Fighting Islamophobia in schools

© UNESCO/Paul Highnam

© UNESCO/Paul Highnam

How can schools promote tolerance and mutual respect, in today’s increasingly diverse, globalized world? Education professionals and policymakers from several European countries and the United States will meet to explore the question of “Globalization, diversity and social cohesion in educational settings” at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on 5 November. 

Fashioning new ways to live together in an age of diversity starts on the benches of schools, as UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stressed last month in New York, while speaking on education on human rights. “Through education, we can teach children not to hate from the very young age. Through education, we can raise tolerant leaders. Through education, we may establish a lasting culture of peace.” 

Organized by UNESCO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe  (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, this November meeting is the second in a series of three thematically related events. The first, which took place in Vienna last September, focused specifically on “Countering intolerance against Muslims though education for societies in transition”. The third and final meeting, scheduled later this year, will look at “Promotion of mutual understanding and tolerance in multicultural education settings.”

A primary school class of Bagmati, Nepal

© UNESCO/René Edde

Discussions will focus on “Addressing Islamophobia through education”,a set of guidelines that UNESCO prepared with its partners. The publication aims to help educators identify manifestations of intolerance and discrimination against Muslims in schools, and provides suggestions on how to prevent and respond to these situations. As the introduction explains: “The ‘war on terror’, the global economic crisis, anxieties about national identity and the difficulties in coping with the increasing diversity many societies have led to a growth in resentment against Muslims and Islam that has sometimes been fuelled by intolerant language in media and political discourse.”

As a result, the publication argues, Islamophobia has a negative impact “not only on young people but also on their parents, as well as on teachers and other education professionals. This presents a new challenge for educators. While teachers cannot be expected to resolve the political and social tensions among communities, they can have a central role in shaping the attitudes and behaviors of young people.”

© UNESCO/ASPnet/Galentro Alexandra

Promoting mutual understanding and respect for diversity, along with countering all forms of intolerance and discrimination, is fundamentally a question of peace. The attitudes and tensions that lead to inter-communal conflict are often deeply rooted in stereotypes and misconceptions. One of the most pressing contemporary challenges is to promote knowledge about, and understanding of, different cultures. UNESCO’s Constitution declares that sincewars begin in the minds of women and men, it is there that the defences of peace must be built.” Education provides the blueprint for these defences and the bricks for building them.

By promoting shared values and fostering new forms of global citizenship, education protects the dignity of all, regardless of gender, descent or national, ethnic or religious identity. This is the goal of the “Teaching Respect for All” initiative that UNESCO launched in January 2012 with Brazil and the United States -- to develop teaching materials and curricula for anti-racism. It is also is why UNESCO leads in promoting Holocaust education, a poignant starting-point for human rights education, including lessons from recent genocides. This is the spirit animating UNESCO’s efforts to rid the world’s school textbooks of stereotypes leading to inequalities, violation of rights and, in some cases, violence. As part of the UN “Education First” campaign, UNESCO will do everything to channel its energy to deepen education as a force for peace, and to bring shared values to life.

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