Note: The following is an excerpt from the book ENGAGING MUSLIM STUDENTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS by Michael Abraham. Footnote numbers and citations are noted in the text but the actual notes and references are only accessible in the book which can be bought on Amazon.
If you are reading this book it is likely you already have a reason and understanding for why its topic should be studied. Nevertheless, as is part of the decorum of academic practice, one must honor what has been said in the field already that justifies and identifies the need for study of the topic set out to be taught. Discussions of research can lead to many different avenues and prompt for all sorts of side discussions and critical analysis of the research itself. While there is room to venture further into educational literature that relate to the topic of Muslim students in public schools in the West, this is only a very brief overview that is constructed to familiarize the reader with the basics and seminal studies that have been done on Muslim students in public schools. The goal is to demonstrate why this topic should be examined intentionally, and how educational research itself lends to justification for the reading of this book by educators.
Religious Diversity is Neglected in Preservice Training
Religious diversity is neglected in preservice teacher training. This point is obvious to most who experienced preservice training. It is common nowadays that states or licensure courses require that diversity, usually as an academic concept, be addressed in teacher education. This frequently manifests in mandates that teacher licensure programs offer at least one course that examine concepts that are typically dubbed as being courses on diversity, equity, inclusive practices, or multicultural education. This in turn results in courses that examine and introduce theoretical frameworks and academic jargon concerning educating students who are, basically, non-white, or
non-heterosexual, or non-Christian, or some combination thereof. Students who do not fit these identity markers are commonly referred to as not being from the “dominant” culture, which I find can be useful terminology. Some courses will specifically look at student groups under certain categories that signify minority status in America, such as African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American etc.
However, courses that look specifically at religious diversity, or at a specific religious minority group, are exceedingly rare in teacher education. None exist that I have been able to locate. Rare also are academic studies that specifically examine the issue of preparing teacher candidates to engage with religiously diverse students in preservice training. There was one study done of preservice teachers at Ohio State University in 2006 that examined attitudes towards religious diversity of preservice teachers in Columbus, OH. Predictably, it found that it was a sensitive topic for the student-teachers to approach, and they were therefore hesitant to approach religious topics at all despite the fact that they actually had many questions about it they wanted to have answered. The study found that both these questions, and the reluctance of the study’s subjects to approach them, increased when religious issues intersected with race and gender topics (Subedi, 2006).
Shortly after 9/11 there was one quantitive survey done of preservice teachers’ knowledge about Muslims and Islam. It found that the majority of respondents lacked even a “rudimentary” knowledge about Islam or the “global reach” of Muslim populations. This is not exactly surprising and is really only consistent with broader trends in society, which have been indicated by Pew Research (2011) polls to show that most people simply do not know much about world religions aside from their own. It is a side note, but there have been interesting arguments made that assert that this lack of religious literacy on the part of the general public is in large part due to the fault of a public education system that fails to address and introduce to students, particularly at the secondary level, to religious ways of looking at the world and basics in religious literacy (Nord, 2010).
What results for Muslim students from this lack of knowledge about religion amongst educators? What results from the lack of it being addressed in settings where educators develop as professionals? One thing is that misunderstandings between Muslim students and non-Muslim educators become inevitable. It further follows that an increase in the background knowledge of the educator about Muslims and Islam could have acted as a remedy to these misunderstandings. When misunderstandings arise clashes can take place, and the students’ schooling experiences fail to reach the lofty goals of respect, diversity, and inclusion that are set out by schools.
The second result that I point toward is that the hesitancy or incapacity to examine and learn about Islam on the part of educators results in the framing of the experiences of Muslim students’ in the world of educators to necessarily be conceptualized using theories of understanding that were developed to address the experiences of other more-frequently examined minorities. In particular, framing their experiences through critical race theory, and other offshoots of critical theory in general. Not all aspects of this may be negative in and of themselves, however, what results is the pigeonholing of Muslim students into boxes of being a minority general, or boxes of race, gender, or ethnic status. All the while downplaying, if not outright suffocating, discussion and examination of the role of religion as a part of who they are and from where they come.
