perfect moment to undermine these irresponsible views and present your students with a more balanced assessment" - says Andrei Zakhareuski from Busy Teacher.

What's the Problem, and Where has it Come From?

We can delve back into history and discuss the ups-and-downs of the relationship between Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions, but it's probably more informative (and relevant to our students) to begin in the period around September 11th, 2001. No discussion of Islamophobia, in the US or elsewhere, can omit this tragic and seminal event. I'm writing at the beginning of December, exactly seventy-five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, so I've been using that historical watershed my jumping-off point. What happens, in the psyche of a nation, when they are attacked in an unforeseen way by an unexpected foe? In both cases, we found that there had been a good deal of national humiliation and navel-searching - How the hell did we let this happen? - but in both cases, the overwhelming desire, once the initial shock wore off, was for revenge.

My students could well understand the need to act, but they were concerned that such a 'knee-jerk' response might result in acting prematurely. An angry populace and an enraged, vengeful media gave the government its cue: We expect a response, and we expect it immediately. The result was the invasion of Afghanistan, and for the first time since 1990, US forces were battling a foe which had a very distinct 'look', an image which became inextricably linked with terrorism, extremism and murder.

The Taliban were promptly portrayed as conniving, willing to die for their beliefs, and even to carry out suicide attacks. Their brand of Medieval governance had brought Afghanistan's promising post-Soviet progress to a grinding halt, and their treatment of women was rightly condemned around the world. These enemies, we could reassure ourselves, were undeserving of quarter or remorse.

Take a look at news reports from 2001, using online clips or transcripts, and try to give your students a flavor of the reporting. The US view of the Taliban seemed unconcerned with why they believed as they do, and instead, we branded anyone related to the organization a 'terrorist', whether they'd yet committed an atrocity or not. The media's deliberate categorization of all the enemies of America under a single, easily identifiable banner led in large part to the perception that the US was now fighting Islam itself, and that all Muslims could be regarded as potentially dangerous.

Suddenly, in the minds of far too many Americans, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and regular, everyday Islam became rolled into one. A focus for the hatred and revenge had been found, and it continues to this day.

Is Islam a Threat?

Mary Walton, author and educator from Simple Grad shares her opinion: "Invite your students to look at the statistics for recent terrorist attacks. Where were the attackers from? What might have inspired them to perpetrate such carnage? What did they hope to gain?".

I repeated the salient point - that it's dangerous and illogical to tar others with the same brush without evidence - so often, and with such passion, that my students began to do impressions of me, complete with my British accent. Here's a genuine exchange from this section of my class on Islamophobia; for some, these notions were rather mind-blowing, but for others, the point had already sunk in:

Teacher: So, this guy goes running around Paris with a gun, shooting people.

Student 1: [Watching the news clip]. He died in the end, right?

Student 2: They all did.

Student 1: A waste, no?

Teacher: I would say so. They were all quite young and had their whole lives ahead of them.

Student 3: But, why would someone with a family and friends do ... this?

Student 2: He doesn't care about people. Doesn't care if they live.

Student 1: 'Psychopath'... right, teacher?

Teacher: Well, we're not psychologists, but I think that's a reasonable guess.

Student 4: Not psycho, no. Just a crazy Muslim.

Teacher: [Pauses.] Tell us more about that. What do you mean?

Student 4: Muslims always do this.

[Others: Mumbles of dissent and concern.]

Teacher: Hang on a second... Go on, tell us what you think.

Student 4: [Shrugs]. Always the same. Crazy Muslims with guns.

Teacher: OK, I understand what you're saying, but there's more to it than that, surely.

Student 1: Doesn't matter if he's...

Student 3: Anyone could do those terrible things. From any religion.

Student 1: Yeah, he could be Christian and lose his mind and go shooting.

Teacher: Well done for clarifying that. I'd say that his faith was part of his inspiration for murder, but that he's misinterpreted that faith. Everyone know this word? [Writes it on the board]

Student 4: Like a... bad understanding?

Teacher: You've got it. Let's think about this some more together....


We carried out some research which tried to identify whether Islam is an 'inherently violent religion'. My students used this experience to take their first look (in most cases) at the right-wing media. When reading in our first languages, we often find it difficult to judge real news from fake - especially now that a massive industry has emerged to create irresponsible and misleading content - but for my students, in their second language, judging fact from fiction was a huge challenge. I helped them by reinforcing a common classroom tool of mine which has proved indispensable when trying to figure out if we're being lied to: Occam's Razor. If the story sounds like vapid fakery, it probably is, and we plump for the most likely explanation (that Sharia law actually isn't taking over a little town in Missouri, and that a local Muslim politician in Chicago isn't planning to make the hijab compulsory).

What helps much more is to look at the real news reports from Syria and elsewhere, and try to tease out why extremists have sprouted up in such numbers, and what they hope to achieve. I taught my students (or, more properly, encouraged them to find our for themselves) about the idea of a Caliphate. This, at the very least, provided a philosophical basis for the behavior of ISIS, even if their version of government and progress runs completely counter to our own.

A Philosophical Trap

If my students walk out of this class with one idea firmly in their minds, it should be this: It is unscientific and dangerous to generalize about a billion people. I showed my students that the very notion of beginning a sentence with, 'Muslims think...' or 'Muslims hate...' is just as ridiculous as trying to sum up the views of everyone from China or India in a single utterance. No group behaves monolithically.

I then applied that same thought process to other forms of generalization in a bid to caution my students as to its inherent dangers. Drawing a circle around everyone who behaves a certain way is evidence of unsubtle thinking, and is tantamount to a racist, prejudicial attitude, one which assumes that we already understand how someone thinks, and can judge this based purely on how they look. The nonsense of this is something I bring strenuously to my students.


Prejudice is harmful, and leads to further barriers and a willful misunderstanding of world events. This is nowhere more true than when discussing Islam, which is a complex and deeply historical faith with many more facets and pertinent features than any non-Muslim could be expected to grasp, especially in short order. Yet, that's just what many in our media expect of us, and by guiding your students to a more reasonable, factual understanding of Islam, we can begin to right those terrible wrongs.