The Bias in Religious Education – Osama Fattouh

I went to a high school that was majority white and majority Christian. Other than me, there was only one other Muslim student in my grade and to this day we are still friends. I remember during my sophomore year I was enrolled in a class called “History of Religion” in which we learned about a number of the world’s religions. In the first unit we learned about Buddhism and Sikhism, the second unit covered Judaism, the third Islam, and the final unit Christianity. When we got to Islam there were a number of problems. The first was the fact that this unit was literally 2 weeks long. All the other units were at least a month if not longer, and yet Islam which is the fastest growing and one of the largest (if not the largest) religions in the world was covered in only 2 weeks. The second problem I had was that the class was very inaccurate and didn’t correctly portray what the religion was truly about.

I remember feeling very uncomfortable during this part of the class due to it completely alienating me and what I believed in. The teacher and the whole department didn’t take the time to fact-check anything they said; this made me feel responsible to ensure that my religion is truthfully shown to the class. Throughout the course I raised my hand and corrected the teacher whenever she was wrong. The fact that I had to teach the class my religion as opposed to a teacher who was supposed to be an expert on this subject made me feel out of place. If I hadn’t been in that particular class, my peers would’ve soaked up false information about Islam as did the classes before and after mine. I felt as if no one cared about me, my fellow Muslims, or how our religion was portrayed.

I remember wondering at the time how something like this can be fixed; but I was too young to understand. However, as I grow older, I see how American society is beginning to be more progressive and understanding. I have begun to be more hopeful that one day my religion can be taught correctly. It is important that we support organizations that bring people from all religions together to have dialogue and find ways to support each other. I also know that if people from all religions can work together, we can help pass policy that will make religious education of all religions an important part of American education. This would lead schools to ensure that our teachers are truly qualified in this subject and teach every religion equally and with respect.

Nevertheless, in this moment, in comparison to any other religion in the world I can confidently claim that no religion is depicted as negatively as Islam. For example, in China, Uyghur muslims are being put into concentration camps for their religion. In France, Macron has declared war against Islam itself, forcing Masjids to close left and right, preventing Muslims from practicing, and more. For whatever reason, so many media outlets and politicians lie about Islam. To me it is very disrespectful and sad to see how much these evil people have hated my religion for no reason other than to hate.

I hope one day that people can truly see what Islam is about and understand it is a religion of peace and community. A religion that values family, peace, and love. A religion that stands for the oppressed and scrutinizes the oppressor. A religion that helps the poor and stops the greedy intentions of those who abuse their wealth. A religion that is here to protect both humans and animals. A religion that protects the planet on which we pray. A religion that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.

Have you had to correct others’ misconceptions about your religion or worldview? How do you respond to the media or other sources of culture that depict yours dishonestly or unfavorably?

10 thoughts on “The Bias in Religious Education – Osama Fattouh”

  1. Hello, Osama! Thank you so much for sharing your experience, especially since it was so unpleasant and hurtful when it happened. The fact that you were made to feel responsible for defending and educating about your religion in the place of professional educators is terrible, and I can only imagine how stressful it must have been! You’re very right that an increase in interfaith organizations and seeing them as not supplementary to education, but essential to it, is a way that we can prevent what happened to you from happening to other young students. Finally, I just wanted to say your last paragraph, where you describe what Islam truly means to you, is beautiful, and really enhanced my understanding even further!

  2. Hi Osama,

    As a Roman Catholic, I have not had the same problems as you. Because my religion and its similar sects dominated Western society and culture for so long, the American education system rarely mischaracterizes my religion’s core beliefs when it is discussed in my experience. At times, I have had to correct some atheists or agnostics who misinterpret Catholic beliefs, but it is usually during informal discussion. The only time I had a formal education about Islam was when my world history teacher in high school taught about the crusades from a Western Christian perspective. The high school I attended was 100% Christian – mostly Lutheran and Methodist – so I am glad that you were able to give your high school class a more nuanced education even if it should not have been your responsibility.

  3. Hi Osama,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I’m glad that your perception is that people are becoming more understanding on these issues. There’s this concept of some inherent, eternal, unavoidable “clash of civilizations” that gets played up a lot, and I think your post shows it is really an incoherent idea. If anything, I think the focus for high school world religions classes like that ought to be less about teaching what the religion is (like “Islam 101”) and more about anthropological issues, like analyzing ideas of purity, taboo, institutional structure, ritual & practice, etc. That way teachers and students could engage seriously with literature in the study of religions without coming away thinking they know the “basics of Islam” or similar.

  4. Hey Osama,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. First of all, when I look back on my experience studying world religions in public school, my experience was exactly the same as you’re describing, glaringly biased. As a member of a number of majority identifying groups, I have always had the luxury of being able to ignore these biases, and this is a problem. As a 20 year old college student who spends a fair amount of time thinking about these things, I now have the perspective to call this out when I see it, but as a 12 or 15 year old, I would be lying if I said it was the first thing on my mind. And unfortunately, most people who are members of these majority groups(i.e. white, Christian, male) don’t have the foresight to start to call out these biases. That’s why programs like this and blog posts like this are so important, we always need to actively work to break out of our echo chambers, call out biases, and respect the otherness of the other. This needs to be an active pursuit, not a passive pursuit. Cheers,

    Cal

  5. Hi Osama, thank you for sharing about your experience with religious education! The fact that you were tasked with correcting a teacher because they had not bothered to educate themselves highlights how our education system is hurt by a lack of diversity of perspectives and willful ignorance. As a Christian, I cannot imagine how you must have felt in that situation as I have been afforded privileges as a part of a majority religious group. I appreciate that as fellows, we have been able to learn more about each others religions, I think education by individuals with lived experience is particularly important. I agree that interreligious dialogue is an important part of improving our understandings and correcting stereotypes. I know far too many Christians who make assumptions based on the statements of hateful and divisive politicians. On the whole, Christians certainly need to do a better job of being kind and loving to others, especially those from other religious groups.

