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Educating Muslim students in Minnesota: The skill and the will

Multicultural education seeks to include a range of perspectives often suppressed by the majority culture as well as to include students from diverse backgrounds in the process of learning. What is sometimes lost in efforts to create inclusive educational experiences is serious thought to how to welcome students of minority religions.

In the case of Muslim students, the barriers typically include lack of knowledge of Islam and strategies to accommodate Islamic religious practices in school settings. In the same way it is essential to have classrooms that make students of different ethnicities, genders or family income levels feel invested in learning, it is equally essential to make Muslim students feel that they belong to the learning community. We need to keep Muslim kids, like all students, engaged in school because of the importance of a high school diploma for so many post-secondary options students wish to explore.

Diversity within the Muslim community

Many Muslims in our schools are refugees or immigrants (often from East Africa), but there are also many Muslims who were born in Minnesota or somewhere else in the United States. The most recent refugees to Minnesota are from Burma, and many of them are Muslim, reminding us that Islam has many faces.

I have come to see nationality as only one way Muslim students differ. To a non-Muslim, the cultural differences often seem quite vast. Muslim students differ, for example, with regard to how and when girls choose to veil, or how comfortable students are when doing classroom activities with members of the opposite gender. It can be confusing to educators when they see students who identify as Muslim behave in dramatically different ways. Like in other religions, there is a wide range of practices that constitute "being Muslim," and when adolescence is thrown into the mix, decisions about "who you are" can change from day to day, or even moment to moment.

The call to educators is to be aware of religion as an important area of diversity among students and to understand that Islam itself is diverse as it is enacted in families and individuals.

Because there are so many differences within Islam, being Muslim at school often presents very individualized challenges and responses to negotiating a religious identity within a non-Muslim learning climate. Sadly, youth often feel caught between worlds, often embodied by vast differences between home and school cultures.

Negotiating this "in-between" can be difficult for Muslim youth and their families, but can also result in a process of intense and productive identity formation that results in strong individuals who have figured out ways of embracing and understanding the multiple layers of who they are. This in-between place is quite real, and many Muslim youth have become masterful in navigating it. It is my hope that more and more Minnesota educators will become skilled at recognizing this important identity work in action and providing the anti-oppressive space and support for it to occur.

The politics of Islam at school
The media would have us think that religious extremists are all Muslim. The negative portrayal of Islam in the media — and a preponderance of Islamophobia in the United States — is not lost on Muslim students. Being Muslim in a post 9-11 world can be difficult, and students can feel pressure to represent an alternate view of Islam to non-Muslims. They are also at risk for experiencing bias and discrimination at school. For this reason, it is essential that all students learn about Islam and the perspectives of their Muslim classmates.

Some would contend that accommodating the needs of Muslim students in public schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment that separates church and state. This is not so. Providing food options without pork, physical education classes separated by gender, allowing girls to veil, accommodating fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and releasing students to pray in no way jeopardizes the separation of church and state because the school is not sponsoring religion, only allowing students to practice their religion. Not doing so, on the other hand, does violate their constitutional rights.

The skill and the will
Besides having the skill to create inclusive learning environments that welcome Muslim students, educators also need the will. They must believe that religious diversity is important and may marginalize students. By learning about Islam and the diversity within Islam, as well as understanding in more depth the way anti-Muslim views permeate the media and public consciousness, we can generate educational practices that will encourage Muslim students to stay engaged in school and find ways to be themselves wherever they are — at home or at school.

Educators wanting to know more about teaching Muslim students and about Islam in general have the opportunity to attend a free event this Saturday at the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley. The event is part of the Institute for Global Studies' Meeting Minnesota's Muslims project, in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Minnesota and the Islamic Resource Group. For more information, or to register, go here or call 612-624-7346.

Martha Bigelow is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, with research interests in immigrant education, second language acquisition and multicultural education.


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Comments (1)

I note your comments on the value of multicultural education and diversity in the classroom.

On the other hand, I also read your study published elsewhere of an Islamic charter school. Your review noted some pros and cons, but overall seemed to be quite favorable.

However, that school seemed the antithesis of a diverse, welcoming public school environment. Comments from the students suggested that female students were intimidated into wearing full hijabs. Some classes were separated by gender, and music and art were not taught because of religious sensitivities.

When it comes to our public schools, which shall it be?