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date: 18 February 2019

Islamophobia and Education

Summary and Keywords

Islamophobia is a term used to describe society’s phobic reaction to a certain religious or ideological group. Historically, the coined word Islamophobia has been manipulated into various constructs, which pose a microcosm-macrocosm challenge for educators over whether or not the education system can act as a platform for better understanding what is currently transpiring in the world. It is in the classroom that educators and students can grapple with the sociophobic situation and pull apart the two sides of Islam and phobia. In the classroom there are learning opportunities that can foster critical new understandings about why social phobias exist and challenge, through an antiphobic curriculum, the fear and indifference of otherness. New and higher levels of immigration in the Western world, rising tensions in non-Muslim populations, and the baggage of history have brought us to a critical turning point. Educators can respond positively and constructively to this challenge and opportunity and help to steer the course. Although Islamophobia is present in many countries worldwide, assimilationist policies vary from country to country. Nonetheless, individual countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, and in those in Western Europe, have their own takes on Islamophobia. Since 9/11 there has been significant agreement among scholars that societal changes can be constructed through the systematic employment of specific curricular initiatives. These initiatives call into question the traditional trajectory of how the sentiments of Islamophobia can be successfully countered in the classroom to reduce sociophobic tensions and increase cultural and linguistic awareness. This can happen through culturally sustaining pedagogy, whose primary objective is to embrace literate, linguistic, and cultural pluralism in the school system. Education has tremendous power to challenge phobic perspectives and move beyond the traditional realm of what has historically been the norm in the classroom.

Keywords: Islamophobia, education, curriculum, schools, Muslims, intolerance, sociophobic, pedagogy


The objective of this article is to generate insights for researchers, practitioners, students, and educators around the phenomenon of Islamophobia. The key challenges and issues around Islamophobia are focused in the context of education. The article postulates that society’s sociophobic tendencies can be mitigated through education, and that it is at the school level that such work is most effective. The evolution and consequences of educating society toward a better understanding of “the other” can work toward disintegrating the dynamics of Islamophobia.


Erik Bleich (2011) provided a comprehensive definition of Islamophobia as indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims. This conceptualization captures the multidimensionality of Islamophobia, and describes the behavior as “indiscriminate” because it implies negative assessments of all or most Muslims or aspects of Islam. The terms intolerance and discrimination against Muslims are also used, most commonly used by government organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). An alternate term is anti-Muslim racism, which places any negative feelings toward Muslims in the broader framework of racism, radicalization, and religiosity (OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Council of Europe, & United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2011). These terms are not synonymous, but they are often used interchangeably. Yet it must be understood that any form of direct or indirect discrimination against any culture or race must be contextualized in the particular society in which it takes place. Regardless of the term used, each definition encompasses a wide range of negative attitudes and emotions, including aversion, jealousy, suspicion, disdain, anxiety, rejection, contempt, fear, disgust, anger, and hostility. Other scholars, such as Sayyid and Abdoolkarim (2010), indicate that the word in its French version was actually introduced by two Muslims immediately after World War I. Defined as a pathological hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims, Islamophobia, Abedin and Sardar (1995) argue, “has a long memory and goes back to the days of the patristic Latin Christendom, when Christian theologians and monarchs condemned Islam as heresy, its prophet an impostor and Muslims infidels.”

Whitman (2015) highlighted a definition of Islamophobia that was first put forth in 1991, as “unfounded hostility toward Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” The term became ubiquitous sometime during the 1980s and 1990s. There is no doubt that the history and definition of Islamophobia varies, and according to Peter Gottschalk, professor of religion at Wesleyan University, “It helps to describe a whole spectrum of behavior and attitudes that have existed a long time but haven’t had a name before” (quoted in Whitman, 2015).

Scholars in the 21st century who use the word Islamophobia, tend to define it as an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to the religious and societal practices characteristic of the Islamic faith. Whitman (2015) quotes Jocelyn Cesari, director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University and editor of the Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States, who describes Islamophobia as a term used to “address the discrimination faced by Muslims that could not be explained by their race, class or immigration status.” Cesari (2011) has also said that recent waves of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment have grown out of perceived threats to security and safety. The Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance Against Muslims, compiled by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR), the Council of Europe, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), refers to six recurring stereotypes in the public discourse about Muslims. These constitute the widespread perspective represented in the non-Muslim world. In other words, they form a common narrative that most people assume is true and that can only be disrupted through a conscious effort to bring about systemic change:

  1. 1. All Muslims are similar, regardless of their nationality, social class, and political outlook, and regardless of whether they are observant in their beliefs and practice.

  2. 2. All Muslims are motivated by religion. The single most important thing about Muslims, in all circumstances, is their religious faith. So if Muslims engage in violence, it is because their religion advocates violence.

