`Young Muslims need a narrative of discovery'

19th September 2014 at 01:00
Research warns of alienation if Islamic history is ignored

Muslims are often left out of the school history curriculum, which can alienate students and increase the risk of radicalisation, new academic research suggests. Even events in which Muslims play a key role are frequently taught in a way that excludes the religion, according to Matthew Wilkinson, an academic at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, who interviewed almost 400 pupils at Muslim-majority secondary schools.

Compulsory modules on the First World War might easily include references to the Ottoman Empire, but are instead taught with exclusive focus on the Western Front, argues Dr Wilkinson, who will present his findings at the British Educational Research Association conference in London next week.

He writes that although pupils enjoy learning about trench warfare, they might find these lessons even more meaningful if mention were made of the Muslim - and Hindu and Sikh - soldiers who also fought in the trenches.

Several students told Dr Wilkinson that the absence of Muslim history in lessons contributed to their boredom with the subject. One boy said history was "a complete waste of time".

Dr Wilkinson believes that excluding Islam from the history curriculum reinforces Muslim pupils' sense of alienation. "There's no obvious place in the narrative for young Muslims to latch on to," he told TES. "Muslims need to know, historically, why they find themselves in Britain. Not to provide access to that narrative of discovery within the curriculum is a big mistake."

Often, he said, what drove young Muslims to become radicalised was the draw of "a very strong historical narrative, in which Islam is a very powerful presence".

But, he added, teaching Muslim history was not enough. In response to pupil pressure, one school in the study introduced a module on the history of Pakistan. After the second lesson, the pupils told the teacher: "This is boring, Sir. This is rubbish."

Another school introduced a module on the history of Bangladesh, which also failed to interest students. And a compulsory module on Indian independence was taught without any mention of the creation of Pakistan. One boy told Dr Wilkinson that he was reluctant to ask questions about Pakistan, as he felt that his teacher was not interested in it.

"Possibly teachers - often white, middle-class males - sent out messages that it wasn't very important, perhaps because they didn't know very much about it," Dr Wilkinson said. "With other periods, a teacher might have read around it and feel more confident, more able to engage interest."

Hamid Patel, headteacher of Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School in Lancashire, said the way that history was taught to pupils from ethnic-minority backgrounds played a crucial role in shaping their sense of British identity and belonging.

"Just as it is important for children to learn about history from a British perspective, I think it is crucial for learners of all backgrounds to get an understanding of how people of different cultures and faiths contributed to the events that have shaped the world around us," he said.

The findings follow a warning from award-winning teacher Sajeela Shah, who said staff were afraid to discuss topics that were seen as sensitive for Muslim students. Speaking to TES ("We are scared to tackle these issues", 5 September), she said teachers had to overcome their fear of discussing the Middle East in order to combat the dangers of radicalisation.

A spokeswoman for the Historical Association said teachers needed sufficient time and training to deliver engaging, in-depth lessons. "Without those things, any teacher, however dedicated, will encounter some limitations," she said.

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