By Sana Umair
“Do you believe it’s right to kill yourself for God?”
“Don’t you think it’s unfair that Muslim girls have to cover their hair?”
“Why do religions hate each other if they are so similar?”
There is no escaping the significance of faith and belief in today’s world, with news stories about ethnic conflicts and terrorists committing acts in the name of religion appearing almost daily. Young people are far from immune to the bias and stereotyping in many of these stories, as proven by questions like these asked in British schools.
It is little wonder that religious education teachers in the UK are often charged with the unenviable task of “re-educating” against religious prejudice – be it Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the demonisation of “non-believers” or any kind of intolerance. Get it wrong, and young people may grow up with distorted views of people of other faiths and beliefs. The stakes for our hyper-diverse society are extremely high.
In striking contrast to the United States and much of Europe, planned curriculum time in the United Kingdom is devoted to learning about religion, belief and practice, partly in the hope of creating religiously and culturally aware young citizens. But even teachers who have a great deal of knowledge are not always equipped to deal with more sensitive questions surrounding religion.
This is where the organisation I work for, the Three Faiths Forum, comes in. The Three Faiths Forum is one of the UK’s leading interfaith organisations and visits classes on religious education lessons almost daily. We create and run programmes that challenge stereotypes, bust myths and give people the knowledge and skills to interact with people of all faiths and beliefs. For nearly 15 years we have been working on many different levels of society to build understanding and improve relations between different communities: with teachers and students, artists and professionals, political leaders in parliament and upcoming leaders still at university.
There are some truly transformative examples of religious education teaching of which British schools can be truly proud. However, there are also cases in which religious education teaching has admirable intentions but instead reinforces stereotypes. Many resources on Islam confuse culture and religion, and only portray images of Muslims in traditional ethnic clothing or discuss forced marriage – a cultural phenomenon found in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries – as an “Islamic” issue.
We bring into the classroom trained young role models who share their experiences in a way young people can relate to. A young Muslim speaker’s story starts with his mother defrosting chicken curry for dinner as she is going to the mosque. When his friend is shocked that she attends mosque – contrary to the friend’s own family tradition – there is a discussion of different interpretations of scripture about women’s participation in Islam.
A young Jewish speaker’s experience of declining a dinner invitation because of dietary preferences becomes a triumph of interfaith friendship when a Sri Lankan Christian helps to cook a kosher meal for his Orthodox Jewish friend.
Youth are often spellbound by these stories. Our speakers are trained to explain how different groups within their tradition view an idea or practice, showing the great diversity that exists within faiths, a concept seldom covered sufficiently in textbooks.
But taking speakers into schools is only part of what we do. We also create long-term links between pairs or groups of faith schools. Last term, one of my colleagues dared to taste the meal cooked by 13-year-old Muslim and Catholic boys who designed their own menus and cooked together. Grocery shopping as a team offered great opportunities for sharing and learning about halal (permissible according to Islamic law) food and the importance of hospitality in both traditions. It is through longer-term engagement, we believe, that young people grow to respect and understand each other.
The process of learning is not just for students; teachers from the different schools also develop strong relationships. We all need opportunities to learn about each other and work together to be able to build a society where our diversity is our strength and not a problem. That’s why watching a Sikh teacher at a Greek Orthodox school chatting away with a member of staff from a Muslim school who wears a niqab (a woman’s face-covering) is an inspiring and encouraging sign of what interfaith relations – and religious education – should be about.
Sana Umair is an education officer at the Three Faiths Forum in the UK.