Sometimes courses, or particular classes, take on their own particular theme or direction. This year’s unit on Islam made an unexpected shift to include a heavy dose of media literacy, partly because we had covered Islam through so many current events throughout the year already, and partly because the students and I both recognized it as being at the root of so many misunderstandings.
For the past few years I have assigned a project about Myths and Misconceptions in Islam where students take a belief about Islam that is incorrect or oversimplified and work to both explain the source of that misconception and the truth they would use to explain it. Noticing flaws in what previous years’ works had resulted in, I decided to pay a little more attention to the selection of resources as students researched their topics–and in so doing I think I unknowingly planted a seed that blossomed when they turned in their finished works.
As I introduced the project, I shared this resource from ReadWriteThink that asks students to evaluate websites using a handy breakdown of questions. I had pointed out to students that websites could be misleading before, but never had a good way of walking them through the steps of assessment–how do you know when a source is quality or not? (Sidebar: One example to note with students is…Wikipedia! I remember a time when using Wikipedia as a resource was ridiculed, and now I frequently suggest it as a starting point. Why? Because there are usual listings of credible sources for each articles, a large number of readers and contributors on articles, or blatant warnings if there are concerns about a page). I also showed students the very first site that pops up when you search “the truth about Islam”: TheReligionofPeace.com. If you go to the site, you’ll see why it’s a great tool to illustrate careful evaluation of sources AND recruiting as many sources as possible. While some of the information referenced there is correct, it is often to the exclusion of other information that counterbalances or counteracts the interpretations there. Plus, the pictures are a great clue that the site might be a little biased.
When I realized I had an extra day to use (as a good chunk of the class was off taking AP exams), I decided to riff on the media theme. I came across this article about media portrayals of Islam, which I shared with my students. Working from the article as a starting point, we brainstormed all sorts of terms and phrases that are often seen in relation to Muslims: everything from “terrorist” to “submissive women” to “Aladdin” and “genie in a bottle.” Then I showed them an episode of “Little Mosque”–a Canadian show whose seasons can now all be seen on Hulu. The show’s a sitcom, and sometimes a not very funny one (a student compared it to Modern Family, which is funny because it’s often ridiculous and not funny), but its an enjoyable and interesting 26 minutes. I asked the students to think about how the show might challenge stereotypes like those we had listed, or in fact encourage them. Many pointed out how the show manages to include a diverse array of Muslims, more conservative to more liberal, of African and Middle Eastern and Caucasian descent, and a few pointed out the ways in which there was still the “conservative father” or the “sneaky foreigner.”
Ultimately, what came out from watching the show and through student research on their myths, is that in some cases there is a kernel of truth that is present. People conflate Arabs and Muslims because, in fact, many Arabs are Muslims; likewise while there are a variety of portrayals of Islam in “Little Mosque,” there are still conservative Muslims because there are many conservative Muslims. What has been interesting is to see how students have unpacked the roots of these myths and how many ended up blaming media for the spread of the misconceptions. This was a change from prior years, and an indication to me that something had changed in their understandings and expectations. As part of the project, I ask students to suggest solutions: How could we better educate people about this problem? Who needs to be involved and what needs to be done? I expected to hear about teachers and schools, or people reading the Qur’an for themselves, etc. But this year a lot of students wrote about the media’s coverage of religious topics, how they seek quick headlines and simple stories, and the impulse to gain more and more readers and make more and more ad revenue.
To (try to) bring it all together, I finished our discussion of their myth projects with a viewing of this John Green Crash Course video on Islam and Politics. In it, he explains not only how our understanding of Islam is distorted by the media, but also how certain Islamist or extremist groups have done their own distorting in order to further their agendas. In history classes, we are always harping on how textbook authors and historians leave out parts of the story to push points of view, and how the better histories are those shaped by many voices and acknowledge complexity. Here, Green gives a prime example of the danger of this, as terrorists like ISIS pick and choose the parts of history that further the ideal of an Islamic caliphate, while cheerfully ignoring the teachings of the Qur’an and experiences of Muslims that would challenge this goal.
The final piece, then, is to figure out how to better consume media AND history, so these incomplete pictures do not form. I said to my students, “If you’re not Rupert Murdoch, or you’re not a reporter, how can you help fix the media?” Mostly I got blank stares, but I hope through activities like these, we’re starting to answer that question.
What are some other media portrayals of Islam that you use to show the diversity of the religion? How do you get students to think critically about what they are reading and watching?
P. S. This is another great set of short videos that help represent Islam in America. Fun, and beautifully illustrated!