One of the biggest challenges facing religious educators is developing a language sophisticated, yet accessible enough, to convey the complexity of religious believing and belonging.
So often religion is misrepresented as a static, rigid set of rules to be followed, or as an indelible trait indistinguishable from someone´s ethnicity or nationality. You can either believe it or not; or you can either be it or not. One of the corollaries of this view of religion is that you may even not get a choice of whether other people think you are ‘it’ or not.
Perhaps the group most misrepresented in both the classroom and outside of it in these respects are those who we would call ‘Muslims´. Muslims are easily identified: they have five pillars of their faith. They believe in God. They pray five times a day. They don’t eat pork or drink alcohol. Women wear headscarves. And they come from the Middle East.
This is all textbook. But these facts will either be a gross reduction of something much deeper in real people’s lives, or only partially match up with a given person’s take on things. Someone who does not do any one of those things may call themselves ‘Muslim’ or find themselves being called ‘Muslim’. Conversely, plenty of other people who are not Muslims may pray five times a day, not drink alcohol, or wear a headscarf.
The problem is religion quite often ‘sticks’ once someone ascribes it to someone. Along with this can come all kinds of baggage. What does being a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness mean, for example? We might speculate or gossip.
The power of cultural representations is key here. People sort other people into categories using the material they have around them. If there weren’t a representation of what a Muslim is, we wouldn’t be able to label someone with it. RE helps do that sometimes.
The scholar Stuart Hall, who first asked the question ‘Who needs identity?’, developed this powerful concept for understanding issues of race. In so doing he inaugurated a whole new tradition of social analysis, known as cultural studies. On this view, race is a socially constructed category through which embedded power structures reinforce ongoing inequality.
But what is different now from when Hall first formulated identity theory, is that religion has become racialized in a similar way. This is particularly true of Islam. The powerful system of cultural representations and their associated stigmas and controversies is everywhere. What is ‘Muslim’ is beamed to us on TV, posted to us on social media and also told to us in RE. There is little one can do to change how one is represented or recognised in the face of these social forces. That is the power of identity.
A recent collection of research papers focusing on RE, published in the Oxford Review of Education, explores the implications of this for Muslims in schooling. In France, for example, the war against terror begins in primary school. Britain, it could be argued, fares little better, with its programme of ‘British’ values. In Sweden, secular norms make believing difficult, but also make one being recognised as Muslim problematic also.
One of the questions that interests me most about religious education is what students make of the curriculum representations of traditions that they have some connection with, and then what they do about those representations. How does it feel, for example, to be in a lesson about Islam, when you come from a ‘Muslim’ home? What do you do when someone teaches about 9/11 and the teacher asks you for your opinion, as though that is particularly relevant for you?
One possible response is what could be called disidentification. That is undermining the baggage of what other people think you are – a kind of disassociation. This is a subtle performance. It can include irony, humour, acceptance and refusal. When you disidentify you can take on others’ assumptions and throw them back at them. One striking form of this is minority groups’ adoption of slurs used to describe themselves. This inverts the power and the representation. You can see this in schools all the time.
The concept of identity is powerful. We need it to understand today’s young people and the complexities of today’s religious education. For we can find identity politics everywhere in RE, from debates about abortion and the existence of God, to the ongoing controversies over the nature and purpose of the curriculum itself. (‘Religious’ is an identity and so is ‘not religious’).
Religious identity is a useful theory for teachers to be familiar with. People can be trapped by harmful representations of identity, even in RE. From bad wallpaper adorning the houses of religious believers in textbooks of the 1980s, to ongoing preoccupation with terrorism, to the staid diktat of hard and fast denominational rules that never map onto your friends’ behaviour.
Yet identifying the nub of this problem reveals its solution. We cannot ignore religious identity. But religious identities have their limits, and when we push them, RE is all the richer.
Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit.