When teaching about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), U.S. teachers are often confronted with a dearth of accurate and nuanced material about the history, politics and people of the region. This crisis of critical awareness mainly materializes through two recurring narratives that circulate in mainstream media, political discourse and popular culture: “Islam as anti-Western” and conflict fueled by “ancient hatreds.”
The first narrative not only conflates Islam with the MENA, but also presents Islam simplistically, masking the diversity within the religion. Shows like Homeland and 24 have lent credence to the idea that all people from the region are Muslim and that all Muslims are threats to those who live in the West. Consequently, there is little to describe the region’s national, ethnic, political and religious identities, and—as evidenced by the 2016 presidential contests—some politicians have consistently failed to distinguish ordinary people from members of extremist groups.
The second narrative is that the MENA is characterized above all by “ancient hatreds,” as seen in President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech. Framing contemporary geopolitical conflicts as timeless conflicts—“Arabs vs. Jews,” “tradition vs. modernity,” or more recently, “Sunni vs. Shi’a”—is an ahistorical approach to these complex and rich histories.
These narratives work in tandem to produce a one-dimensional conception of the MENA, which, in turn, fuels the rising Islamophobia in U.S. schools and society. As a result, Muslims and even non-Muslims (like Sikhs or Arab Christians) have been targets of hate crimes, attacks, harassment and bullying.
It is in this climate that a group of scholars and educators, including us, came together to create open-source, online curricular materials for high school teachers called Rethinking the Region: New Approaches to 9-12 U.S. Curriculum on the Middle East and North Africa.¹ Born out of an aim to contextualize the MENA region, we grounded the project in a rigorous analysis of four commonly used world history textbooks in U.S. high schools. Our findings served as a springboard for the curriculum design. Specifically, we wanted to draw attention to how peoples and societies interacted collaboratively and fluidly at different political and historical junctures, and integrate this analysis into vibrant curricula for high school teachers.
As several of us were former high school and elementary teachers, we acutely understood the need for such materials. We find this curricular intervention particularly important in the current American political context, when mainstream media often simplify complex histories and identities, exacerbating difference and “Otherness” in ways that do not truly reflect the MENA region in all its complexity.
We framed Rethinking the Region around the following themes: women and gender, plural identities, political and social movements, empire and nation and arts and technology. We chose these themes because they are often crudely treated in U.S. textbooks. The lessons can be taught sequentially or can stand alone. They allow teachers to choose when they want to pause and when they want to go into more depth on a particular theme or topic, while still adhering to the state curriculum. We also used open-source and online materials for many of the sources. In the event that something has been taken off the web, we hope that the references and titles provided will enable teachers to find the resources elsewhere.
Rethinking the Region not only allows educators to avoid reductive approaches to the region and highlight multiplicity, plurality and agency, but it also provides resources that are part of broader curricular and school climate initiatives meant to combat Islamophobia. In this sense, our approach, rooted in anti-racism and cultural responsiveness, lends itself to new questions, new understandings and new possibilities to rethink the region.
Maria Hantzopoulos is associate professor of education at Vassar College, where she coordinates the Adolescent Education Certification Program and participates in the International Studies, Urban Studies and Women’s Studies programs.
Roozbeh Shirazi is assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.
¹ In addition to the two authors of this blog, the team also included Monisha Bajaj, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher and Zeena Zakharia.