It's back to school time. Imagine for a moment that you are working in the front office of a small, private school. Someone you have never seen before comes in demanding to see the library. The phone is ringing. A student is sneaking by you to get to class on time. You try your best to answer his questions. He is a stranger and not allowed on the premises. You are nervous. You ask him to leave.
This scenario is akin to the investigation underlying the recently published report, "The Lovers of Death"?: Islamist Extremism in our Mosques, Schools and Libraries. It is authored by Saied Shoaaib, a writer originally from Egypt, and Thomas Quiggin, a former Canadian security analyst. Alarming claims are made in the report: "It is not the presence of extremist literature in the mosque libraries that is worrisome. The problem is that there was nothing but extremist literature in the mosque libraries."
The real problem, however, is the report itself. It makes gross generalizations that at times border on the absurd, cataloguing every real, imagined or exaggerated piece of news about Muslim communities across Canada.
These are incredibly sweeping claims after having looked at a handful of books in a few libraries.
Let me give you an example. The report recounts that, after successfully gaining access to one Islamic school library in Ottawa and browsing through some -- but not all -- of the books, the authors conclude that "the content and methods of some Islamic teaching here in Canada, the West and in much of the Islamic world is incompatible with modern human civilization." These are incredibly sweeping claims after having looked at a handful of books in a few libraries.
You'll also note that the authors are not referring only to the books, but how they are taught. Did the authors observe how these books are used in the classroom? Spend some time in these communities? Learn about pedagogical directions? It does not appear so.
I have dedicated the last four years to conducting research in a private Islamic school in Ottawa. I have spent hundreds of hours in the school and classroom, and talking one-on-one with students, teachers and administrators. In short, I have had unfettered access to the Islamic school community and been welcomed as a researcher. My take on Muslim schools is somewhat different from Shoaaib and Quiggin's.
Accredited private Islamic schools in Ontario, like the one I am situated in, are overseen by the Ministry of Education. The ministry conducts regular inspections of the school and ensures that they are teaching the Ontario curriculum. Thus, claims by the authors that "The level of supervision and oversight by the Ministry of Education is not clear..." or "We cannot know the curriculum" are simply false.
But oversight by the ministry is not really what the authors are concerned about. The issue, it seems to me, is a fear over what is being taught in their Qur'an and Islamic Studies classes.
My own observations indicate that a wide array of lessons are given that are drawn from the Qur'an, Hadith and other texts. I have not witnessed teachers advocating violence. What I do see is a critical engagement with the meaning of Islamic texts on many of the issues that young Muslims encounter in Canada: Can they listen to rap music? Is "friending" someone on Facebook considered dating Sometimes, Muslim students have to confront issues that other teenagers in Canada do not: How to respond when spat at in the street. How to reply when asked "where are you really from?"
The Muslim school that I know focuses on shaping young Muslims to be contributing members of the Canadian society to which they belong. As the principal said at last week's opening session for new parents and students, the first goal of the school is to shape citizens that engender constructive civic engagement.
Of course, the school also aims to ground students in their Islamic identity and community. After all, we are all more likely to make a positive contribution to the society around us if we are firmly grounded in who we are.
No one can predict how any student will react to the educational, social and religious messages they are exposed to. Muslim students are no different. Ensuring they feel they belong in Canada, and can reflect critically on the Islamic texts that are central to their identity, is a really good way to start.
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