How I Tackled ‘Shiaphobia’ At School
26th May 2015
I started my career as a Religious Education (RE) teacher in September 2013 in a school that has nearly 1500 pupils ranging from the ages of 11-18. Of these pupils, approximately 75% of them come from a Muslim background. Due to the nature of comments Shias usually have to endure, I chose to hide my identity as a Shia Muslim from my pupils. If pupils ever asked me what ‘type’ of Muslim I was, I would never tell them I was a Shia. I merely insisted I was just a Muslim but they were never satisfied with that answer (a reflection of the state of affairs we live in). Perhaps I was insecure about it. My main concern was the possible reaction that I have endured in my life after telling people I am a follower of the Shia school of thought. As I had just started my career, I didn’t want my confidence to be harmed.
“Sir, I don’t think Shias are real Muslims.”
“Sir, aren’t Shias the ones who cut themselves?”
“Shias have some weird beliefs Sir.”
During lessons, whenever the topic of Shia Islam came up, I heard all the regular comments and misconceptions we are used to by a few pupils. I always corrected the pupils without revealing I was one of the people they were making comments about! I found this experience very amusing (you cannot take comments by pupils personally if you are a teacher – you will not survive) but I was disturbed at the same time. These young pupils cannot be blamed for having these views but my concern was where they were getting this misinformation from. I carried on concentrating on my teaching practice and, all praise is due to God, my reputation amongst the pupils started rising and I feel generally well-received by the pupils who study at my school. I tried to show my faith through my conduct and manners rather than labelling myself, something I strongly believe in.
Shia Muslims are being killed because of misconceptions, as are others. I am in the lucky position to help change this maybe.
Fast-forward to September 2014, I was (somehow) appointed as Head of RE at my school and I was now in charge of the curriculum, results, teaching and progress of every pupil in the school who studies RE as well as the members of staff who teach it. With the spiritual boost from my experience of going to Karbala that year during Arbaeen under my belt, I was now not afraid of displaying my faith and I slowly started to reveal to my pupils (using subtle hints and comments) the beliefs I held because they love hearing opinions of teachers. I would pray in the prayer room with my hands down, get asked questions about the ring and wristbands I wear with the names ‘Ali’ and ‘Hussain’ written on them and about why I take a day off work for religious purposes (for Ashura) when the rest of the school’s Muslims come in. Now when the pupils would ask me whether I was a Sunni or Shia, I would give a straight answer and then ask a question back: “Has that changed your opinion of me?” Just about every pupil who I asked this to responded in the negative and they began to realise you should look at the human before the worldview. The reactions were surreal and comical, from the literal jaw-drop to the surprise and amazement:
“But, how Sir? You’re normal!”
“Wow I’ve never met a Shia before”
“You know what Sir? For a Shia…you’re not too bad”
“That is SO cool Sir!”
It was the best decision I made. The pupils began to respect me more for sharing my opinion professionally and they realised that I was the same person before I told them my religion and I will be the same person afterwards. This then, naturally, allowed me to answer questions even more directly (of which there were MANY) and remove the misconceptions they had been told. My experience is summed up by a comment two pupils made to me a few weeks ago:
“Sir, I’m not going to lie. We have heard some crazy things about Shia Muslims but you have made us realise you are normal and how many of those things we were told were wrong.”
With the position I am in, whenever we teach Islam, the Shia view now pops up and we can talk about it openly. It is now also becoming a statutory requirement to teach Shia Islam to pupils when studying Islam. We live in a world where the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ are used so much in the media, the young people of this world need to know who these people are and how they differ/unite.
I do not want the readers of this article to think I am some sort of Shia preacher at my workplace; this goes against the standards of the profession I adhere to. This is the way I approach all subjects I teach. As well as removing ‘Shiaphobia’, my curriculum also aims to remove Islamophobia in general, anti-Semitism and all other forms of prejudice and discrimination towards people of faith or non-faith. However, from a personal point of view, Shia Muslims are being killed because of misconceptions, as are others. I am in the lucky position to help change this maybe.
As a Muslim (RE) teacher in a school where the majority of pupils are Muslim, I am now treated as the spokesman for religious matters. The Muslim pupils ask me questions about Islam and other religions, the non-Muslim pupils ask me about Islam and other religions. They do not care that a Shia Muslim is answering their questions. They now embrace it.