  3. 3. Totally other Muslims really are totally “other”—they have few, if any, interests, needs, or values in common with people who do not have a Muslim background. Thus Muslims do not possess insight or wisdom from which people with different religious or cultural backgrounds may learn and benefit.

  4. 4. Muslims are culturally and morally inferior.

  5. 5. Muslims are a threat to security.

  6. 6. The five previous assumptions prove that there is no possibility of active partnership between Muslims and people of different religions and cultural backgrounds.

However one describes Islamophobia, or Muslims in general, wherever there is intolerance and discrimination in a society, it is harmful, not only because of the negative effects on individuals, but also because of the potential threat it poses to society’s sense of stability, peace, and security (OSCE/ODIHR, Council of Europe, & UNESCO, 2011). Scholars suggest that to define Islamophobia, we need to take into account its broad spectrum, that it often serves as an umbrella term encapsulating negative sentiments, ranging from an individual’s anti-Islam views to a society-wide discrimination against Muslims. But when we do so, we often forget the role individual identity plays within that broad spectrum. As we historicize the phenomena of Islamophobia, it can help us to further understand the phenomena through a number of lenses, such as the personal and the collective, and the notion of “hybridity” by which individuals identify with a variety of spaces, cultures, and values.

Problems That Motivate the Research and Key Questions

Several researchers, including Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Arshad Ali, Evelyn Alsultany, Sohail Daulatzai, and Lara Deeb (Khabeer et al., 2017) have created a syllabus at San Diego State University that reframes “Islamophobia” as “anti-Muslim racism,” which they believe more accurately reflects the intersection of race and religion as a reality of structural inequality and violence rooted in the history of US (and European) colonialism. The term “anti-Muslim racism” focuses on history and forms of dominance, including white supremacy, slavery, and settler colonialism, along with multiculturalism and the phenomena of war and imperialism. These not only result in a variety of racial exclusions but are also incorporated into racist structures. Whichever term is used, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, it is important to think about them globally, where overlapping and intersecting occurs among other groups, such as Black, queer, Latino, and indigenous. A further connection is drawn among various other racial logics, and these reinforce one another. These include anti-Black racism, anti-Latino racism, anti-Arab racism, and anti–South Asian racism.

The authors of the San Diego syllabus challenge the notion that Islamophobia is an individual bias that can be mitigated by simply becoming more acquainted with Islam, and note that greater awareness of Islam will not necessarily lead to a decline in Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism. Instead, the solution to the problem lies in a comprehensive curriculum that provides learning opportunities to explore and inquire into how structures of violence, inequality, and war have contributed to anti-Muslim racism.

Societal phobias have throughout history played a role in everyday lived experience. The events of 9/11 in the United States precipitated a new, unprecedented wave of phobic reactions. Although Muslims had always been perceived with a certain amount of trepidation and suspicion, the post-9/11 era dramatically changed the attitudes of significant portions of the non-Muslim world, almost overnight (Bajaj, Ghaffar-Kucher, & Desai, 2013, 2016). Since that time, the entire world has continued to feel the ramifications through events that add fuel to the fires of Islamophobia. In particular, the reaction of Western world to these events was swift, emphasizing an increased concern with national security and the resultant US-led, global war on terror. This, in turn, has manifested itself in a preoccupation with monitoring, policing, and regulating both the political affiliations and the engagement of Muslim Americans and Middle Eastern communities (Maira, 2016).

The Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance Against Muslims (OSCE/ODIHR, Council of Europe, & UNESCO, 2011) specified that the word Muslim cannot be used to describe only someone who holds certain religious beliefs or regularly engages in Muslim religious practices. Rather, it refers to a broad cultural heritage and framework into which someone is born and incorporates the community with which he or she is associated through family. The world’s Muslims are culturally unique in terms of nationality, language, social class, lifestyle, political outlook, and religious observance. For some, their “Muslimness” may be a relatively insignificant aspect of their identity; for others, it may be central to their daily lives.

Bajaj et al. (2016) synthesized three distinct features of historical forms of Islamophobia. The first concept draws from Junaid Rana’s (2011) “Islamic peril,” characterized by the fear and insecurity that emerges from associating with individuals perceived to be Muslim. The resultant phobic reactions include such examples as brown-skinned passengers being removed from airplanes for such infractions as speaking Arabic, wearing a tee-shirt that sports Arabic letters, or carrying something “suspicious” (e.g., a breast pump that was perceived to be a bomb; British Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

The second concept has deep historical roots involved in a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1996). For example, the United States’ foundational Judaeo-Christian faith is often depicted as being incompatible with other faiths, even though Muslims have lived in the United States from the time it first became a nation (GhaneaBassiri, 2010). These feelings are manifest in proposals and political rhetoric around banning Muslim immigrants or when certain Muslim students are told that their Muslim culture is incompatible with being American (Abu El-Haj, 2010; Ghaffar-Kucher, 2012).

