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  • Unlearning What is LearnedTeaching Islam in America in Light of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy
  • Salih Sayilgan (bio)

In my teaching on Islam, I cover various aspects of the religion such as origins, history, theology, and spiritual practice. In addition, a few sections of my syllabus usually deal with contemporary themes like jihad and sectarian divisions among Muslims, as well as gender issues. A few classroom experiences have persuaded me to be more creative in my teaching of Islam. On more than one occasion, I realized that the focus of my teaching and the questions I receive from my students are, in the end, unrelated. In one situation, I was talking about Islamic spirituality and asked the class if they had any questions. I received five questions, but not one of them was related to Islamic spirituality. Rather, the students asked about violence in Islam, sectarian divisions, and Islam in politics. Regardless of what I teach, the questions I receive are more or less similar. Why?

I think the answer to this question is that while students often come to class knowing something about Islam and Muslims, this "knowledge" has usually been gathered mainly through media. Although U.S. media outlets frequently cover Islam, and stories about Muslims repeatedly dominate the news in the context of religion and politics, the coverage is highly negative. According to some studies, nine out ten news stories on Islam focus on violence of some sort.1 Not to mention that election statements made by candidates during the 2016 U.S. presidential race such as "Islam hates us," "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," and "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" went viral on social media.2 I was not surprised to learn that, according to a 2017 Pew [End Page 175] Research Center study, although their status has risen from "cool" to "neutral," Muslims in the United States are still seen as less favorable as a religious group than even atheists.3

In some respects, my students do come to my class with a modicum of awareness of Islam, the religion. While most know some basics of sharia (Islamic law), few know much about halakha (Jewish law). In addition, many of my students have already heard the following kinds of statements about Islam from the media: Islam is not a religion, but rather a political ideology; Islam is an inherently violent religion and therefore promotes violence; and Islam is a misogynist religion.

Not surprisingly, the challenge of my teaching is to unlearn what my audience has learned. I address these negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims in my classes by trying to inform students about a wide variety of aspects of Islam. I am not sure if Paulo Freire would ever imagine that one day his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, would be discussed in the context of teaching Islam in America. However, in offering creative pedagogies for teaching Islam, his work can be a significant aid.

Given that learning about Islam often occurs in isolation, perhaps the most relevant part of Freire's work for teaching Islam is his discussion on the role of dialogue in education.4 Freire critiqued the "banking model" in education and opted instead for a dialogical model in which the student is not an object but rather a subject and an active participant along with the teacher.5 He also believed that dialogical education is key in critical thinking—and I have found that the dialogical process is key to deconstructing my students' previous learnings about Islam.6

First, I create a safe space in which my students can ask any question they want about Islam. I give them the opportunity to bring up what they think they have learned concerning the tradition, thus forming a teaching environment based on dialogue. Second, I not only make the teaching dialogical, between the teacher and the student, but also ensure that students are in conversation with each other. Typically, one-fifth of my students are Muslims. I form diverse group discussions so that Muslims and students of other faiths are in dialogue throughout [End Page 176] the learning process. Third, one of the...


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