It’s unsettling to teach about Islamophobia in our current political climate. As many worry about a lurking terrorist attack or the erosion of a pristine America by Muslims, calls for surveillance and exclusion abound. In an age-old American cycle of xenophobic nativism, Muslims are rendered the obvious threat, put in the impossible position of exonerating themselves from the acts of “bad Muslims.”
On college campuses, teaching while Muslim is especially fraught. Those of us who engage students on matters of race, inequality, empire, or global affairs must navigate nationalist sensitivities, knee-jerk vengefulness in response to acts of terror, and geographical illiteracy about Muslim-majority countries. As a South Asian, Muslim-American woman of color teaching courses on race, immigration, and Islamophobia, I find these realities even more complex. Having been a college student myself at the time of the 9/11 attacks, I take my commitment to encouraging students to think against Islamophobia as both political and personal.
I’m often struck by the sheer lack of awareness among students about the histories of Muslim-majority countries. Many of today’s students grew up post-9/11, with Osama bin Laden and ISIS looming as singular threats, but with little historical context. Such students have accepted binaries in which, as former President George W. Bush put it, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The terror age has pushed them to accept a black-or-white logic that overlooks the deep complexities of our global order. This type of binary outlook is entrenched in our climate, in which political leadership seems committed to an agenda of militarism in much of the Muslim world.
Yet it’s not just that our students are unaware of imperialist histories and unilateral militarism toward the Muslim world. It’s that this unawareness often goes hand-in-hand with a fierce hawkishness, with strong opinions about just how and how much the United States ought to be involved militarily in Arab and Muslim-majority countries. In other words, there’s a troubling correlation between knowing very little about Muslims, Islam, or geopolitics and having impassioned opinions about the necessary U.S. role in fighting terror. This correlation ought to motivate us as educators. As the nation hurtles toward a racial landscape in which a tech-savvy Muslim ninth grader can be arrested for building a clock that his teacher assumed was a bomb, the classroom becomes one of the few spaces where anti-Islamophobic thoughtfulness is possible. For many of our students, it might be the only space where they learn about Muslims or Islamophobia beyond sound bites and punditry.So how might we push our students to be thoughtful and nuanced in their understanding of Islamophobia? How might we develop an anti-Islamophobic pedagogy at the very heart of empire? Here are some practices that have been effective in two of my courses, “Race and Islam in the U.S.” and “Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration.”
Use humility as an intellectual tool. Letting awareness of the limits of our knowledge be a dynamic factor in how we learn might be one of the best pedagogical tools for undoing racism. Privilege theory teaches us that privilege is invisible to its beneficiaries but hypervisible to those on the margins. (As the sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us, having privilege is like running with the wind at your back — you fancy yourself a fast runner. Someone running head-on into the wind, of course, is ever aware that it’s a windy day.) Our knowledge, then, is anything but impartial; it is deeply positional. As educators, we must underscore humility as much as any course material, enabling our students to approach knowledge in a self-reflexive manner. We must ask them to assess how their own standpoint informs their approach to subject matter.
Treat current events as pedagogical opportunities. When you teach about Islamophobia or terrorism, upheavals in the news inevitably shatter the lecture you’d planned to give that day. I remember scrapping a lecture in my “Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration” course last fall to discuss the Paris attacks. Students had been shaken by the events, and the classroom was emotionally charged. We were supposed to spend the unit discussing the construction of an Islamic center near New York City’s Ground Zero several years earlier. But I was faced with a classroom of students who had been bombarded with repeated media coverage of Islamic terror against the West; the Ground Zero unit seemed impractical. Instead, what took place that day was a conversation about the media treatment of white, Western victims. I asked students to contemplate why a French-solidarity filter was abundant on Facebook, but not one for the Lebanese victims of an ISIS attack. They considered a fact few of them had known: that most ISIS victims have been Muslim non-Westerners. In other words, the classroom provided a space for exposure to topics that many felt the mainstream media and political discourse had foreclosed.
Instill critical thinking in trying times. For students who have grown up in an age of knee-jerk vengefulness — in which military intervention in the Arab world and surveillance of Muslim populations living in the West have become acceptable terrorism-prevention tools — our challenge as educators is to teach critical thinking in times of terror.
When they begin to think past the “us vs. them” of our times, they become discontented and curious. After reading authors like Moustafa Bayoumi, Deepa Kumar, and Mahmood Mamdani, who have written extensively on Islamophobia and geopolitical relationships between the West and Muslim-majority countries, students express a frustration: Why has this information only just been presented to them? The holes in their political education themselves become a topic of crucial study.
Scholars of color are often asked to do the impossible: to remain neutral, unemotional and scientific in our approach. As a woman of color, an educator, and a Muslim, I find this struggle to be intensified, especially when engaging in heart-rending pedagogy on warfare, racism, and dispossession. There’s a longtime colonial assumption that the Arab or Muslim is “incapable” of rational thought, an assumption that has justified so many interventions in the Muslim world. (During a lecture last fall, a student asked if “countries like Iraq or Afghanistan” would be capable of running their own democracies if “we let them.” It was quite a challenge, to say the least, to remain composed through this response, and to remember that my student’s question had a deep historical context.) So what happens to the exasperated Muslim academic? Is it fair — or intellectually pragmatic — to demand poise in such times? Or can fear, hope, and anger serve as intellectual tools?Learning about Islamophobia means pushing our students to think viscerally about the terror of being detained without reason or having your place of worship infiltrated for surveillance. Presenting the classroom as an emotionally neutral space actually does an intellectual disservice to students trying to make sense of the racial realities unfolding around them.
When teaching, I find that hackneyed notions of diversity and inclusion fall on deaf ears. Reminding students that “not all Muslims” are terrorists, or that Islam is an Abrahamic faith, is far less engaging than considering how current political tensions took shape. Learning about the drone program or the violent imperialism of France in North Africa pushes students to think contextually not about “the Muslim world” but instead about the relations and histories that weave our world together.
This deep learning inspires paradigm shifts. Once students begin to question fundamental assumptions, they are unsettled. No longer does the world present itself as good vs. evil, free vs. unfree, peaceful vs. extremist. The classroom becomes a space to engage in the most potent of terrorism-prevention tools: critical thought.
Nazia Kazi is an assistant professor of anthropology at Stockton University.