Rana’s (2011) third concept demonstrates an even larger conceptualization of Islamophobia, and Maira (2009) refers to it as categorizing Muslims as the “perpetual foreigner.” This more Western view of Islamophobia implies that it does not matter how long South Asian American individuals and their families have resided in the United States, they are still perceived by the general populous as being foreign, dangerous, and unaccepting of American values.

Overall, there exists a stereotypical assumption that all Muslims come from the mysterious Orient, are typically nonwhite, and are dangerous people who deliberately provoke a general feeling of “moral panic” (Rana, 2011). Rana expands on this by drawing on critical race theory to show how fear and insecurity in the general populace combine with a demonization by the media to advance the consolidation of a Muslim racial formation post 9/11 that conflates “Arabs and South Asians into the racial figure of the Muslim” (p. 93). Said (1978), coined the term orientalism to refer to the manner by which the West misrepresents Middle East culture. His premise is based on the notion that there exists a Eurocentric and prejudicial undertone targeted towards the Arabo-Islamic population and their culture. Edward Said (1978) used the term orientalism in his book of that title to reference to the misrepresentation of the culture of the Middle East by the Western world. His premise relates to the perception of a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” According to Said, this sentiment originates in the West and its long-standing tradition of a romanticized and inaccurate image of Asia, and of the Middle East, in particular. General descriptors of this stereotype include brown skin, turbans, hijabs, accents, and beards, underscored by the general societal perception that this group represents illegality and foreignness.

Impact of Immigration

One of the overriding factors contributing to the sociophobic reaction against Muslims is the dynamic and constant flow of new immigrants to different parts of the world, including North America and many countries in Europe. Transborder migration is a global issue and the resultant societal stereotypes and predictive opinions that immigration provokes are often related to the phobic reactions and mistrust created whenever there is a substantial movement of people and cultures from place to place.

Further provoking negative societal reactions are the often-unwelcome attitudes that some host societies have demonstrated toward immigrants. Since the early 2000 Muslim immigrants, have faced significantly high levels of prejudice and discrimination in host countries—sometimes to an extent that threatens the orderly functioning of a society (Kaya, 2015). Another worldwide consequence of anti-immigrant sentiment is manifest in the rise of the far-right political agenda, which captures these feelings to an even greater degree.

The recent waves of immigration to Western countries have contributed to rise of anti-immigrant and nativist populist movements. These movements are perpetuated to an even greater degree by war, religious persecution, natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, and a general sentiment of wanting or desiring a “better life” for future generations. Although in many ways, the Western world was built on a foundation of immigration flows, to those living in the Western countries, these new immigrants look different, speak very different languages, and generally represent a people with historically different cultural and religious mores and values than they have previously experienced.

People born after the 9/11 attacks, including immigrants, have experienced their own political and religious challenges to some extent, their ideologies and political affiliations having been shaped and influenced by the aftermath of that critical event. It is, however, Muslim and Middle Eastern children and male youth who have been the most targeted in discussions around the war on terror and in the American-led campaign to deal with the perceived danger these two groups present globally and locally. This demographic, the young men in particular, tends to be viewed as susceptible to “radicalization” and violent extremism and characterized by disaffection, cultural and political alienation, and psychological and social maladjustment (Grewal, 2014). That is to say, they are conceived as being ripe for becoming enemies of the state, easily indoctrinated and radicalized (Maira, 2016). As a result, the societies in which they live have come to view them as threatening, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Over the last two decades, a general phobia has been propagated toward this demographic in particular.

Attitudes and the Collective Consciousness

Current circumstances worldwide are invariably influenced by attitudes but cannot transform collective consciousness. Hassan and Martin (2015) found that Islamophobic attitudes and feelings were significantly related to low educational attainment, unemployment, and age (the higher the age, the greater the Islamophobia). Islamophobia also correlates with nontraditional Christian groups, people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and people who hold anti-immigration views. Interestingly, however, Hassan and Martin also found that people who had contact with Muslims were less likely to be Islamophobic and that, unsurprisingly, fear of terrorism is significantly related to Islamophobia. Social distance also is factored in because it relates to the degrees and grades of affective closeness and intimacy people feel toward members of different groups in society. In other words, a person’s social and personal relationships will be affected by the attitudes they display in their day to day living.

