“But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim”

A student's comment prompted this classroom teacher to initiate an in-depth conversation about Islam, Muslims and Islamophobia.

“What?! What kind of people don’t eat pork, Ms. Shah?” exclaimed one of my students who had offered me some of her lunch before the start of class. Having experienced this type of reaction on various occasions, I smiled and replied, “Well, there are a lot of people in the world, and we don’t all eat the same foods. For example, Muslims don’t eat pork, and…I am Muslim.”

To this, she replied shockingly, “What, Ms. Shah? But you don’t look like a Muslim!”

All eyes in the classroom were on both of us. I could sense students were tensing up, unsure if I was offended or not. So I took this in, and I asked her, “Well, what does a Muslim look like?”

The student explained, “I thought Muslims looked like…” and she pointed to a girl in the classroom, a student from Yemen who was wearing an abaya and a hijab, covered from head to toe in black with only her face showing.

At that moment, I decided that we had to talk about this topic more. We couldn’t just “move on with class.”

Knowing that even some Muslims believe that there is a “look” for us to embody, I asked my student to tell me more about why she felt that there was one way that Muslims looked. I thought it would be important for her to think through why she held that view and for the class to be able to discuss this viewpoint as well. Both the student and others agreed that this is what has been portrayed to them via the media, and that they had believed it.

Then two of the Muslim students in class spoke up and talked about the Islamophobic bus ads circulating through our San Francisco streets. These ads depicted Muslims as terrorists, contained words like jihad and referred to Muslims as being “uncivilized.”

This was the beginning of a larger conversation around Islam, Muslims and Islamophobia—fueled by my students’ curiosity and my objective to deconstruct common stereotypes about Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslims.

At this point in class, I explained one of my favorite statistics to students: “There are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. This means that there are 1.6 billion ways of being Muslim.” I also shared with students that in the Philippines, where the family of the student who offered me pork is from, Muslims represent about 5 percent of the population. I noted that pork is a staple of Filipino food, seeing this as an opportunity to highlight to the student—and the rest of the class—that there are people who do not consume pork even where her family is from.

In my classroom practice, I make it a priority to highlight the diversity within my school and the world, and I use this approach when my students and I talk about Islam and Muslims. For example, I will share with students that, like practitioners of many other faiths and people in general, not all Muslims look the same or dress the same way. Some of us cover our heads; some of us do not. One of the five pillars of Islam is to pray five times a day, and some of us pray five times a day while others are learning or striving to achieve this. We are all people with varying practices and personalities.

It is often assumed that Muslims are all from one area of the world, or that Muslims are all Arab. I am not Arab; my parents came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1970s, and I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. To students, I will mention that I do not mind being called “Arab” or being associated with the Arab culture, but it is also important to remember that the world is vast and Muslims are diverse.

It has been eye opening for students to learn about the variety of places in the world where Muslims live, especially when they discover that the majority of Muslims live in Asia, outside of Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It has also been enlightening for them to have a relatable Muslim teacher who cares about their journeys, their experiences and allows them to speak and ask questions around controversial topics.

There’s a pressing need for classroom lessons and conversations that equip students with knowledge of the diversity among Muslims, debunk harmful stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, and counter Islamophobia. In your classroom, consider using the Teaching Tolerance lesson “Countering Islamophobia,” which is adapted from a unit I developed.

Shah, a San Francisco Bay Area native and high school teacher, teaches courses through the San Francisco Peer Resources Program at Mission High School.

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