Book sheds light on the challenges Muslim youth face in Western schools
By LISA KAAKI, - Apr 21, 2010
Despite the vast and easy access to information, most people in the West still don’t know the truth about Islam. That is because the Information Technology Revolution has done little to remove the lies and misconceptions attached to the Muslim faith.
Since education is directly connected to politics, Western schools have the wrong perception of Islam. A hidden curriculum with regard to the Middle East, Islam and Muslims has been used in Western schools since a long time. This indisputable fact was the starting point for a fascinating research that led to the publication of The Miseducation of the West
. The Hidden Curriculum of Western-Muslim Relations
Muslim Voices in School
. Narratives of Identity and Pluralism is a follow up that was published in 2009. Written by Özlem Sensoy and Christopher Stonebanks, it brings together a number of studies conducted by university professors, teachers, students and scholars who have dealt with Muslim youth experiences in regards to Western schooling. Furthermore, the book highlights the role educators play in the lives of their students and sheds light on the importance of understanding how youth identity is shaped and influenced by what takes place outside of formal schooling.
As stated in its back cover, the aim of this book is to: “Push back against the reductive mainstream narratives told about Muslim and Middle Eastern heritage students for generations if not centuries in mainstream schools.”
The book is organized chronologically from elementary through university experiences of Muslim students and is divided into the following three parts: “Voices & Experiences of Muslim Students in the K-12 School Years,” “Voices & Experiences of Muslim Students in the University Years” and “Voices & Experiences of Muslim Teachers, Scholars and Administrators.”
In chapter one of Part One, “Testing the Courage of Their Convictions: Muslim Youth Respond to Stereotyping, Hostility and Discrimination,” the following problem is introduced:
“Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination targeting Muslims are on the rise and school communities are not immune. While school systems strive to prepare students for responsible social and civic participation by promoting respect for diversity, educators often struggle to determine whether Muslims’ beliefs conflict with Western values.”
The chapter is written by three Muslim educationists — Mona Abo-Zena, Barbara Sahli and Christina Safiya Tobias-Nahi — who describe the narrative experience of Muslim students who participated in an essay contest about courage. At the same time, they describe the challenges they faced as Muslims living in the West.
From an early age, Abo-Zena states that she was clearly aware that being Muslim made her different from her peers. Moreover, because she was relegated, she became too embarrassed to speak Arabic in public. This experience encouraged her to “create learning environments that not only recognize every individual in the learning community but also emphasize both the limitations and opportunities surrounding feeling marginalized.”
American-born, Sahli, discovered that “being Muslim was akin to being an alien and a traitor,” after she converted to Islam. Furthermore, when she decided to wear the hijab years later, she knew she would never be able to blend in with the rest of society again. “To be a Muslim in America is to be perceived as an outsider, even if this is one’s homeland.”
Tobias-Nahi converted to Islam while studying for a graduate degree in France and witnessed the state ban against wearing the hijab in public schools. She says she was inspired by young women “who were willing to forgo a formal diploma at whatever risk to their future careers, believing that ultimate success is not bestowed by others (teachers, employers), but by their Creator.”
The book consists of 12 chapters, each written by a different author who tells the experiences of interesting Muslims. Two chapters worth reading are those of Shaza Khan (chapter two, part one) and Nawell Mossalli (chapter four, part one).
In “Integrating Identities: Muslim American Youth Confronting Challenges and Creating Change,” Shaza Khan focuses on the development and identity formation of the hybrid identities of American Muslims. Driven by the desire to impose their individuality, she believes they are courageous in facing constant challenges and adverse conditions.
A second-generation Pakistani-American Muslim, Khan recalls that after Sept. 11, a common stereotype arose that Muslim values are incompatible with Western cultures. As a result, she changed the way she dressed, swapping her long dresses (typical Pakistani Shalwar Kamiss and Saudi abayas) for blue jeans and long-sleeve shirts. Her decision to change the way she dressed was directly linked to the political and social climate created after the incident. She believes that identity formation is an on-going process that happens throughout one’s life because “identities are affected by the historical, political and social contexts of an individual.”
In “The Voice of a Covered Muslim-American Teen in a Southern Public School,” Nawell Mossalli tells the story of Rana, a covered Muslim teenager. With Rana’s father a cardiologist and Imam and her mother is a medical director, she is self-confident, performs well academically and is considered a role model by the other Muslim girls. Rana’s testimony of successfully assimilating to the Western culture proves one doesn’t have to compromise their Muslim identity. She views being Muslim as “a privilege and an empowering experience rather than a sign of oppression.”
Rana’s story is an inspirational and encouraging one to all Muslims as her way of life shows that she functions remarkably well in two cultures. The challenges posed by being a Muslim and wearing the hijab in America have provided her with an amazing strength and determination to succeed.
Nawell rightly concludes that Rana has been able to thrive and challenge a dominant culture despite the prevalent prejudice and preconceived ideas about Muslims. As Nawell rightly says: “Assimilation to a culture is dependent on the individual and the decisions he makes rather than decisions being made for the individual.”
Nawell also acknowledged that she could relate to the challenges posed by wearing the hijab in the United States: “I experienced extreme anxiety when applying for my first teaching position which was not eased as the vice superintendent couldn’t get past the fact that I was so well-spoken (for someone who wears the hijab). In my pre-hijab days, religion was never a topic discussed openly with others. However, wearing the hijab became an invitation for inquiries, admiration, and sometimes physical or verbal attacks.”
They authors of the book acknowledge that young Muslims and their families need to set up strategies to deal with the constant criticism waged against Islam and conclude that: “Muslim youth can challenge the dominant perception of Muslims as terrorists, fanatical, suspicious, backward, insular, anti-Western, anti-democracy, and, of Muslim women as oppressed, submissive, powerless, abused and uneducated. By resisting these unjust perceptions and replacing them with truer ones, Muslims can repair their damaged identities and be re-identified as morally worthy rather than contemptible.”
They suggest that schools should make arrangements to accommodate Muslim students who wish to fulfill their religious obligations. They also encourage teachers to organize discussions about current events and religion, which will provide students with some proper insight to Islam.
Muslim Voices in School Narratives of Identity and Pluralism
By Özlem Sensoy and Christopher Darius Stonebanks
Published by: Sense Publishers 2009. Hardback, 207 pages, $39