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Opinion To humanize Muslims, let’s start in the classroom

Zulfikar Hirji is an associate professor at York University and co-author of Islam: An Illustrated Journey.

A number of years ago, my son came home from school excited to tell me that he was studying the medieval era. “That’s great," I said. "Where?” Looking confused, he turned to me and said, “You know, medieval times, Baba. The stuff about lords and feuds and England.”

Playing the provocateur, I asked, “What was happening in the Muslim world in medieval times? Or in China or on the African continent?”

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He looked dejected. I gently explained that there were many diverse people who lived and thrived in other parts of the world during England’s medieval period and that the teacher should have explained this.

For the past 13 years, I have similarly been asking my first- and second-year university students what histories they are taught in school. The majority give this sequence: Greco-Roman world with a bit of Ancient Egypt, medieval and Renaissance Europe, Europe and the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars and Canadian history.

I also ask students if they see or hear about their own backgrounds in this curriculum. Most times, the answer is no. I ask if they have ever been taught about Muslim histories, art, architecture or literature? Without exception, the answer is no. Most Canadian students seemingly go through the education system without ever hearing about the plurality of the world’s histories, cultures, faiths and traditions, including Islam and Muslims.

What messages are we sending to our future generations by continuing to exclude knowledge of a rich and diverse 1,400-year old faith whose adherents continue to shape the modern world?

With such omissions, are school curriculums not unwittingly contributing to the dehumanization of Muslims and negating Islam’s place in world history?

The New Zealand mosque massacre earlier this month painfully brought to mind Canada’s horrific experience of Islamophobia; the attack in a Quebec City mosque. There are clear similarities between the two attackers, including their political views and self-confessed Islamophobia.

Offering up talking points about how the perpetrators of these crimes are not representative of our inclusive societies, and laying blame at the feet of present-day, far-right politicians and white supremacists does not fully account for Islamophobia’s rise in the West and elsewhere.

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Such analyses also do not help us to consider longer term ways in which to quell Islamophobia’s global proliferation and address some of the issues that contribute to the ignorance about Islam and Muslims. Generally defined as the fear and discrimination of Islam and Muslims, Islamophobia has multiple genealogies and many faces.

Islamophobes do not constitute a homogeneous community or a monoculture with a single lineage. The impulses to terrorize and kill Muslims arise from multiple and complex histories that are also entangled with histories of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, among other types of dehumanizing prejudice.

To lump together all instances of Islamophobia into a single phenomenon and suggest that all its proponents belong to a single community is a convenient shorthand that may fail to take into account Islamophobia’s multiple histories and manifestations.

But, in addition to sharing a fear and hatred of Muslims, what unites Islamophobes of all varieties is their aim to collectively dehumanize Muslims and demonize Islam. From the time of Crusades to the era of European colonialism and into the present-day, the West has a well-documented history of undermining Muslims and vilifying Islam.

Tempting as it is to revisit the low points of this complex history of Islamophobia in the West, it is more urgent to consider how to counter its growth.

That is, if it is the case that Islamophobia thrives upon the twin processes of dehumanizing Muslims and demonizing Islam, then, surely, there is an urgency to re-humanize and restore Islam’s place as an integral and honourable part of world history and culture. And where better to start humanizing Muslims than in our schools and universities?

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Some may argue that teaching our younger generations about Islam and Muslims will not prevent another Christchurch or Quebec City. But integrating the histories of Muslims and Islam into school curriculums will send a clear message to all Canadians that Muslims are an important part of Canada’s history.

If there is one thing Islamophobes fear more than Muslims, it is a country that truly stands up for diversity and inclusion.

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