As anti Muslim bigotry reached unprecedented highs in the United States after 9/11, Islamic religious education came under the microscope in both the United States and Europe.
A new study by the Brookings Institute on publicly funded Islamic education in nine European countries and the United States finds outdated, stereotypical textbooks, lack of teachers training and publicly funded European Islamic schools being used to produce "model citizensî.
Professor Jenny Berglund has been researching Islamic education since 2009 in her native Sweden. The release of her research paper at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 2015 was attended by education experts, graduate students and journalists.
Taking part in the discussion was Professor Susan Douglass, researcher, reviewer of textbooks on the Council on Islamic Education, a Muslim, and consultant for state standards on world history since 1995.
ìCritics of multicultural education latched onto the notion that teaching about Islam in public school textbooks and classrooms might be implicated in the existential national security threat,î writes Professor Douglass. The panel was hosted by the Center on the Middle East Policyís U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Program and moderated by its director, Will McCants.
A number of countries in Europe teach Islam in public school as a religious subject, while other countries teach Islam as a non-confessional subject to all students. Public schools in Germany and Austria teach Islam to Muslims as a subject within a broader religious curriculum in which parents can choose their studentsí religious courses. French and American students can learn about Islam in subjects such as art, history, or literature but public schools cannot and do not teach religion. In the United Kingdom and Sweden, public schools teach Islam as an academic subject and train teachers through comparative religious studies departments in universities.
In a secular country like the United States, headlines will often accuse public schools across the country of propagating Islam at the expense of Christianity. Last year, Kevin Wood received a no trespassing order after he objected to his daughter being taught about Islam in La Plata High School in Maryland. La Plata High School officials said that the class only taught Islam as it relates to the history and politics of the Middle East and that Woods had threatened student safety. Texas is a particular hotspot for textbook controversy. According to the Brookings Institute paper, ëpeople worry their governments are doing too little or too much to shape the spiritual beliefs of private citizens.í Douglass asserts that negative attitudes toward Islam are preventing important cultural education.
There is quite a lot of prejudice in many textbooks on Islam, analyzes Berglund. ìWe get very stereotypical depictions of religions and religious people,î she shared with the audience. ìReligious people are described as robots,î she noted. Of particular concern was that she found most textbooks depicting Muslim life exclusively from the Arab world, while most Muslims do not live in the Arab world. Diversity in pictures is important to represent and understand the diversity of people and life in the Islamic world.
Berglund finds that textbooks from the 1970s and 1980s portrayed Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East with numerous inaccuracies. ìTextbook companies were often slow to correct mistakes and draw upon scholarly work. The Council on Islamic Education (CIE) has regularly drawn attention to these aws and urged publishers to improve textbook quality.î
Saudi textbooks aren't used in Islamic Education in the US, Douglass said responding to a question from the audience, debunking a long held myth about privately run Islamic schools. ìThat's a worry we don't need to have. American Muslim students want relevant Islamic studies textbooks that echo their experiences, especially in Islamic schools,î she added. She expanded on the fact that there are about 200 Islamic schools in the United States which are funded by communities and tend to use public school texts for most subjectsó even though they are not required to by law.
The study refers to Islam as a confessional and nonconfessional subject and to confessional and nonconfessional textbooks. Islam can be taught as an academic subject with no truth claims or as a denominational subject teaching the religion as the Divine Truth.
Berglund uses the term Islamic education loosely in her paper ówith a variety of meaningsó with the commonality being publicly funded. Berglundís research also explored teaching about Islam in world history curricula.
Berglund divided her research into four groups: Germany, Spain and Austria- where Islamic organizations can enter into cooperation with the state, as can Jews, Protestants and Catholics.
Finland and Netherlands have parallel paths for religious education within the school systemó these big Muslim minorities have the right to start religious schools with public funds similar to Germany. There are 43 government funded Muslim primary schools and one secondary school in the Netherlands.
New Finnish laws allow the teaching of Islam ìwithin the state school system with a non-confessional curriculum, meaning that the IRE orientation in public schools is educational rather than religious,î if more than three Muslims students are in a school district and their parents request alternative religious education to Lutheran religious education.
UK and Sweden have been teaching Islam as a confessional subject since 1969, and this has just come under scrutiny in the past decade. In Sweden, there are 50 state funded schools and out of the hundreds of Islamic schools in the UK 12 are Muslim ëfaith schoolsí sponsored by the governmentóalong with this, Islam can not be taught as a confessional subject in other state schools.
Textbooks were an issue for several teachers that Berglund interviewed for her research- some import them from other countries which bring a host of problems, others cut and paste from textbooks according to the values of the country that they live in. Berglund observed that each countriesí values played into how the Islamic education classes were structured and run; for example, gender segregation is off limits in Sweden but is a norm in the United Kingdom with its historical legacy of gender segregated schools.