To illustrate both this pigeonholing and the pitfalls that are fallen into when well-meaning educators lack background knowledge about Islam, I will reference an anecdote from the book Waking Up White by Deborah Irving (2014). The book is about Irving’s journey growing up as a privileged white female and learning the realities of race in the world, both historical and modern, while working as an educator in her adulthood. I have known of schools that focus on racial equity who have found it beneficial to have white teachers read this book in order to prompt them into having a sort of awakening to the realities of society’s racial disparities. The hope is it will increase their sensitivities to their students. Irving’s story may very well suit this purpose, however, I would like to use a part from it here to illustrate how a lack of background knowledge about Islam on the part of educators is 1.) an obvious cause of educators inability to avoid missteps and anticipate cultural clashes with Muslim families, and 2.) perhaps only confounded by solely considering racial equity lenses, which can result in the pigeonholing of Muslims into boxes they likely did not choose for themselves.
In Irving’s 25th chapter, entitled “Belonging”, she recounts her experience as a parent in the public school district of Cambridge, MA where she served on the “Family Connections Committee” of her child’s school. This committee was formed to reach out to the growing population of “Ethiopian, Somalian (sic), and Haitian families”. Irving describes how over the years it was observed that an increasing number of these families opted not to have their children participate in the school’s long-loved annual tradition of having a Halloween parade. That the school failed to anticipate these families would not want their children to celebrate Halloween is one thing, but I want to focus on an excerpt where she talks about the school’s principal confronting parents about why they would not allow their child to participate in the parade. She writes:
At the first Family Connections meeting, the principal asked those who did not allow their children to participate in the parade to help the rest of us understand the experience from their perspective.
“Ahhhh,” one woman shook her head and looked at the ceiling. “It’s so complicated.” (bold added)
What can be seen here is exactly the type of situation that Muslims in the West are repeatedly put into when they are around people who want to be respectful and understanding, but have not done any research on their own about the teachings of Islam and its practical applications in life by Muslim people. There are actually very precise reasons why Muslims do not celebrate Halloween, as well as many other holidays. However, to explain the precise reasons, one would first have to fill in the listener on a whole other load of general background information that would be exhaustive and emotionally tolling to articulate in the context of everyday interpersonal interactions. Especially one like this where a cultural conflict and disagreement have already been made apparent and serve as the basis for having the conversation in the first place. This inner emotional toll is precisely what is indicated in the exasperation of the woman in the excerpt. If this was a Muslim parent, which it likely was, and if the principal actually had background knowledge about Islam itself, much of this complication that is interpreted as a barrier to giving open explanations by the parent would be cut right through.
For Irving’s part, while she is certainly innocuous in her own intent, any mention of Islam, or that a sizable portion of people in Cambridge are Muslims, escapes her exposé. This reinforces to the reader that making a religious distinction between peoples from Haiti, Ethiopia, and Somalia makes no appreciable difference. What is reinforced is that they are best understood as being under the umbrella of “people of color”, which is what she refers to them as in this chapter. What results is her own explanation as to why these families do not participate in the Halloween parade is biased toward the way a Haitian would articulate it, who is likely to be closer to her own Christian religious background of understanding. All the while the pertinence of understanding religious distinctions between people and having background knowledge of world religions remains unrecognized as a concern in the entirety of the book. The lone times that the word “Muslim” does appear, it is only as part of a list that groups it under other umbrellas of minority characterization.
This is representative of a general pattern of patronization and disingenuousness that takes place in discussions on equity and multiculturalism in education (Jay, 1994; Parekh, 1995; Abu El-Haj, 2002). The result is that Muslims are typically missing the chance to articulate an understanding of themselves as Muslims, and the needs that emanate for their children in public schools as Muslims. Bridging this gap in understanding is a central purpose of the book you are reading.