Education and Language

The Portrayal of Islam in European Textbooks – Correcting the Distorted Image

© Goerg-Eckert-Institut© Georg-Eckert-Institut Gerdien Jonker, a leading expert on the history and science of religion, is critical of the stereotypical depiction of Muslims in European textbooks. The project “1001 Ideas: Islamic Cultures and Histories” is her attempt to remedy the situation.

Gerdien Jonker, a leading expert on the history and science of religion, is critical of the stereotypical depiction of Muslims in European textbooks. The project “1001 Ideas: Islamic Cultures and Histories” is her attempt to remedy the situation.

The debate about the integration of Muslims in Germany is still ongoing. Indeed, it has recently been heightened by the publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book.

In it, Sarrazin, a former SPD politician and banker, arouses controversy with his provocative hypotheses about Muslims, their supposed lesser intelligence and lack of willingness to integrate into German society. What’s more, the public debate in reaction to the book has revealed that a surprisingly high proportion of Germans apparently agree with Sarrazin’s hypotheses.

According to experts, these reactions result from an inaccurate and distorted image of Muslims that is widespread in the German public.

With the “1001 Ideas” project, Gerdien Jonker, an expert on the history and science of religion, is working with the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig in an effort to correct this distorted image.

Hip-Hop in Afghanistan

For the past three years, the “1001 Ideas” project has offered interested teachers background information which is available on the Internet. It focuses mainly on history, youth culture, religion, social relations and sport. The information is intended for use in lessons to help foster a more nuanced view of Muslim culture and history.

So far, a growing cohort of experts has compiled 61 teaching units which can be used to teach a variety of age groups and school subjects – and not just social studies and history, for the units can be used equally well to teach music.

For example, teaching material has been developed on the topic of “Hip-Hop from Afghanistan” – surely a surprising discovery for most German and European school students.

A Youtube clip forms part of the teaching unit relating to “Music along the Silk Road”. This short film is supplemented with text-based explanations and maps which are designed to assist teachers, especially in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, in their work.

“What we are trying to do is to show that young people on the other side of the world have exactly the same problems in their daily lives”, explains Gerdien Jonker, who heads the project.

Islam: a grievously neglected topic

The Institute is now collaborating with universities and teacher training colleges throughout Europe, and the website is available in German and English and is supported by education specialists.

Reactions from teachers have been extremely positive, says Gerdien Jonker: most of them are grateful for this type of support as they are acutely aware of the gaps in this area. Islam is a grievously neglected topic in European’s schools – and has been since the 17th century.

“At that time, we still had a purely Christian narrative”, explains Gerdien Jonker. “Its message was this: as Christians, we do things our way, and this is our cultural frontier. The Muslims have nothing to do with us. Where Islam was concerned, the narrative which was passed on was that the Muslims were likely to spread out and attack Europe, and that we had to defend ourselves.”

In the 19th century, the Crusades took up 60 or 70 pages in the history books, reinforcing – or even creating – the feeling among Europeans that Islam posed a threat, explains Gerdien Jonker.

Since then, the topic has occupied rather less space in the history books but the basic tone of the discourse has barely changed at all. The immigration of Muslim guest workers and, above all, the events of 9/11 have further reinforced these feelings.

Of course there are lines of conflict between the Western and the Islamic world. “But presenting these, in a few pages, as “knowledge” about “the Muslims” – that is disastrous, in our view. The reality is far more complex – and that’s the message that we want to convey.”
Peter Philipp

Copyright: Deutsche Welle 2010/Qantara.de

Translation: Hillary Crowe

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