The inspiration for this article came from frustration and heartache. It follows the murders of four intergenerational members of the Afzaal / Salman family who left a nine-year-old injured and orphaned in London, Ont. On June 6, 2021.
It also follows the continued injustice linked to the state-sanctioned racism of Bill 21 in Quebec and a wave of hate attacks in Alberta, most targeting black Muslim women in hijabs.
This year, at least nine attacks in Edmonton were reported to police, seven of which resulted in criminal charges.
There is a continuing silence and erasure of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia in the education systems that we and our loved ones experience.
Islamophobia: a form of racism
While there is not a single static understanding or definition of Islamophobia, we recognize it as a form of racism, structural and individual, which is rooted in long histories of empire and colonization.
The events of September 11, 2001 in the United States had a profound and lasting impact on Muslims around the world. While Western narratives have presented Islam through the lens of Orientalism for centuries, 9/11 unleashed renewed forms of Islamophobia in all sectors.
We should examine the multiple dimensions of Islamophobia that construct and shape the realities of the Muslim people through political, social and economic structures and public representations in institutions and around the world. These protests shape representations of Muslims and their embodied experience of being “Muslim” in Canada.
It is important to consider Islamophobia not only in everyday hate crimes, but also in everyday indignities, silence and attacks on the self-esteem and well-being of Muslims.
There are common ways for educators, boards, senior officials and the policies and programs they support to keep the reality of Islamophobia alive in schools. These “escapes” are ways of escaping or avoiding fighting Islamophobia that allow us to maintain a sense of innocence and kindness, while denying complicity in perpetuating wrongdoing against Muslims.
Escape 1: Excluding Islamophobia from Discussions of Racism
One way for schools to avoid tackling Islamophobia is to neglect to name it and address it explicitly in larger discussions of racism, xenophobia and oppression.
Common understandings of racism maintain narrow definitions of race as related only to biology. But as sociologist Saher Selod explains, “racialization” is a process and an act. It is articulated and applied through cultural, political or legal narratives. Islamophobia is the result of the racialization of Muslims as “other”.
Although Islamophobia is a form of racism, it should also be understood that Muslim students have multiple identities, including their socio-economic status, ethnicity and linguistic identity, as well as their gender and sexuality, as well as other forms of racialization. As such, the specific way in which a Muslim student may experience Islamophobia is the interplay of their multiple identities.
Read more: Celebrating Diversity Is Not Enough: Schools Need Anti-Racism Program
Such interconnected aspects of identity are linked to broader systems of oppression and, as education researcher George J. Sefa Dei notes, anti-racist education should seek to respond to complex oppressions through a intersectional analysis.
Evasion 2: Affirming that we have a “secular” society
The implicit belief that Canadians exist in a secular society with secular public institutions is widespread. But the institutions of Canadian society, including our schools, were built and now operate as if being a Christian were the norm. Traditional educational institutions continue to marginalize students (and their families) who are not Christians because they are outside of national identity.
Public school programs occasionally teach In regards to religion, but largely avoids discussions rooted in faith and spirituality as part of identity and lived experience. The fight against Islamophobia requires a critical examination of white supremacy, its Christian hegemony and racial hierarchies of power.
Education in Islam can be useful in combating disinformation, but it is insufficient to combat Islamophobia.
Escape 3: “We have no Muslim students”
Naming, addressing and dismantling Islamophobia does not require the presence of Muslims. The “no Muslims here” assumption should also be taken lightly, as some families choose not to disclose their religious identity for a multitude of reasons, including protecting their children from anticipated racial targeting.
While the presence of self-identified and identifiable Muslim students and staff may mean an increase in cases of explicit Islamophobia, their visible presence in a school is not a prerequisite for a commitment to recognize and fight against this form of racism.
Evasion 4: “We have lodgings for the faith”
Faith-based accommodation can be seen as an improvement over the explicit exclusion of Muslims from public spaces by claims of secularism. But “fitting in” within existing structures will not address Islamophobia in programs, policies or institutional culture.
Faith-based accommodations are often approached as a procedure (at best) or sometimes as a nuisance to “integrate” minority students. They are rarely seen as an opportunity to build relationships, to learn together or to transform the school.
Evasion 5: “We don’t know enough”
Author and education scholar Bettina Love writes that if people believe in teaching against racism, they will commit to getting the job done – including unlearning, learning, and not waiting to be. taught by people in communities that experience different forms of intersecting violence.
Too often, Muslim students and colleagues are forced to become “ambassadors” of their religious tradition because the adults around them claim that they do not know enough about Islam and Islamophobia.
Evasion 6: Excuse Islamophobia as “freedom of expression”
Muslim scholars, feminists, theorists, and the clergy have long engaged in study, analysis, debate, and criticism to understand Islamic scriptures, practices, and histories. As in all religious communities and traditions, there has always been and always has been and continues to be dynamic dialogue and reflection within Islam. Muslim communities have a plethora of understandings and modes of religious practice. Insisting that Muslims homogeneously subscribe to a singular (medieval) fictitious understanding of Islam is the cornerstone of Islamophobia.
Too often, an invitation to debate “about Islam” and “Muslim life” in classrooms is informed by sources promoting this perspective. The result is Islamophobic targeting and harassment – sometimes even directed by or in the presence of teachers – which is characterized as “freedom of expression”.
New stories are urgent
These escapes are just a few of the ways in which Islamophobia is perpetuated through the silences and omissions in school systems. Potential ways to experience different stories in school systems include:
Recognize how much Islamophobia is present, even when Muslim students and staff are not. Like other forms of racism, Islamophobia still operates in various structures, programs, languages and beliefs.
Address and remove barriers to meaningful inclusion. Go beyond accommodation and move towards designing spaces and systems so that each student feels they belong and feel important. This necessarily involves co-creating life-giving and enduring spaces that affirm spirituality and faith, even when schools claim to be secular.
Education against Islamophobia must be explicit, targeted and integrated into anti-racist work. We believe that all educators have an ethical responsibility to work to become co-conspirators and disrupt anti-black, anti-native, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist and ableist systems. School systems cannot wait for this to happen organically. Anti-racist and anti-oppressive education must become a guiding ethic and an expectation in all educational institutions.
Commit to getting the job done
In preparing this article, we asked, “What will it take for education systems (and those who run and within them) to finally take Islamophobia seriously?”
Too often, being a Muslim is seen as incompatible with public life in Canada. We want better for ourselves, our children, and all of the children, adolescents, families, caregivers and educators who live and work within these systems.
Educators and school systems cannot continue to avoid confronting, interrupting and dismantling Islamophobia. They need to step up and commit to getting the job done.