Nevertheless, despite all the societal problems that have been spawned by Islamophobia, more and more, organizational and sociological doctrine is demonstrating otherwise. Canada and, to some extent, Australia, Germany, and the United States, have taken it upon themselves to put forth government policies and educational curricula to help their citizens better understand and address questions around sociophobic reactions to other cultures. It is becoming clearer society as a whole possesses a keen desire to promote mutual understanding and respect for diversity, along with willingness to, in some way, counter all forms of intolerance and discrimination. In effect, this is the challenge facing all societies and the main issue as we struggle to become a world in which people are free to be who they are, no matter what color of skin they have or religion they espouse. Research and scholarship have already established that stereotypes and misconceptions lead to phobic reactions, caused in large part by intercommunal conflict. By becoming aware of historic commonalities, it may be possible to find a solution or an answer to the question of how we can better address the issue of Islamophobia.

Addressing Islamophobia at the School Level

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO (OSCE/ODIHR, Council of Europe, & UNESCO, 2011) promulgate the belief that greater empathy and the capacity to learn how to live together in a changing world can be developed by paying greater attention to understanding how Islamophobia significantly impacts students in schools. Addressing the problem at the school level, may make it possible to change some of the intolerant and discriminatory societal attitudes that are prevalent today. Since intolerance and discrimination against Muslims often grow out of prejudice, stereotypes, and lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslim cultures, education can play a fundamental role in changing attitudes and promoting mutual understanding and respect. It is here that the greatest purpose of education is served, and this article proposes a way to accomplish this.

Their Guidelines for Educators outlines some strategies for dealing with this issue (see ODIHR, European Council, & UNESCO, 2011). One of the most pressing contemporary challenges for educators, it states, is to promote knowledge about, and understanding of, different cultures. Because schools are in many ways a microcosm of society and the prevailing sociopolitical climate, it is here that we should begin (Zaidi, 2017). Certainly, the social and political contexts that promote Islamophobia influence the environment in which schools operate. Yet, it is often the case that schools pay little or no attention to the geopolitical and societal elements that currently inform the world, leaving education systems devoid of mechanisms that can mitigate feelings of phobia and mistrust. There remains a crucial need to introduce effective and innovative curricula into the school system that will help better address this issue.

Informing any proposed curriculum should be an awareness that teachers are not only responsible for disseminating subject matter, but should promote mutual respect and understanding of each other as well. It would be in this context that a curriculum would promote a serious strategy to help to prevent or mitigate anti-Muslim attitudes or stereotypical views of Muslims. A curriculum should address ways in which educators can discover sensitive ways to confront such actions and attitudes, with their students in general and also with students who have been directly affected by or are expressing this view.

The goal of any anti-Islamophobic curriculum is undoubtedly based on having two, perhaps three, kinds of target students: (a) Muslim students (and by extension their families), (b) students who already accept the pluralism of cultural diversity and are reachable with the kind of curricular experiences you propose, and (c) more extreme and rigid students. Asking students in the b group to learn and interact around these anti-Islamophobia initiatives is not the challenge it would be for those in the c group. As for the a group, the inherent worth of such student needs to be affirmed in their educational experiences.

Such a curriculum should not permit Muslims to be perceived of as simply “victims” but, rather, as individuals with their own unique personalities, beliefs, and ways of life and whose identity is made up of several unique and different components. It is important that the curriculum does not stand alone but is integrated into the general school curriculum and structured as an element of broader lessons on citizenship, human rights, tolerance, and antiracism. Any discussion of religion, belief mindsets, and the people who are proponents thereof should be accurate, fair, and respectful. This is very important. Modern curricula advance this way of thinking by asserting that education is not only intended to provide academic or technical training but should also incorporate a values-based component, including human rights, tolerance, pluralism, antiracism, and international and intercommunal harmony.

This type of curricula can provide a sound framework in which to assess behaviors and attitudes in a school setting. It also ensures students’ right to respect in the learning environment and envelops the value of respect for students’ identity, participation, and integrity. This is a universal principal that encompasses all nations, ethnic groups, and religions. A human-rights-based approach places the emphasis on common values, not on differences, and highlights the equal rights and standing of every individual, regardless of his or her religion, ethnic origin, gender, or other factors.

Research and Education

A number of major themes have emerged from the research on Islamophobia that address the connections between it and others research area, with a primary focus on education. Various anti-Islamophobic initiatives that have played out in educational settings are also underscored. These initiatives seek to combat rising sociophobic reactions in our society, empowering both educators and students to be better informed and better educated in the realm of understanding societal uniqueness, commonalities, and differences.

