And prejudice prevailed

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Study of attitudes since 911 shows that cultural misunderstanding endures. Adi Bloom reports

sixteen-year-old Kadir lost a cousin in the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11, 2001. And his firefighter uncle was killed dealing with the aftermath.

He does not understand why people see him as a terrorist. He is among the Muslim American pupils interviewed by Sapna Taggar, of Michigan university, in an examination of the effect of the September 11 attacks on Muslim school pupils in the United States.

Kadir was not the only student who felt that attitudes towards him changed following the destruction of the twin towers by Muslim extremists. Abid, a Bosnian-immigrant pupil, said: "They think that all Muslims did that together; but no, we didn't." Muneer, of Pakistani origin, echoed this feeling. "I know they're thinking, 'Oh, he's Muslim, he's a terrorist,'" he said.

Dr Taggar interviewed pupils and teachers at two mid-Western high schools but changed their names. She found that many interviewees complained about the stereotypes of Muslims that have persisted since George W Bush launched his "war on terror".

The research revealed that these stereotypes were often perpetuated in the classroom. Mrs Peterson, one of the teachers interviewed, expressed repeated frustration with Muslim pupils, claiming there was a distinction between "them" and "us".

"When you talk about Osama bin Laden, well, you know, he was one of theirs," she said. "Rightly or wrongly, he is one of theirs. I was afraid to bring September 11 up in class because what if I had a militant Arabic student who said 'Hooray'?"

Occasionally, such prejudice led pupils to fear for their safety. Hamdan, a Yemeni pupil, said: "There are some people who just plain hate us and they just give me that look like they want to kill me."

Elnura, who is a Bosnian-American, said the media were to blame. She said that they misrepresented Islamic culture and focused disproportionately on images of Arab men. She was regularly exposed to derogatory comments about Islam because people were unaware that Muslims varied in ethnicity and skin colour.

"The thing that frustrated me most is the way they attacked the religion and the people," she said. "It's like, that's not fair ... I come from war and I know how it is when your family, half of your family, is dead because of religion."

Teachers responded to this in various ways. Mr Norman said he addressed post-911 issues of diversity by focusing on pupils' similarities. "It all comes down to motivating students, and that crosses all boundaries," he said.

By contrast, Mrs Elliott showed a keen understanding of cultural differences among her pupils, including language, holidays and clothing.

She said the best way to cope with these differences was to encourage critical thinking among pupils.

"I think there is a tremendous need for students to be taught the skills,"

she said. "Not what to believe, but the skills to analyse what they are hearing and critique it and examine their own values.

"I have a responsibility as an educator to investigate and listen to different points of view."

* taggars@umflint.edu

TOWARDS A MORE TOLERANT CLASSROOM

Provide ample opportunities to discuss global topics of interest.

Avoid conversations that perpetuate "us" and "them" divisions; foster a sense of unity in the classroom.

Actively seek out information about Muslim laws and traditions.

Allow discussions about how cultural beliefs can be misused to support terrorism.

Encourage critical thinking and perspective-taking - for example, by presenting various viewpoints of a global event.

Remind pupils that school is a safe place of learning for pupils from all cultural backgrounds.

If pupils do not feel safe, it is the teacher's obligation to address those feelings of insecurity.

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