A History Teacher’s Mission

Teaching Islam in an age of misinformation

February 13, 2017
A History Teacher’s Mission

There are times when I recognize the importance of my job as a history teacher more than others. Now is one of those times. I am a teacher at a large, comprehensive public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I teach a semester-long course about global history with a focus on the modern Middle East. During the last decade, I’ve encouraged my students to explore the historical roots of modern conflicts, so they can put what’s happening today in the proper context. I also aspire to turn them into critical consumers of news media; if I have done my job right, they will question what they read, cross-check the information, and not take anything at face value. When the course is over, students walk with away with a more complete framework for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s historic relationship with Iran, and the causes and effects of the current war in Syria.

But what’s been nagging at me over the last couple of years is what I haven’t done for my students. In light of what now seems like almost constant misinformation about Muslims in our contemporary media and political environment, I know I haven’t done enough work to build my students’ understanding of the diverse conceptions of Islam.

"Much of what students have heard about Islam and the Middle East has centered on terrorism, war, and fear. Exploring Islam within its historic, cultural, and social context, before diving into our study of conflict in this region, becomes even more critical in this environment."

This year, I shook things up. I decided to lay some cultural and religious groundwork before I started talking about Middle East history and foreign policy. What I failed to fully recognize until this point was that despite my own knowledge about religious literacy — my understanding that religions are internally diverse; religions evolve and change over time; religious influences are embedded in all dimensions of culture — I hadn’t communicated any of this to my students. I assumed that my students had a similar set of guiding principles about the study of religion, and that as a result of growing up in an ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse city, they would know this stuff by default.

I no longer wanted to make that assumption. So we started our unit with lessons on religious literacy, with a particular focus on deconstructing myths and clarifying truths about Islam.

My students spent several days becoming acquainted with the religious literacy framework outlined by Professor Diane Moore of the Harvard Divinity School. They read, we discussed, we struggled with theoretical language, and we watched videos to help us make sense of what we read. We grappled with what it means to be religiously literate and looked at case studies where students had to put some of their own beliefs aside in order to develop a fuller understanding of who is included in a religious tradition.

For example, can a group that espouses what many might regard as intolerant and hateful rhetoric in the name of God still be considered part of a religious faith, even if that doesn’t square with one’s own understandings of what it means to practice that faith tradition? Using the methodological framework around religious literacy, we applied our understandings to this question and others.

"In our current political climate, where our leaders rely on easy explanations for complex issues around faith and politics, the importance of our roles as history teachers comes into stark relief."

Then we took these lessons and focused them specifically to our study of Islam. Most of those who live in the region we refer to as the Middle East are adherents of Islam. Many of the countries we study are majority-Muslim nations. And yet, much of what students have heard about Islam and the Middle East has centered on terrorism, war, and fear. Exploring Islam within its historic, cultural, and social context before diving into our study of conflict in this region becomes even more critical in this environment.

In an effort to deconstruct myths and clarify truths about tenets of Islam, students worked in focus groups to become more knowledgeable about different sects of Islam, veiling traditions within the faith as understood scripturally and historically, Islamic law, and Islam in different socio-political contexts. After our week of exploring religious literacy and its applications to Islam, I felt students had learned something. Many things, even.

I asked them to share their takeaways. A few examples:

  • “I used to think that violence and war in the Middle East were caused by Muslims and what is written in the Quran. Now I think that’s not true; I believe Islam promotes peace but individuals interpret the word of God in different ways.”
  • “I used to think religious literacy was the ability to read your holy book but nothing else. Now I know that it’s being able to look at a variety of religions through different historical and cultural lenses.”
  • “I used to think religion played a more concrete role in informing people’s ideologies; now I think about perspectives from a more socio-political-religious standpoint: you cannot see religion out of its political/cultural context.”

In our current political climate, where our leaders rely on easy explanations for complex issues around faith and politics, the importance of our roles as history teachers comes into stark relief. We are called to step up and resist fear-mongering, and to continue the work that has always been critical to historians: to put what has happened in the past into dialogue with what is happening now, so that our students can become truly informed and engaged citizens.

About the Author

Rachel Otty
Rachel Otty is a high school history teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has been teaching U.S. and world history since 2005.
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