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Changing Our Story of the Middle East

This post is written by member Brandy French. 

brandy-french_webWhen I asked my students to describe the images they associated with the Middle East, the responses were predictable: Muslim extremists, deserts, guns, bombs, poverty, terrorism, oppressed women, and hatred of America. This troubling view has been engendered by news broadcasts covering terrorist attacks and further reinforced by political rhetoric seeking to pinpoint a single, coherent “enemy.” But this is only one story of the Middle East, the one largely told by the West—and to counter it, my students and I started this school year reading a book by a teenaged Pakistani girl called I Am Malala.

Malala Yousafzai was just 15 years old when the Taliban retaliated against her advocacy for girls’ education by shooting her in the head. She survived the brutal attack, and her book, I Am Malala, recounts her childhood growing up in northern Pakistan under the increasingly oppressive rule of the Taliban. Within the first few pages, Malala challenged our story of the Middle East. She watched television, listened to music, spoke English, struggled with homework, and bickered with her younger brothers. Her home was nestled in a lush valley at the foot of the Himalayas with flowing waterfalls and snowcapped mountains. She helped her dad post on Twitter and Skyped with her friends after school. My students found themselves face to face with a peer to whom they could easily relate—not a foreign “other” suffering incomprehensibly in a faraway desert.

As we read, Malala systematically challenged every aspect of our one story of the Middle East. Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, elected a female prime minister in 1988. The Taliban originated not as a terrorist group, but as a way to safeguard Islamic culture against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In fact, the Taliban provided relief efforts in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and earned the gratitude and support of many of the disaster’s 3.5 million victims. Malala explained that many Muslim women chose to cover their heads out of modesty rather than strict religious adherence and that a woman in a hijab did not automatically signify a woman oppressed. She argued the radicalized interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith held by extremist groups were against the true spirit of Islam and contended that terrorists were defiling the peaceful faith followed by millions of Muslims around the world. With each page we read, our view of the stereotypical Middle Eastern person fractured from a single, hostile enemy into dozens of smaller, varied snapshots.

Our school is a private Catholic high school, and many of my students began reading I Am Malala with a fixed view of Islam as fundamentally opposed to Christianity. However, we were able to compare the five pillars of Islam with the five precepts of the Catholic Church and discovered that while our doctrines are different, the spirits of our faiths can be quite similar. True Islam is peaceful, hospitable, generous, and kind—the same as true Christianity.

Our discovery of the diversity of the Middle East allowed us to use our differences not to distance ourselves from its inhabitants, but to connect to each other across ethnic, national, cultural, and religious boundaries. By introducing nuance into our perceptions of others, we embraced the richness of the human experience and broadened our understanding of the world as global citizens.

Brandy French teaches 9th- and 10th-grade English at Bishop John J. Snyder High School in Jacksonville, Florida. She has been teaching for five years and is a new member of NCTE in 2016.