Social Studies, Islam and the News: Opportunities for deeper engagement

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Social Studies, Islam and the News: Opportunities for deeper engagement

Maryam Razvi Padela, EdD, University of Rochester

My research shows that the news intersects most problematically with classroom learning about Islam. Indeed, news items leave even us adults praying instinctively that the culprit isn’t a Muslim!  Therefore, the deeper challenge posed for young Muslims is not surprising. Yet, within Islamic schools we have a chance to engage fully with the news, our religion and our students in order to best support their development. We should embrace these discussions with confidence.

News media often presents Muslims and Islam negatively. How can teachers engage their students critically with this reality?

This is especially true since Muslim students often experience cognitive dissonance between what they learn about Islam from their Islamic studies textbooks and teachers, and what they unavoidably see and hear in popular culture (i.e., movies, TV and social media) and in news media; the latter being of the most import.  Reconciling the ideals with the realities they see in the news is often challenging.

As such, teachers must give Muslim students a way to think critically about the news. Here are some tips on how to achieve this:

  • Examine news stories that involve Islam from a variety of sources. Ask: What are the differences in presentation and information and what might account for them? 
  • Think deeply about the words that are used in news stories.  For example, ask: Why do some news sources use the term ISIS or “Islamic State” and others use Daesh? 
  • Look at what aspects of history are being ignored in the story.  Too often, news items are brief and discussed in a matter focused on the immediate without considering the historical context. Ask: What’s missing? What other information could help us understand what’s going on?
Magnifying Glass
Ask students: What’s missing from this story?

Another important opportunity for Islamic school teachers is to use news events as opportunities to reorient students to their religious beliefs. Treat the news as a teaching moment about Islam. Ask: What is the issue at hand in the news? What does Islam actually teach us?

For example, the trauma of 9-11-01 compelled me to ask hard questions and investigate what Islam taught about the rules of war. What I found were beautiful answers that strengthened my faith, despite the dismaying language prevalent on the airwaves. 

Quranic verses
Remind students of verses from the Quran that help bring perspective, reaffirm faith.

Unfortunately, there is not often “good news” about Islam and Muslims. Use this an occasion to remind of students of salient verses from the Qur’an that can help reorient their understandings of the situation and their faith.

“Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried?”

Quran 29:2

“And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.”

Quran 41: 34

My research suggests that teachers should think more critically about the ways in which both teachers and students draw upon personal experience, popular culture and news media.  Within Islamic Schools, I would argue that the convergence of popular culture and news media might be most worth extra time and energy.  

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