It is important that educators comprehend the various issues involved in what it means to think about Islam, the Middle East, and students from Middle Eastern (Arab, Persian, Turkish) or colonial (English, American, Canadian) Muslim backgrounds (Sensoy, 2014). Students with a Middle Eastern background represent a very diverse group on the world stage, and this can be compared to reflecting on students of European heritage. Both groups represent a very diverse population who live and work in a variety of national and cultural contexts. Sensoy gives several examples—students who are immigrants, native born, first generation; bi- or multilingual, monolingual, or English as an additional language; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, religious, secular; Caucasian, people of color, members of traditional families, members of bi- or multiracial and nontraditional families, and so on. Said (1981); Esposito and Mogahed (2006); Suleiman (1977); Shaheen (1997, 2001);, the Middle East Studies Association (see Griswold, 1975); and the National Association for Arab Americans (1980) have researched and catalogued several common assumptions about people believed to be of Middle Eastern heritage. These include the belief that the Middle East, Arab, and Islam (and people from those regions) are monolithic and the assumption that the Middle East is a rife with political and religious problems, and all this is girded by assumptions about Middle Eastern or Muslim heritage students and families. Media and popular culture help to solidify these assumptions through their consistency and repetition, and therefore often perpetuate and rationalize ongoing fear and misinformation.

Key Questions That Help Contextualize the Way Islamophobia Is Conceptualized

As the face of immigration changes, how can educational policy and curricula be altered to perpetuate the awareness of cultural shifts that is necessary in this changing world?

How does the face of multiculturalism embrace change as it strives to integrate both religious differences and cultural dynamics into our school systems?

How can sentiments of Islamophobia be countered successfully in education systems so as to reduce sociophobic tensions and increase cultural and linguistic awareness?

Unpacking these questions starts at a base level of meeting young people in the places where they gather together for a common reason (e.g., school). In so doing, society can use this as the catalyst to help dispel some of the myths and fears around Islam and the Muslim culture and also engage our young people in open, honest dialogue.

Although the statistics can paint a rather bleak picture of the state of Islamophobia worldwide, a campaign to increase awareness of the issue may have a positive impact. One way in which education systems can help is by increasing students’ general awareness of the history of Muslim-majority countries. Most students in modern-day classrooms grew up post 9/11, in the midst of an intimidating posit from Osama Bin Laden (the founder of al-Qaeda, the organization that was responsible for 9/11 and numerous other mass-casualty attacks), as well as from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the continual threat of terrorist attacks. These students have very little historical knowledge and context to help them understand and contextualize these threats. As Kazi (2016) points out, students have accepted binaries that lead them to view the world with a black-or-white logic that overlooks the deep complexities of a global order in which, as former president George W. Bush put it, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” When the and interest in and zeal for the use military operations to fight the so-called war on terror spread to the general populace, a troubling correlation develops between the lack of knowledge about Muslims and the willingness to go to war with them. It could be that the classroom is one of the few spaces in which anti-Islamophobic rhetoric is possible. For many students, it may be the only place in which they can learn without biases and phobia (Kazi, 2016).

Pedagogical and Schoolwide Approaches to Consider and Connections to Education

School pedagogy and deliberate planning toward a systemic objective of eliminating Islamophobia is a crucial first step. The curricula that educators employ in their classrooms can play a vital role in protecting Muslim students from bullying, harassment, and racism. Even having a cursory knowledge of the religion (or the various religions that are represented in any given classroom) can help administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and students themselves to mitigate the effects of sociophobic reactions in the school system. There is also the question of schoolwide support, which entails action so that the school personnel also walk the talk, and the teachings aren’t limited to pedagogical approaches. When young people are encouraged to analyze their surroundings and the content of what they are being taught, they begin to form their own opinions. Incorporating these types of texts will encourage schools to break down barriers, bridge differences, and begin to balance the power relations between the dominant and subordinate cultures. One of the primary objectives of curricula should be for young people to develop a basic knowledge about immigrant cultures, which will allow them to question and gain knowledge of these groups as it applies toward the recognition of cultural diversity.

By infusing curricula with a holistic approach aimed at eliminating, or at least reducing, Islamophobia, school systems will be able to see that each individual piece of curriculum as being part of an important combination of strategies.

Specifically, effective Islamophobia curricula strengthen the foundations of the existing curricula and approaches to inclusion. Each component of any curriculum should work with the others to shape and build different critical repertoires in the classroom and in the school, and they should all have visible outcomes in practice and motivation. That is to say, incorporating strategies that will lead students to question and discuss sociophobic reactions will place curricula in a more strategic position to help answer questions regarding this. Integrating a more critical standpoint that provides more opportunities for asking and answering questions will result in classrooms that are open-minded and instructive about cultural relations, as opposed to classrooms that perpetuate beliefs and practices that have been in place since the era of colonialism.

