In May a survey of 6,000 schoolchildren was published by Show Racism the Red Card that concluded many students hold widespread misconceptions and negative attitudes towards British Muslims. The research found that 35% of the 10 to 16 year olds questioned 'agreed' or 'partly agreed' that 'Muslims are taking over our country' whereas only 41% 'disagreed'. In addition to this worrying misconception, most students surveyed believed that Muslims make up around 36% of the population - when in reality the figure is closer 5%. And, sadly, 47% 'agreed' with a statement suggesting that there are poor relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in England.
Although this survey does not - in any way - reflect my own school, it does raise obvious concerns about what students know and understand about Islam and British Muslims as well as how these misconceptions come about. Moreover, it also suggests that as teachers we should be aware of what Islam is and what it means to be Muslim, especially if we are to promote tolerance, respect and community cohesion within the school community.
Of course, one bulwark against Islamophobia is educating students about the religion in RS lessons. This is arguably the case at my school where all students are taught the life of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in Year 7 as well as the five pillars of Islam, which are the key foundations of the Islamic faith. However, it is also important that teachers in other subjects are constantly aware of misconceptions about Islam - even if they do not come across as malicious or even Islamophobic - as they could create misleading perceptions of Islam that eventually lead to Islamophobic views.
A good way of challenging misconceptions is to fully understand the language used to describe Islam and Muslims and to challenge the use of that language when it is misused. For instance, a key example is the use of 'devout' and 'jihad'. These two words often get invoked to refer to extremists and a minority of Muslims committing terrorist attacks, but in essence they are not negative things. Although the former term might not seem controversial, some British newspapers have been censored for referring to extremists as 'devout Muslims'.
Firstly, a 'devout believer' is someone who has a strong commitment to a set of basic religious beliefs, ideas and/or principles. A 'devout Muslim' could be someone who is committed to their faith: perhaps praying five times a day; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; regularly going to mosque and having a strong sense of Islamic identity. It is also important to stress that many of these basic values correspond to British values, such as justice and equality (exemplified by the third pillar of Islam - charity). Moreover, in the UK, the Muslim community upholds the importance of British laws. For instance, Muslim scholars have argued that Muslims living in majority non-Muslim countries must adhere to the secular 'laws of the land' and have no excuse for breaking those laws. Therefore, we should not mix the terms 'devout' with 'extremist' as they mean two very different things.
Perhaps the more controversial argument centres on how we use the term 'fundamentalist'; some commentators suggest that a 'fundamentalist' merely has a strict adherence to their faith whereas others equate it to extremism. In many respects the former usage could be seen as completely benign, but due to confusion with this word, especially in the media, it may be better to refer to 'devout Muslims' when discussing those that take their faith very seriously, in order to avoid any association with illegal or violent extremism.
Secondly, another key misconception is the idea of 'jihad' being extreme or bad per se; interestingly, some scholars have argued that all Muslims are jihadis in the same way that all Christians are followers of Christ. For many Muslims, jihad is simply the religious duty that they have to maintain the religion. This is best explained through a translation of the word from Arabic, which literally means "to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, to persevere". It can be argued, then, that jihad itself is not a controversial issue when thinking about Islam. It does, however, become an issue if interpreted as a defence of extremist views, such as sympathy with terrorist acts or highly illiberal attitudes towards other faiths, homosexuality and so on (this is where schools' PREVENT training is vital).
Furthermore, another key element of jihad is distinguishing between the 'greater jihad' and the 'lesser jihad'. The former relates to the personal spiritual struggle that Muslims have to adhere to their faith whereas the latter is the defence of Muslims and the faith from aggressors. It is the 'lesser jihad' that has been hijacked by extremists despite the actual rules of 'lesser jihad' stipulating that innocent people must not be harmed, 'enemies' should be treated with justice and that jihad is a form of defence and not aggression; for example, the Holy Qur'an states, 'Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors' (2:190).
Lastly, when challenging misconceptions of Islam in school as well as potential Islamophobia, it is worth considering common stereotypes. For example, students in majority non-Muslim schools may associate Muslims with the minority of extreme and radical preachers often featured in tabloid newspapers as opposed to practising Muslims (and all round British heroes) like Mo Farah, Amir Khan and Moeen Ali. Moreover, there are plenty of examples of Muslims in pop culture, which is often not associated with Islam, such as Zayn Malik - formally of One Direction - as well as Muslims presenting popular news programmes, such as Mishal Husain on BBC Radio 4.
In conclusion, we can challenge misconceptions of Islam in school by:
- being aware of the key beliefs of Muslims;
- using the correct terminology when discussing Islam;
- and, importantly, challenging stereotypes and highlighting examples of Muslim role models in British society.