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Virtual history

How can a website about Islamic civilisation hope to bridge Britain's ethnic divisions?

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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At the start of Islam Awareness Week, the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) launched a website to inform British schoolchildren about the contribution of Muslim civilisation to world history (1). Navigating the Virtual Classroom, you’ll find out about the Muslim origins of the guitar, algebra, paper, and fruits such as lemons – things that we take for granted in Britain today.

The idea is that educating people about Islamic civilisation will help to increase understanding between Muslims and British society – as well as helping to increase the pride of Muslim children. At the launch, representatives from the three main parties (including education secretary Charles Clarke), a spokesperson for Prince Charles, heads of Muslim organisations and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), all praised these aims.

While the project tries to tackle real problems, it heads down the wrong path. Trying to link history to self-esteem will do no good for history teaching – or for community relations and Muslim pride.

Of course, schoolchildren should be taught more about the history of Islamic civilisation – which is, like the rest of human history, scantily covered in British state schools. At the launch, Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said that at one school he had visited, no pupil could name an achievement of Islamic civilisation. No doubt there were ideological reasons in the past for British history-teaching keeping the Dark Age dark, and not dwelling on the successes of Islamic societies. As a documentary resource, the Virtual Classroom could help fill some of these gaps.

In addition, it is better to teach history as a process – where different cultures and civilisations not only fought but learned from one another. No culture starts afresh, conjuring innovations out of thin air: they take up the achievements of their ancestors and other societies, and move on from there. Islamic civilisation, for example, was key to preserving and developing the insights of Greece and Rome, as well as expanding trade and making technical innovations – and as a result, helped to prepare the way for the European Renaissance and Industrial Revolution.

But history should be taught with the aim of improving understanding, rather than harmonising community relations or boosting Muslims’ self-esteem. We should strive towards an honest appraisal of the past, rather than twisting facts and events to suit immediate purposes. This means being able to discuss past conflicts between Islam and Christendom, without being stifled by concerns that this might foster Islamophobia. It also means trying to be objective about the role that different individuals and groups have played in history.

At the launch of the Virtual Classroom, for example, head of the CRE Trevor Phillips claimed that Muslims had done Newton’s work centuries before him. It does little good for history education to see the Middle Ages as a time of joyful cooperation between Islam and Christianity, with Muslim civilisation bettering the Scientific Revolution.

Nor will publicising the achievements of Islamic civilisation do much to bridge community divisions. Speakers at the launch agreed that teaching British people more about the contributions of Islamic societies in history, would help to lessen divides in places such as Bradford and Burnley today. Munir Ahmed from the ISB said that common stereotypes about Muslims were based on a ‘lack of knowledge’; Charles Clarke lamented that so many people were bent on ‘telling lies about the great religions’.

The idea that social divisions are due to a lack of education is, well, uneducated. Divides between ethnic groups are the product of social and economic realities – the problem is not that each lacks sufficient information about the other’s way of life. The ‘parallel lives’ lived by communities in the towns of Bradford and Burnley, which were brought to light in the riots of summer 2001, are a case in point. The subsequent reports into the situation in these towns were flawed in many ways, but they at least explained the divide between Muslim and white communities as resulting from factors such as the ethnic segregation of regeneration funds, which forces communities to compete against each other for scarce resources. Telling white communities that their Muslim neighbours’ ancestors had invented the guitar would not make the slightest difference.

In fact, promoting what Phil Willis described as ‘civilisation awareness’ could well increase segregation. The Virtual Classroom project sets up Muslims as a separate group, which the rest of Britain needs to be made ‘aware’ of. Not only this, but the project appeals on the basis of Muslim achievements more than 800 years ago on the other side of the globe – which if anything is likely to increase the sense that Muslims are essentially different from other Britons. The very concept of ‘Islamic civilisation’ itself seems segregational and unhistorical – much in the way that the notion of ‘Western civilisation’ is. It would be better to celebrate the achievements of Muslim scholars and leaders as contributions to a common civilisation, rather than as specifically ‘Islamic’.

The other aim of the Virtual Classroom is to increase the pride of young British Muslims. Project head Shayma Izzidien told me that knowledge of Muslims’ past achievements will help young British Muslims to ‘hold their heads up’, as well as ‘inspiring them to contribute something to modern life’. The idea that history can be used to improve individuals’ and groups’ self-esteem is ubiquitous today – as individuals and groups are constantly urged to discover and find pride in their ancestors. US President George W Bush recently found a palatable way of celebrating Columbus Day, as an occasion for valuing the contribution of Italian Americans (2).

Even taking the concept of self-esteem in its own terms, history remains a shaky basis for building self-esteem – as it means finding pride in things that others have done in the past, rather than things that you do in the present. Muslim students would do better to find pride in getting good marks in maths, than in the fact that an Islamic scholar invented algebra. What about individuals who are the descendants of rapers and pillagers, or of societies that made no mark on history? ‘You can always find something to be proud of in history’, said Shayma Izzidien.

The government’s support for the Virtual Classroom shows a proclivity for using education as a form of social engineering. Rather than broadening pupils’ understanding of the world, the aim of school lessons is increasingly to tell pupils how they should see themselves and relate to each other. This is also a degradation of perhaps more ideological uses of education that were promoted in the past. Nationalist history teaching was at least a bold political project, which was part of forging an agenda for the country.

Using history for the purposes of ‘awareness’ and ‘self-esteem’ means harnessing history for the purposes of the therapist or counsellor. It is about nothing more than individuals’ self-images.

Read on:

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(1) See the Virtual Classroom

(2) President Commemorates Columbus Day, White House press release, October 2003

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