Education systems exist, to a large degree, to enlighten students and to create a sense of inquiry that will help them better understand the world around them. For example, teaching about religions—including Islam—can contribute to understanding and to reducing intolerance and discrimination. More generally, teaching about mutual understanding and respect for diversity can help to reduce discrimination, and the associated problems, in schools. It is important to distinguish between teaching about religions (in terms of ethics, cultures, philosophies, and histories) and religious education, which is intended to convey doctrinal information about the beliefs of a particular religion. At different levels, both can play an important role in building a culture of mutual respect and understanding. When students are aware of how far their knowledge can take them and also of the limits to which they are subject, they are exposed to a very effective pedagogical tool for undoing racism. Educators can learn, for example, to use current events to their advantage in teaching about Islamophobia. The classroom, by allowing the discussion of events that could potentially perpetuate Islamophobic reactions, becomes a space in which to students learn to see beyond the catastrophic analysis and perceptions of the mainstream media and can engage in political discourse in a more lucid and humble manner.

It is important to remember that any discussion that occurs should be productive and thought-provoking. Encouraging students to think critically in times of uncertainty also provides the basis of an anti-Islamophobic initiative. Many students have grown up in a time of “knee-jerk vengefulness” in their country’s political and societal systems; learning critical thinking in times of terror gives students the opportunity to step back and look at situations more objectively. Thinking beyond the paradigm of “us versus them” can engender discontent, as well as curiosity, among students, and potentially enables them to begin to identify the holes in their political education. This then becomes a time of crucial study.

Examples of Developed Curriculum

Bajaj et al. (2016) completed an evidence-based action research project that examined how increased Islamophobic violence in and beyond schools could be mitigated through a curriculum whose objectives included building greater inclusion and respect for differences in the classroom. The impetus for the project was the desire to create curricular resources that would expand and develop the definition of “who is American, human, and worthy of dignity.” In designing the curriculum, entitled “In the Face of Xenophobia: Lessons to Address the Bullying of South Asian American Youth,” the authors took into account what they perceived to be the key elements for educators and learners in schools with a substantial South Asian American population. Bajaj et al. (2016) established that educators often seek ways to intervene in situations of bullying or other perceived injustice in their schools. Their curriculum offered educators and school staff a variety of resources to help foster dialogue around xenophobic bullying, including providing for support for students targeted by bullying and encouraging awareness and understanding of the students who may have been perceived to be threatening, as opposed to peers of equal value. The main premise of their success lay in schools becoming sites where Islamophobic thinking and attitudes could be interrupted and replaced with more positive and proactive strategies, resulting in an informed way of perceiving the students’ Muslim peers.

Wai-Yip (2008) developed a university-level curriculum entitled, “The Importance of Teaching Islam in East Asia.” Its primary objective was to help students understand that they are the potential peacemakers in a future multiethnic global society. By encouraging students to counter sociophobias and misconceptions about the religion and to nurture their sensitivity to the historical legacy of civilizational coexistence, the author hoped to promote students’ conflict-resolution abilities. The curriculum served to broaden students’ world map, taught cultural geography, and incorporated the teaching of Islam to counter the hegemonic narrative of Islamophobia. However, noble though the objectives were, the curriculum could be presented as paying lip service to historical and political factors and to China’s sheer size and global position. It can be argued that what was really needed was get to the root of the problem, which could have been a shortcoming in the curriculum. Further research is needed to determine what would make it better. There are no easy answers.

In an effort to introduce primary-school lessons in Islam taught by state-trained teachers, Germany has been working with schools to counter the increasing influence of radical religious thinking. The Hesse curriculum effectively places Islamic instruction on equal footing with similarly state-approved ethics training in the Protestant and Catholic faiths. It offers young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, and there is an increased focus on education and on greater inclusion for Germany’s approximately four million Muslims.

New York City schools developed a curriculum entitled “(Re)embracing Diversity in New York City Public Schools: Educational Outreach for Muslim Sensitivity.” It was aimed at increasing the well-being of New York City school children, and it supported educators’ efforts to foster tolerance and diversity in order to nurture post-9/11 healing. This special program provided educators with a fully integrated mini-curriculum that addressed the problem of intolerance of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim Americans after the tragic events of 9/11 (Kenan, 2005).

The Face to Faith Programme for 21st-century secondary schools was launched by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (2012). It encourages dialogue on faiths, cultures, and beliefs while teaching about its role in addressing the most pressing global issues of our time. It also uses a monitored online community with thematic teaching modules and free video conferencing to link schools around the globe. The initiative has created awareness in students of environmental issues, wealth and poverty, global health issues, and personal expression using the latest technology.

The California Three Rs Project: Rights, Responsibility, and Respect, an initiative by the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association and the First Amendment Center, outlines the rights, responsibilities, and respect needed for citizens to maintain civil discourse when they are engaged in disagreements over deeply held beliefs. It includes a broader dissemination of resources and also helps to create an awareness of the Islamic faith.

