Hey, teachers, don’t leave those kids alone! – Why and how to teach about extremism that claims the mantle of religion.

In the midst of ubiquitous media coverage of atrocities committed in the name of religion, teachers sometimes struggle with how to present such events in a fair and accurate context.  For example, a participant in our Religious Diversity in the Classroom webinar for middle level educators asked, “What is the best way to address religious controversies without condemning a whole religious group that may be an aggressor against another?” This blog post provides strategies for teaching about extremism in the name of religion in ways that combat stereotypes and reduce the likelihood of classroom bullying based on actual or perceived religious identity. Please stay tuned for a subsequent blog post by Sara Wicht of Teaching Tolerance on discussing controversial subjects with students and families.

Why Teach About Religious Extremism?

Lately, the news has been full of horrifying stories and images of the victims of terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, which self-identify as Muslims.  It’s important to keep in mind that there’s additional fallout much closer to home.  With each explosive media event that portrays Muslims as a dark threat, American Muslim students, as well as American Sikh students who are often confused for Muslim because of their brown skin and turbans, become more vulnerable to stereotyping and bullying by teachers and classmates.

According to a survey of Muslim youth by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, half of all respondents were subjected to  mean comments and rumors about them because of their religion, and nearly one in five didn’t agree that their teachers respected Islam.  In a middle school in Queens, Muslim youth frequently suffer taunts like, “Your father is ISIS, are you ISIS?” and “You are probably going to bomb up the school.”  Girls who wear hijabs, Muslim headscarves, risk having them yanked from their heads at recess.

In the neighboring borough of Brooklyn, a Nigerian American Muslim student feels powerless when faced with a rampant misconception about her religious and cultural identity.  According to an article by Sam Lieberman in Voices of New York, “Amina Adekola, 15, was in her 10th grade global class learning about the Boko Haram massacres when another student asked, ‘Why are all Muslims terrorists?’ She said that she wanted to stand up for herself, tell him that she was a Muslim and not a terrorist. But she was embarrassed in the face of what she felt was an overwhelming majority.  ‘About 90 percent of the kids in my class feel that way,’ she said.”

Even though Sikhs are not Muslim, Sikh American students are often victims of Islamophobia because of their peers’ lack of religious literacy and the oftentimes monolithic depiction of Muslims in the media.  In their study Go Home, Terrorist, The Sikh Coalition found that over 2/3 of turbaned Sikh children report being bullied, which is more than double the national rate.  They are called “Bin Laden” or “terrorist” or told to “go back to their country.”  Bullying against Sikh students also takes the form of physical abuse.  Aasees Kaur, the sister of a Sikh boy who was part of a settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Dekalb County School District in Atlanta, wrote that her brother endured a broken nose, a swollen jaw that required two surgeries, and the cutting of his hair, which many Sikhs keep unshorn and wrapped in a turban as an external aspect of their religious identity.  “For devout Sikhs, the turban is a declaration of Sikh identity, representing a commitment to the Sikh religious ideals of equality, justice, and love. For many, the turban reminds them of otherness, making it an easy target for mockery and even violence.”

How to Teach About Religious Extremism

The anecdotes and statistics above shed light on the importance of taking a balanced and comprehensive approach when teaching about extremism that claims the mantle of religion.  Dramatic stories of terrorist acts that make headlines and command students’ attention outside of school need to be counterbalanced with well-rounded and nuanced information received in school.  Here are some best practices for providing a complete picture:

1. Clarify that extremists are a minority within the religion. (e.g., Not all Muslims are terrorists.)

By definition, extremism is “the belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.”  It’s important to provide students with the capacity to distinguish between the diverse mainstream followers of a religion and its extremists.  For example, explain that most Muslims oppose violence in the name of Islam.  According to a Pew Research Center survey of Muslims in 11 countries from South Asia to the Middle East, a median of 67% say that they are somewhat or very concerned about “Islamic” extremism.  In many countries, clear majorities think that suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified, including over three-quarters of respondents in Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

Along with statistics like these, share examples of individuals from the faith in question who have spoken out against religious violence.  This letter entitled “What Can Muslims Do To Reclaim Their ‘Beautiful Religion’?” was signed by Muslim leaders around the world who addressed the savagery of militant groups and asserted their duty to affirm and promote universal human rights.  It includes an image of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, whose autobiography, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, offers to older students an inspirational voice of peace and perseverance.

2. Demonstrate that extremism is not unique to a particular religion. (e.g., Not all terrorists are Muslim.)

Help students understand that there’s a spectrum of behavior within every belief system and that no single religion has a monopoly on violence.  Even Buddhism, which is traditionally associated with nonviolence, has sprung extremist factions.  In Burma and Sri Lanka, Buddhist supremacist groups led by vitriolic monks have launched anti-Muslim riots that ravaged towns, killed dozens, and displaced thousands.  The inflammatory speech and divisive tactics of these monks can find parallels among leaders of Christian identity groups that promote contempt for Jews and non-whites.  Jewish extremists have made their mark as well, such as Yigal Amir, the far-right law student who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.  Amir and his accomplices claimed that they were protesting the prime minister’s efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.  By exposing students to extremism from a variety of religions, students learn that the enemy is not one particular faith but rather religious intolerance from any source.

3. Examine the economic and political context.

Violence that’s attributed to religion often stems from other causes, such as competition for material resources or political control.  Help your students distinguish the politicized version of the religion from the religion itself, and ask them to consider how extremists might distort religious texts and teachings to obtain and retain power.  For example, in their Open Letter to Baghdadi, hundreds of Muslim leaders and scholars meticulously detail how the ideological claims of ISIS have no basis in the Qur’an.

4. Highlight religious peacemakers.

By exposing students to positive voices of faith—to problem-solvers instead of just problem-makers—you counteract the dominant media coverage that risks breeding antagonism towards religion in general.  Share stories of individuals around the world who are motivated by their religion to bridge differences and build peace.  These individuals may not typically make front page news or receive regular public recognition, but their daily struggles have important and lasting effects.  For example, Dishani Jayaweera is a Buddhist in Sri Lanka who founded the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR) with her husband, Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne.  CPBR’s interfaith dialogue work promotes mutual understanding among Sri Lanka’s main religious and ethnic groups:  Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, Muslims, and Tamil and Sinhalese Christians.  In Pakistan, Azhar Hussain works tirelessly to help madrasa leaders develop peacebuilding skills and provide moral guidance for their students and communities.

5. Empower your students to make a difference.

Learning about inspirational peacemakers like Dishani and Azhar serve as an antidote to the sense of powerlessness that repeated exposure to stories of religious violence can create.  Take it one step further by encouraging students to use the peacemakers as a model for their own attempts to make a difference.  Whether it’s standing up for a fellow Muslim or Sikh student, giving a presentation that teaches classmates about religious differences, or raising money for causes that promote interreligious peace, students can channel their concerns into healthy and positive actions.

If educators follow the above practices, they are going beyond just imparting academic information.  They are actually mitigating the damaging effects of religious extremism, including to those students who happen to share a religion with an aggressor. In her Huffington Post article, Nayomi Munaweera, eloquently sums up this unfortunate circumstance:  “Ultimately, whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or any other -ism, the worldwide push toward fundamentalism is also heartbreaking in that it forces those of us sustained by some sort of faith to have to say what should be obvious: these acts of violence do not speak for us.”

By: Marisa Fasciano
Education Program Associate at Tanenbaum