At Risk of Prejudice: Teaching Tolerance about Muslim Americans. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

IT WAS FALL 1979. The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati was gathering for its annual meeting. The top item on the agenda was the Iranian hostage crisis and how to handle the anti-Iranian fervor that was growing in the United States. Particular attention went to a young boy in Wilmington, Ohio a small, closely knit farming community that was proud of its Quaker college, considered a beacon of tolerance and intellectualism. The fifth-grade boy on the meeting's agenda had an American mother and an Iranian father working at the college. Being the lone child in town with an Iranian connection made him the only target of abuse in the entire school system. The first sign of trouble, a large rock, flew through his bedroom window, shattering glass on him and landing in the crib of his baby sister. By the end of the week, things were so bad that school administrators decided to dismiss the boy fifteen minutes early every day. This would enable him to run home and lock the door before the other children caught up with him and beat him up, as they had done from the beginning of the hostage crisis.

That child was my son, Jason. Although he had always been a confident and popular boy, he was never again able to fit into the social scene of his school. He carried the stigma of being "Iran Man" until graduation, and as an adult, he feels little desire to see any of his school colleagues again.

As an Anglo-American Muslim, I'm now facing the same fears as I listen to people on the radio call for revenge, on both a local and an international level. As evidence points to Islamic extremists as responsible for the attack, I'm also glad to hear commentators admonish the callers to differentiate between the terrorists and the rest of America's Muslim population.

Students will have questions-not only about the terrorist attack on the United States, but also about Islamic beliefs and practices. Listed below are some questions that teachers are probably grappling with in the classroom, as well as some comments that may help answer those questions. Throughout the article, I've listed websites where teachers and students can find more extensive answers. At the end of the article are some classroom discussion questions and activities that relate to the questions.

How do the world's Muslims feel about what happened? Is Islam really a religion of violence, as the media sometimes claims?

It's become obvious that the terrorist acts were, indeed, the work of men who refer to themselves as "Muslims." I don't consider them Muslims, and the majority of the world's Muslims would agree. Our sentiments are exactly the same as those of Jews, Christians, and anyone else who is disgusted with this attack on innocent civilians. The attack does not represent Islam. The perpetrators, in their efforts to justify their actions, can pretend that it does, but no religious teaching in Islam justifies the killing of innocent bystanders. In fact, such killing is forbidden by the faith. So although these men may be touted by a small minority as "martyrs for Islam," the rest of the Islamic world has been quick to point out that their actions actually contradict the very teachings of the religion they profess to follow. The murder of innocent people is prohibited not only in the Islamic holy text, the Qur'an, but also in the Shari'a, or Islamic Law, which forbids the killing of innocent people, even within the context of a full-scale war. There is, however, a difference between how religion teaches us to behave and how we, as human beings around the world, fail to live up to that sacred standard. That's the real tragedy of recent events in New York, rural Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.

Muslims around the world have condemned the attack. Even leaders who have traditionally been antagonistic toward the United States, such as Mu'ammar Qadhafi of Libya, have expressed sorrow over the loss of U.S. civilian lives. Large Islamic organizations in the United States have issued official condemnations and messages of condolence. …