The Tanenbaum Centre for Interreligious Study encourages classroom discussion around multiculturalism through activities embedded into the core curricula (literacy, math, science, etc.). Key values include respect for difference, curiosity, and open-mindedness in an effort to help students navigate their way through the world. Faith-driven peace activists around the world reduce violence and build cultures that reject extremism.

In Canada, an antiphobic curriculum entitled “Living Together: Muslims in a Changing World” has been published (Naqvi, 2008/2015). It aims to help young students become more aware of other cultures beyond the predominant English–French–Indigenous Canadian cultural experience. Activities in the curriculum include cultural lessons revolving around the recognition of cultural diversity; individual- and multiculturality; Muslim contributions to civil society; and basic knowledge about immigrant culture. Although the emphasis is on the Islamic culture and the sociophobic reactions its members often experience, the conclusions drawn are applicable to any culture. Young students are engaged, simply and gently, in basic knowledge and information. The purpose is not conversionary but friendly, and represents an opportunity for non-Muslim young people to better understand and gain insight into the cultural practices and identity of their Muslim friends and neighbors. Including Muslim characters and traditions in the curriculum in an integrative way gives students the opportunity to learn about Muslim practices and to be sensitive to the issues that affect Muslims in a context that does not single them out. In some sense, being Muslim is normalized.

In perusing any examples of developed curriculum, it is important to remember that any educational response to stereotypes needs to include teaching that Islam as a religion represents diversity and that there are a multitude of attitudes toward Islam. Similarly, Muslims, like any other religious group, practice their faith in a number of different ways. Contrary, to the stereotype highlighting differences between Muslims and others, there are in reality a number of commonalities with those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have historically had good relations with each other, and as has been demonstrated in the past and the present, work and live close to each other. Finally, Islamic cultures and civilizations have made outstanding contributions to science, technology, the arts, ethics, and philosophy.

In thinking about how Islamophobia can be addressed and how education systems can help address the question, educators need to push their students to be “thoughtful and nuanced” in how they understand the term. Also of value is the notion of offering students imaginative literature with positive narratives of Muslims and Islamic cultures. Simply offering students information on a controversial topic, such as Islamophobia, may evoke resistance from them. However, incorporating fictionalized narratives may be beneficial to promote empathy and increase understanding in the classroom and beyond. Developing an anti-Islamophobic pedagogy can take schools to the very center of the issue and hopefully put in place some practices that will effectively reduce or completely eliminate Islamophobia into the next generation.

Scope for Further Investigation

The world continues to evolve culturally and religiously. These shifts are inevitable as history continues. As a result, educational policy and curricula need to be altered to accommodate this and the challenge for society is how to embrace change and cultural dynamics. An even greater challenge is the question of how social phobias like Islamophobia can be countered successfully in the education sphere to reduce the existing tensions.

Anti-Islamophobic education is not simply the domain of any one subject in schools, but is something that can and should be woven into the fabric of teaching and learning across the curriculum. Educators need to work toward systemic change by building on practices that challenge fear, indifference, and facile expressions of multiculturalism. Such pedagogy needs to be humanized in the face of ever-increasing violence. The work is not complete, and many questions still need to be answered to help guide future initiatives. They include:

  • What practices and policies can be put into place that help society understand the daily experiences of people as they enter into relationships with each other?

  • How can these new relationships be based on mutual respect and understanding rather than on race or religion?

  • How can some of the myths around Islam and the Muslim culture be dispelled and how can we include exposure to the lived experiences of Muslims themselves?

  • How do schools go about constructing inclusive, ethical, humanitarian, respectful, and open relationships?

  • How can universities prepare future educators to feel more confident about discussing religion, society, and culture?

  • What are the challenges of creating such an anti-Islamophobic curriculum, in terms of both the difficulties and the possibilities for success?

  • What evidence is there that focusing on children will address entrenched societal problems?

  • To what extent can education really make a difference in prejudice and racism?

Johnston (2016) alludes to Mohebi who extols the virtues of communication between the Muslim community and those who have little experience with this culture or peoples. Further, when providing this tactic to either students or teachers, it provides a powerful means of breaking the cultural barrier and often results in very positive feedback. Johnston (2016) quotes Mohebi: “Whether it’s students or teachers, there is nothing more powerful than actually experiencing communication, in this case between the Muslim community and people with little experience with Muslims . . . . When I do teacher training, the most common remark I get afterward is ‘I wish I’d had this information before’” (paras. 24–25). This comment precipitates a further question of how we can effectively nurture preservice teachers and develop programming that equips them to start their careers with a confident ability to relate to this challenge.

