There are times that help me recognize the importance of my job as a history teacher. Now—an era where facts themselves are frequently up for debate—is one of those times.
I teach a semester-long course about global history at a large public high school in Cambridge, Mass. During the past decade, I have increasingly devoted more time in my curriculum to the Middle East. While we also study other regions of the world, students routinely state their interest in learning more about recent conflicts in the Middle East as a reason for taking the class.
One of my aims is to push students to grapple with the intent and impact of U.S. foreign policy decisions in the region. I push them to explore the historical roots of modern conflicts so they can better understand what’s happening today in the proper context. I also aspire to turn them into critical consumers of news media, so they will question what they read, cross-check information, and not take anything at face value.
When the course is over, students walk away with a more complete understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States’ historic relationship with Iran, and the causes and effects of the current war in Syria.
But despite the fact that many of my students seemed to be more globally informed, something had been nagging me in recent years. In light of what seems like almost constant misinformation about Muslims in our contemporary media and political environment, I knew I hadn’t done enough work to build my students’ understanding of the diverse conceptions of Islam.
A New Curriculum
This past fall, I decided to shake things up. After taking a professional development course that challenged teachers to go beyond war and conflict when teaching about the Middle East, I decided to lay some cultural and religious groundwork before teaching my students about history and foreign policy. We started our unit with lessons about religious literacy, with a particular focus on deconstructing myths and clarifying truths about Islam.
First, my students learned a basic religious literacy framework outlined by Diane L. Moore, the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. The framework is made up of three main ideas:
1. Religions are internally diverse;
2. Religions are dynamic and change over time; and
3. Religions are embedded in culture.
We grappled with what it means to be religiously literate and looked at case studies where students had to put their own beliefs aside in order to develop a fuller understanding of who is included in a religious tradition. For example, we discussed: Can a group that supports what many might regard as intolerant and hateful rhetoric still be considered part of a religious faith—even if it doesn’t square with one’s own understandings of what it means to practice that faith tradition?
Then we applied these lessons to our study of Islam. Many of the countries we study in the Middle East are majority-Muslim nations. Yet, much of what students have heard about Islam and the Middle East over the course of their lifetimes has largely been through the lenses of terrorism, war, and fear. Exploring Islam within its historical, cultural, and social contexts before diving into our study of contemporary conflict in this region has become even more critical in this sociopolitical environment—a time when American fears about terrorism, often linked to Muslim extremism, are widespread.
In an effort to deconstruct myths and clarify truths about Islam, students worked in focus groups to become more knowledgeable about different sects of Islam, traditions within the faith as understood scripturally and historically, and Islamic law.
A Culture of Understanding
After our week of exploring religious literacy and its applications to Islam, I asked students to share their takeaways with me. Their answers confirmed the importance of beginning a history unit in this way. I feel more certain that my students have walked away with an understanding that the Middle East and its inhabitants should not be understood only through the scope of war and terrorism.
“I used to think that violence and war in the Middle East were caused by Muslims and what is written in the Quran,” said one student. “Now I think that’s not true; I believe Islam promotes peace, but individuals interpret the word of God in different ways.”
Another student said: “I used to think religion played a more concrete role in informing people’s ideologies. Now I think about perspectives from a more sociopolitical and religious standpoint. You cannot see religion out of its political and cultural context.”
Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important for teachers to be intentional about confronting narratives that disparage and target groups based on religion, nationality, or any other marker of identity. We are seeing the consequences of religious and historical illiteracy at work in both drafted and actualized policies, exhibited most recently in President Donald Trump’s order last month to ban residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. That order was later struck down by a federal judge, whose decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. This kind of sweeping judgement illustrates that all of us—including students—need to understand that groups who carry out acts of violence in the name of religion do not represent the beliefs of everyone who identifies with the same religion.
In our current political climate, where many of our world leaders rely on easy explanations for complex issues around faith and politics, our roles as history teachers are even more important. We are called upon to step up and resist fear. We are called to continue the work that has always been critical to historians: to put what has happened in the past and what is happening now in the proper and complicated historical context. This is necessary if we are to educate the next generation of truly informed and engaged citizens.