As I send my children to school today on the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I, like many other Muslim parents can’t help but wonder how the day will go for them. Every year for the past few years, I have friends who share their children’s experiences of being mortified, embarrassed, and downright ashamed of being Muslim when the horrific events of 9/11 are discussed in their classrooms.
At a time when the Trump administration is openly hostile towards Muslim communities, and Muslim children are being bullied and dehumanized at increasing levels, it is important for school administrators and educators to be vigilant about how 9/11 is taught in the classroom. Research by social psychologists, Emile Bruneau and Nour Kteily, demonstrates that communities that are dehumanized often dehumanize in turn and ‘this starts a vicious cycle of retribution and hostility'. Given that much of our socialization and worldviews are shaped in schools, the teaching of 9/11 has direct implications for the future of intercommunal relations in our country.
Currently, there are 20 states (Massachusetts is one of them) that include September 11 as part of their state standards. However, while each state determines the overall approach towards teaching 9/11, it is up to individual schools and teachers on how this will be implemented.
According to research conducted by Cheryl Duckworth (Author, 9/11 and Collective Memory in US Classrooms), teachers often feel ill-equipped to grapple with the subject in any great depth and are uncomfortable talking about terrorism in ways that might be considered controversial. One middle school social studies teacher I spoke with mentioned that while he and his peers know how to teach subjects such as World War II or race in the classroom, they do not have a clear sense of how to approach 9/11. He mentioned that a training workshop around this subject could make educators much more confident and comfortable about how to teach it in a nuanced manner.
While it would be ideal to have middle school teachers be able to go over the Treaty of Versailles, western colonization, Muslim fundamentalist movements, U.S. foreign policy and military interventions, governance gaps in some parts of the ‘Muslim world’ etc. while explaining the context of 9/11, it is almost impossible to do so within a 45-minute class period.
However, there are simpler ways in which educators can be sensitive about how they discuss 9/11 in class:
Allow parents and students time to prepare: School districts often provide educators with resources such as video clips and documentaries about 9/11 to share with their students. It would make sense for administrators to share these links in advance with parents across the school district. This would allow Muslim parents the opportunity to prepare their children for what will be discussed in class and how to respond to it. Often, Muslim students feel blindsided by what they watch and are unsure of how to react in the moment when questions about Islam or Muslims arise in the context of 9/11.
Use appropriate terminology: While discussing the September 11th attacks, it would help to avoid terms like ‘Islamic extremists’ and ‘radical Islam’—instead, while mentioning Al-Qaida, it would be more appropriate to refer to it as a terrorist organization. Adding ‘Islamic’ denotes that there is something inherently Islamic about terrorism or extremism.
It has also become commonplace for journalists, pundits, scholars, analysts (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) to use the term ‘jihadist’ to refer to terrorists. For many Muslim children, this can be deeply confusing and distressing. Jihad is a critical concept in Islam that means striving in the way of God, resisting oppression, promoting social justice, speaking truth to power, etc. and is something that is constantly referred to in Muslim households as something to aspire to. There is, of course, an ‘armed struggle’ component of jihad (see below), but the general consensus in Islamic jurisprudence today is that this is strictly in self-defense and can never include the killing of innocent civilians. By calling terrorists ‘jihadists’, we end up ascribing legitimacy to their hijacking of this word and reinforce the notion that cold-blooded terrorists get to decide how a sacred concept is used in common parlance. It also ends up confusing Muslim children who are taught that this is a central tenet of their faith.
Describe the many faces of terrorism: When explaining terrorism, educators would also do well to include examples such as the Oklahoma City Bombing and the killing of black worshippers in Charleston by Dylan Roof, both of which involved the murder of innocent civilians to further a political agenda. This would underscore the point that perpetrators of terrorism are not confined to any one race or religion.
The responsibility to educate our children about 9/11 does not exclusively lie with our schools and educators. It is essential for Muslim parents and community leaders to be pro-active and have age-appropriate conversations about 9/11 in their homes and places of worship—we must emphasize to our children that while the perpetrators were indeed Muslim, they were also terrorists who distorted their religion to advance political agendas. This makes neither them nor their faith culpable for the terrible events of September 11. Finally, we must elicit the help of organizations such as Islamic Networks Group who convene workshops that empower children with religious literacy skills so they are able to respond to difficult questions around jihad, shariah, hijab, etc.
9/11 was a national tragedy of catastrophic proportions, which left death and devastation in its wake--turning its anniversary in to a teachable moment that fosters community, resilience, and strength is an apt way to avenge it.
Additional resources for educators, parents and community leaders:
Unity Productions Foundation: https://www.upf.tv/teachers/
‘UPF produces films that tell compelling stories for television, online viewing, and theatrical release. These films are part of long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing religious and cultural pluralism, especially among Muslims and other faiths’
Islamic Networks Group: www.ing.org
‘Supplementing cultural diversity programming, ING provides training seminars to help law enforcement agencies, businesses, healthcare facilities, and school district offices and school staff relate appropriately and effectively to Muslim communities, employees, clients, students, and parents’ ING also provides religious literacy programming for American-Muslim youth.
‘From film kits and lesson plans to the building blocks of a customized Learning Plan—texts, student tasks and teaching strategies—our resources will help you bring relevance, rigor and social emotional learning into your classroom—all for FREE. Not sure where to begin? Get to know our Social Justice Standards, anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes divided into four domains—Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. The Standards provide a common language and a road map for anti-bias education at every grade level.’
Jihad - The Concept of Armed Struggle in Islam
A Conversation with Dr. Sohail Hashmi, Mount Holyoke College