  6. Hi Osama,

    Thank you for sharing. It’s really frustrating to be in a situation where you have to speak for your whole group because an educator isn’t doing their job properly. That’s happened to me before too when learning about Judaism, I feel like it’s always taught through a Christian lense instead of getting its own interpretation, is that something that comes up with Islam as well? (It’s been a long time since I’ve learned about Islam in a formal school setting) Either way, it sucks and I’m sorry you’ve had to go through it. Do you find that the teachers are relieved? As if they were worried they would say something wrong, but now they have someone to help? Or did they react more negatively/ apathetically?

  7. Hi Osama,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspective – I know this can be hard considering the hurtful experience you had. I was not taught about religion what-so-ever in high school. If a history class did talk about religion, then it was about Christianity or Catholicism. While I have a lot of respect for both of these religions as many of my friends practice these faiths, I do feel that I missed on education about other faiths. The last class I had that talked about religion was a 6th grade history class which did not bring up my religion of Sikhi – there was one history class that briefly mentioned Sikhi as it was included in the textbook only to say that the religion was comprised of militants who attacked the Golden Temple in 1984 when in reality, it was the government movement known as Operation Blue Star which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Sikhs. It also claimed that Sikhi was a blend of Islam and Hinduism which is not accurate – Sikhi is its own religion. It is disappointing to see the gaps in our educational systems and the lack of accurate information presented to students regarding religion. I think that this biased representation of religion further fuels hate and distrust surrounding religion and against people who practice that faith. In high school, I grew distanced from Sikhi because it was never talked about and sometimes I wrongfully thought it was less important compared other religions that were talked about like Christianity. I remember being afraid to talk about my religion and why I had long hair or why Sikh people often wear turbans to protect their uncut hair which is seen as sacred – I was worried that people would think it was weird and not want to be friends with me as a result. In August of 2012, the Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) in Oak Creek, WI had a mass shooting which directly shows how dangerous hate and inaccurate information can be. There is obvious misinformation, and it shouldn’t have fallen upon you to educate your classmates instead of your teacher. While having your input about Islam would be valuable, the decision of wanting to share information about your religion should not be an obligatory one or one that is forced upon you due to an instructor’s misconceptions. I am glad that through this fellowship, I was able to learn about Islam and how it is a religion of peace from you and the other fellows who practice Islam. Respecting all religions and sharing information about all religions equally and accurately is extremely important to promoting peace and understanding. This is why interfaith dialogue is so important and very much needed because it provides the platform and space for people learn about other people and celebrate differences in religion and worldview.

  8. Osama,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sorry you had to feel this way in a setting that was supposed to be designed to help you learn. Although I am not muslim, I have muslim friends who have had similar experiences to your own and it has pained me to see how their religion has been misrepresented. They have gotten some really uncomfortable questions because of the way Islam has been portrayed by people that are not even part of the religion and it is not fair to them. I hope the education system improves.

  9. Hey Osama,

    I really enjoyed reading about your struggles with feeling like you were put responsible for teaching your religion to people who didn’t take the time to do their own research and learn accurate information. Though I haven’t experienced people speaking about my religion, faith, and culture incorrectly, it is hugely due to the fact that many people haven’t researched much into it or focused on it during any one of my classes. One problem I had faced a lot throughout high school was this feeling of being responsible to advocate and be a representative for the Hindu community at my school. Any time anything about India or Hinduism was brought up, all my classmates and teachers would turn to me expecting me to have some piece of information to share when in reality I was (and currently still) am learning more about my own culture and how that fits into the society that I live in. I remember starting to form a habit of sliding back into my chair and hiding my reaction or face to the class so that I would draw less attention, even when the attention shouldn’t have been on me in the first place. I feel this really resonates with the issue of educating people on racial and sexual identities because it is important for people to take time our their daily lives to educate themselves on all these different identities and the pressure should not be placed on those different identity groups to teach every single person.

  10. Hi Osama,

    Thank you for sharing your experience and I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been. Though I haven’t had any experience in people portraying my religion/faith incorrectly, it is largely due the fact that little to no faculty or staff researched much into Hinduism or included it into their curriculum. However, I did struggle a lot with this feeling of being responsible for educating my peers on both my race and religion. Anytime Hinduism or India was brought up, each and every one of my classmates and teachers would turn to me expecting some type of new information or response, despite the fact that I was and still am learning more about how I fit into my own Indian culture and faith. I even remember physically sliding down in my chair everytime I suspected that people would turn to be, to hide myself hoping that would exempt from validating the information and/or the course with a response. Something that I have always been bothered by is the struggle of people who don’t fit the “stereotypical” identities to have to educate their peers even with the internet full of resources and educational tools to learn.

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