Friday, April 22, 2011

Shining a light on Islam

I have recently reviewed the book 'Being Muslim' by Haroon Siddiqui for the Times Educational Supplement - you can alos find the review online at
http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6078806


Terrorism, wars, jihad, the hijab and the burka, polygamy, female circumcision, honour killings, stoning and the status of Muslim women. These are just a few of the topics covered in award-winning Canadian journalist Haroon Siddiqui's readable, engaging and rather provocative book, Being Muslim, part of the Groundwork series of books for key stages 3 and 4 which attempts to provide an overview of key contemporary social and political issues.

Helping students better understand what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world is important. According to a YouGov poll published last year, more than 75 per cent of non-Muslims believe Islam has made a negative contribution to British society. In the same poll, 58 per cent linked Islam with extremism and 69 per cent believed it encouraged the repression of women. But perhaps most revealing of all was the fact that more than 80 per cent of those polled admitted to having very little knowledge about the Islamic faith, its beliefs and practices.

Any teacher thinking about using this book with their pupils would need to be clear about what it is not: it is not a traditional RE-style textbook that will help pupils gain knowledge and understanding about the five pillars of Islam. But this does not mean it is not enlightening and informative. Siddiqui's explanations of common Muslim phrases and etiquette as clues to Islamic attitudes to life and destiny are fascinating, as are his explanations of the role of culture versus religion in women's activities and dress codes. He tackles some really tough topics, offering a remarkably balanced overview of the range of opinions, particularly within the Islamic community, on contentious issues such as the role of women.

Though not a traditional classroom textbook, Being Muslim is excellent for helping young people explore current political, religious and secular aspects of being a member of the world's fastest-growing religion.

If you're after ready-made discussion questions or pre-packaged ideas for whole-class debate, however, this is not the book for you.

The author is not afraid to challenge Western assumptions about Islam and is prepared to assign blame to both Western democracies and Islamic fundamentalists for fanning the flames of Islamophobia. Drawing on his travels and interviews in Muslim countries, Siddiqui attempts to show that extremists are being challenged by a new generation of Muslims. He also asks some penetrating questions. For example, why does the UK government turn a blind eye to suffocating restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia? Siddiqui acknowledges the desperate living conditions that many Muslims endure in the developing world and recognises the need to address these circumstances instead of offering them as a valid excuse for violence.

In one of the most poignant and thought-provoking parts of the book, he describes what post-9/11 life has been like for Muslims in the UK, the US and Muslim countries. He says: "Monitored by both the secret services and the media, they must be careful about what they say in emails, phone conversations and in public. They must think twice about keeping a beard or wearing overtly Muslim clothing and be mindful of their behaviour in public. They must keep proving, in school and at work, that neither they nor their faith fit the caricature of Muslims and Islam drilled into the public consciousness."

In the opening chapter, Siddiqui writes that "every Muslim must do jihad", then, somewhat reassuringly, you find out later in the book that the word jihad is more accurately translated as "struggle", rather than as some sort of "holy war" or "crusade". There are other surprises: a section called "Laughing at the Siege" introduces readers to the world of Muslim comedy. We also find out the difference between hijab and burka, the logistics of providing food and water for pilgrims of the Hajj and Islamic references in hip-hop music.

This is a book that can help teachers to deal clearly and directly with current contentious issues involving Islam. It is refreshingly unequivocal and, in my view, highly effective in exposing double standards and inconsistencies in contemporary media coverage relating to Islam.

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