The Need for Educational Policy Shifts

In spite of all the initiatives and programs being undertaken around the world, we are still not at the point when we can say all is well. Our reaction to people who are different from us continues to be fodder for discussion and reactive movements such as radicalization. Wilner and Dubouloz (2010) define radicalization “as a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social or religious ideals or aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo.” Issues of identity have long been recognized as being central to radicalization, and they are not unique to Muslims. The radicalization movement has created an even more prevalent phobic reaction worldwide, making the case for grass-roots movements such as this curriculum even more urgent, as we continue to seek to understand all the grievances and myriad individual triggers that might drive an individual to join an extremist group. Identity is difficult and contentious issue and efforts to address it need to be born out of a sense of shared belonging in which each individual sees him or herself as a part of a unified history and a social being, contributing to the collective well-being of society (Benarab-Attou & Valjalo, 2013).

There is a clear need for change in educational policy and curricula in order to perpetuate the awareness of cultural shifts that is necessary in this changing world. The face of multiculturalism can embrace change as it integrates religious differences and cultural dynamics and brings them into our school systems through deliberate shifts in educational policy that also embrace this change. Many of the initiatives already in place are beginning to accomplish this goal. Durrani (2016) has outlined several initiatives that include developing a formal antibullying, zero-tolerance policy geared toward vulnerable students. Included in any policy should be the understanding that sociophobic behavior is tied to larger social issues, not just personal ones. Curriculum policy with a focus on human rights and inclusivity also comes into play, as well as an assurance that faculty and staff are aware of their own biases and hold the community up as a vibrant resource in helping stakeholders to get to know one another.

Researchers all seem to agree that education, demystification, and the accurate portrayal of social groups need to occur through greater interaction and active guidance by educators in educational institutions. As important as educational initiatives are, however, governments and institutions alike must also examine the “new history” being made by Muslims living in non-Muslim cultures, not to conquer them (as in Turkey) or to be chased out of them (as in the Spanish case). The reality is that Muslims are living and working in society, coexisting peaceably in a culture that includes other religions. Religious and visible minorities have long experienced racism, hatred, and vile comments.

Widespread, recurring phobic reactions around the world need to be replaced with dialogue and respect between and among all cultures. Until our children learn to speak these dialogues, our society will be at a loss as to how to live in peaceful harmony (Alawa, 2014). Any initiative to address the current specter of mistrust depends on a variety of answers to provocative questions. As globalization and the economic interdependence of the world continue to expand, multiculturalism and mutual coexistence seem even more imperative. What role can education play in this development? Toward this end, Canadian curricular objectives, in particular, can include more discussion on the multicultural question, going beyond the French-English-Indigenous perspective and incorporating the new immigrant, one with a different physical appearance and a different religion. In addition, Muslims themselves can play a role by helping to differentiate themselves from the image of extreme religious terrorists as well-adjusted, participatory members of society, integrated into Canadian culture, yet still maintaining their own sense of identity. In essence, the challenge that lies ahead is in understanding the process by which a new immigrant can come to live in current multicultural policy and objectives and what role, if any, our current education system can play.

There is no doubt that this world has seen an upswing in phobic reaction toward Muslims. Much of the reaction has been precipitated by world events that have resulted in many people associating Muslims with violence, irrationality, and a sense of vengeance. As a result, it is becoming more and more apparent that to mitigate the resultant feelings of mistrust and suspiciousness, education systems and schools can come to play a major role.

Going forward, all the stakeholders in education systems need to communicate effectively and regularly with the stakeholders included in their clientele. These consist of parents and the general public. Any new initiatives should be undertaken with patience and care, keeping in mind that change takes time. There is also value in looking at the larger picture, recognizing that Islamophobia is a problem but is also part of a larger network of problems, including prejudice and discrimination based on a variety of other factors, including race, gender, disability, and so on. Implementing new initiatives can most effectively be accomplished in conjunction with supportive national or regional educational policies. In addition, initiatives taken by individual educators or schools are often the most successful when they have the support of the entire school community.

All of this can also be contextualized in educators’ professional development, which is essential to building core teaching competences for tackling any form of discrimination or intolerance. The preservice and in-service training of educators will better equip them to address sensitive issues around mutual respect for diversity. Educators should also have ready at the source a wide range of resources and knowledge of where to obtain them, including international organizations that provide a wealth of information and available resources.

Education for global democracy must be based on inclusivity and respect for differences. This is partly about being informed, but more importantly, it is about creating curricular experiences through which ignorance is replaces with awareness. When students interact with the people they may be fearful about, or when students view Muslims as “other,” then our schools have failed to provide the kinds of inclusive environments that further peaceful, fruitful, and beneficial coexistence.


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