The US model for textbooks is like ëmaking sausageí, says Douglass, the default standard evolved around world history. Islam is never taught in isolation and is taught with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Greek mythology, etc. In the past many state standards molded themselves around the textbooks but others dictated the standard to textbooks companies.
According to Douglass, some groups have put pressure what gets in and what doesnít and there is a whole activist cottage industry that has grown up around that in the United States. Textbooks in the United States are academically reviewed, reviewed by teachers and by civil organizations such as the First Amendment Center. Douglass has been involved with the review process for decades. She says, California was the leader in the countryó teaching units on all major religions.
Douglass emphasized that teaching Islam in public schools was not in response to 9/11 but already institutionalized and is not exceptional. ìAs Western nations grapple with the role of religion in civic life, they will need to clarify how education on religion relates to the secular nation-state and its objectives while taking into account the needs of citizens to find a basis for living constructively within a common civic space,î writes Douglass.. She explained the history of Islam being taught as an academic subject from the 50s to current time and noted that post 9/11 interest in Islamic religious education has risen even though the right has existed since the 50s.
In Sweden, researchers, scholars of religion and teachers make the decisions on the curriculum. In the UK, without a national curriculum, local religious organizations decide what is included in any religious studies class. According to Berglund, in Germany and Austria, the religious organizations that have cooperated with the government chose what is taught in the Islamic Studies classes.
Schools are socializing future citizens, molding them into what the state wants to see in the society, writes Berglund. In Finland, state policy allows for state funds be used to publish Islamic textbooks in Finnishó including a confessional textbook that is funded by the government for the 40,000 Muslims living in the country.
Islam in each country is diverse and the policies vary according to the national political culture of each country, as well as the historical and religious norms that shape public perceptions and debates over religious education. Berglund notes that strategies differ in ësimilarí countries according to their beliefs about social cohesion, Swedes believe that teaching the same course about a religion to all students breaks down prejudices, whereas the Finnish believe that a strong religious identity builds solid Finnish citizens who contribute in unique ways.
ìSchools are powerful socializing agents in that they represent and reproduce the dominant conceptions of the wider society. Thus by following the requirements of a national curriculum, religious education teachers can become indirect agents of state policies toward religion,î writes Berglund in her paper.
The biggest surprise for Berglund of Sˆdertˆrn University was the lack of teacher training about religions across the Western world. Coming from Sweden where teachers need academic training before they can teach any subject, Berglund says that she was surprised by the lack of teacher training, especially in the United States and France. This leads to religion being taught in stereotypical ways that loses most of the nuances, argues Berglund, and decreases understanding of the majority-minority dynamics, as well as social and political realities. She recommended engagement amongst teachers across the borders, people could learn from each other even if the systems are different.
Douglass noted that the civic benefits of these classes are minimized with the orientalizing of Islam, making textbooks ridiculously inaccurate. She says schools can only benefit by teaching religion as their adherents understand it rather than editorializing the religion through the secular humanist lens. This practice makes practitioners of religion suspicious of the authenticity of what is being taught. She said many Christians have brought up this issue, especially at the collegiate level.
Noting the variety in approaches in the different countries, Berglund does have three good practices recommendations: establishing rigorous academic standards of training for teachers of religious education courses, providing factual textbooks informed by academic scholarship, both for Islamic religious education and non-confessional school subjects that teach about Islam and building upon current curricular and pedagogical best practices through international exchange and dialogue of scholars.
She mentioned that state control of religion accommodation needs to be balanced with the right of the parents to have education about religion available for their children. Most parents want educated and good teachers for their children. This leads to many more discussions on what is a good teacher, what should be taught and how the trainings would work without government dictating the ìrightî kind of Islam.
Douglass told the Muslim Link that she hopes that Berglundís research will discredit anti-Muslim claims about Islamic education in the United States. There has been a lot of nonsense printed in newspapers and blogs and Berglundís paper sets a marker and will prevent these ideas from gaining traction, says Douglass.
McCants, who has served as a U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism, called Berglundís paper one of the more comprehensive studies on teaching about Islam as a religion in publicly funded schools. In her research, Berglund notes two points of interest: in many European countries, equal rights for minorities has allowed Muslims to obtain state funding for religious schools, introduce Islamic religious education in public education, train teachers of Islam, and establish university departments of Islamic theology. While this may seem beneficial to Muslim communities, the other side of the coin (as Berglund calls it) is ìthe tendency to use the public funding of education as a coercive means of achieving social cohesionói.e., as a way to mold the conduct and thinking of Muslim populations to cohere with the conduct and thinking of the Western majority populations.î These findings should make many in Muslim communities put their thinking caps on.