Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS, Islamophobia and the Internet

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Courtney M. Dorroll
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In light of the continuing outbreaks of violence against or by Muslims today—for example, the attacks in spring 2019 on mosques in New Zealand and churches in Sri Lanka—this collection of articles by a variety of scholars on the teaching of Islamic studies is welcome and timely. The idea for Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS, Islamophobia, and the Internet (and its title) originated in a talk given by Richard Martin, at Wofford College, at the invitation of Courtney M. Dorroll, the volume’s editor. The result is an informative collection, both theoretically and practically, that will serve those tasked to teach university classes about Muslims and Islam, especially in the US, as well as in other western contexts (all but three of the authors teach at US institutions). 

Martin provides a foreword, asking one of the pedagogical questions threading its way through the volume: “[s]hould scholars trained in Islamic studies adjust the curriculum they teach to speak to contemporary events?” (x)—and the implicit answer, echoed in other essays, is in the affirmative, as scholars and their students are already affected by contemporary events, even when teaching or learning about the distant past. Dorroll provides an introduction, seeing this volume as a companion text to, and updating of, Teaching Islam (Oxford University Press, 2002) edited by Brannon Wheeler, and with hope that it will be of wide use, including by isolated scholars and non-specialists. 

Fourteen chapters follow, divided into three parts. Part 1, “Approaches and Theories,” presents pedagogical techniques of virtual student exchanges with the Middle East (chapter 1), focus on the “everyday life” of Muslims rather than canonical texts (chapter 3), and the use of Middle Eastern fictional literature in translation (chapter 6) as means to overcome the alienation from the “other” fostered by an Islamophobic environment. More theoretically oriented articles illustrate the tension in Europe between “secular/modern” and “confessional/classical” approaches to education about Islam (chapter 4), and the connection of Islamophobic (and anti-Semitic) discourse with the common misperception of “religion” as reducible to a Protestant emphasis on faith (chapter 5). Perhaps most suggestive is a chapter that introduces the dimension of desire and affect into Islamic studies teaching, noting the seductive power over certain audiences of anti-Islam rhetoric, “stronger and more resilient than appeals to historical evidence and rational argument” (23), and the affective problem that arises when instructors replicate this rhetoric in order to deconstruct and combat it. Similarly, chapter 1 warns that, without proper preparation, virtual exchanges can actually reify stereotypes. 

Part 2, “Islamophobia and Violence,” suggests interdisciplinary team teaching as an effective method of dealing with volatile subjects such as Islam and violence (chapter 7), contains a practical exercise comparing the similar legal justification of violence against civilians by the US and by al-Qaeda (chapter 8), and presents the contours of an introductory course on Islamophobia—the study of which is to be differentiated from the study of Islam (chapter 9). 

Part 3, “Applications,” offers practical examples and resources that instructors can pick up and use. Chapter 10 argues that the pre-modern Islamic past be taught in light of present concerns, and offers examples involving Arabic poetry, guest speakers, modern artistic interpretations, and the use of digital technology. Chapter 11 describes how a course on Islamic law functions to deconstruct students’ simplistic and monolithic assumptions so that they come to realize that “Muslims are people, Islam is complicated.” Chapter 12 presents five anti-Islamic “frames” through which students tend to view Muslims and Islam, and suggests readings and strategies to subvert them. Such “frames” essentially boil down to three main stereotypes: Muslims are violent, anti-democratic, and misogynistic. Chapter 13 suggests guided, reflective writing as a means of relating to the traditions and cultures of the “other,” and especially in dealing with attendant emotions. Finally, chapter 14 offers a cornucopia of pedagogical techniques and alternative sources—such as films and social media—for teaching Islam and gender; this chapter also raises the specific challenges that Muslim students face in an academic Islamic studies course.

Each chapter contains endnotes; however, the bibliography at the end of the volume does not collect all of the sources in these references. There is no list of contributors, but each chapter ends with a description of the position of the contributor: the writers are academics ranging from seasoned scholars to those just beginning their academic career. An index rounds out the volume.

A volume of this nature contains too many themes for a short review to summarize adequately. One, however, stands out for this reviewer, and that is the natural assumption of scholars that a lack of accurate information is the primary driver of Islamophobia. To their credit, some of the contributors question this assumption, noting that prejudice often persists even with access to information. In fact, the “backfire effect” paradoxically finds people presented with information that conflicts with their prejudices becoming even more entrenched in their bias. The missing element in a strictly reasoned approach is the role of emotional investments, often tied in with self-perceived identity. Along with the many fine pedagogical tools included in this volume needs to be the realization that learning is not just cognitive but also emotional, that there is a desire and pleasure in the production, consumption and reproduction of various kinds of knowledge, including Islamophobia. Digital literacy also needs more emphasis, since the internet and social media are often the primary sources for student’s biases.  

Islamic studies scholars, under suspicion by both Islamophobes and Muslims for not teaching “real Islam,” walk a tightrope—between combating prejudice and critical inquiry—in their course instruction. Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS provides no easy solutions, but much fodder for thought, as well as practical hands-on ideas to try. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. Volker Greifenhagen is Professor of Religious Studies at Luther College at the University of Regina, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Courtney M. Dorroll is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Wofford College.


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