Alright, I feel the need to start off with something pleasant, so before we start discussing Islamophobia and excessive Hitler analogies, go check out woodturtle’s series on being unmosqued. It’s really brilliant, and on a subject I think a lot of non-Muslims rarely consider, that the mosque doesn’t play the same role for Muslims as a church does for Christians. So yeah, go read that and hear intelligent, thoughtful, interesting people talk.
And now for the excessive Hitler analogies…
So the Council for American Islamic Relations is asking the Department of Justice to investigate a science teacher at Skagit County Middle School in Washington State, after receiving a tip from a student that, in an aside about bullying, the teacher said Arabs and Muslims are “just like Hitler” and that they raise their children from birth to give their lives to Allah, to be martyrs and to murder innocent people. CAIR has also said that they approached the school board to ask to work with them to address Islamophobia in the classroom, but the school has denied that the event happened, saying that the teacher’s comments were specifically in reference to the Taliban and taken out of context.
What’s really sad about this whole story is not that Godwin’s law is invading real life (although for serious, people, there are tons of genocidal madmen in history! How about some Pol Pot references!?), but that I genuinely believe the school’s story that the teacher was just talking about the Taliban.
Or at least, I believe that this teacher probably started out ‘just talking about the Taliban’. Because I’ve had this conversation, time and time again. “The Taliban” is become as much a trope in common parlance as Hitler.
I’ve talked about before that one of the problems with Islamophobia (or any kind of bigotry, really) is that when the only image people have of a community or group of people is a stereotype, it becomes incredibly difficult to convince them of this fact. It’s the ‘everybody knows’ argument – everybody knows that *some* Muslims are violent. Just like how even today, some people still say that ‘everybody knows’ that non-straight people can’t really be in love, or make good, stable parents. And a few decades ago, it was true that everybody knew that African-Americans and Latinos were just naturally lazier, and that’s why so many of them lived in poverty. Or how a hundred years ago, everybody knew that Jewish people were cunning and Irish people were criminally-minded. So long as the stereotype rings true, a truly tremendous amount of evidence has to be stacked up against these kinds of reductionist statements for anyone to start to question them.
More and more, I think in cases like this, what we need to be talking about is not the crazy stereotypes being spewed by a teacher. Or, at least, not just that. When we hear about racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism or cissexism in schools, we need to remember that these are not isolated events, but rather visible outgrows of a whole system of institutionalized privilege and oppression. It’s like a rash – it’s not just a problem in and of itself, it’s a problem that may be symptomatic of something much larger and more significant.
In the case of bigotry in education, it’s symptomatic of how little we stray from a Eurocentric, patriarchal and heteronormative vision of history and humanity. These exchanges stand out because they may be only reference students hear to Arabs and Muslims. Moreover, it may demonstrate the genuine level of under-education or miseducation teachers have about these communities. Even if all teachers in schools are university educated, that’s still no guarantee that they’re well-informed about non-Eurocentric history or cultures. For most of us, if you did learn about these things in college, you probably had to seek them out as electives, and not everyone will have done so (and for a field like education, where recruiting qualified, competent people is already a problem, adding more requirements of secondary education to the list isn’t really anyone’s top priority). Thus the whole system becomes self-perpetuating – schools don’t have the space in their curriculum or the breadth in their staff to teach a wider view of the world, so students, for the most part, aren’t exposed to this ideas, and then those students go on in their education and become teachers, and return to a system with an ever-narrowing view of curriculum.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we shouldn’t call out schools when their teachers spew drivel like this. I absolutely support what CAIR is doing, including their attempt to meet the school half-way and have a discussion about Islamophobia in the classroom. But I think that can only be a first step. In order for things to change, we need to recognize that these outbursts are a symptom of a much larger problem that is currently not being addressed at all in our national dialogue about education.