othering

This week David Cameron (your prime minister) suggested that English language classes for Muslim women could help stop radicalisation. Yes, you read that correctly. He went on to explain that Muslims arriving in the UK on a five-year spousal visa will have to take a test after two and a half years to show they are trying to improve their English, and a failure to do so would lead to deportation.

This is by no means a unique Islamaphobic attack on British Muslims by Cameron and his Government. But, it is one worth further analysis.

Firstly, Cameron’s strategy is highly ironic as £45 million was cut from English for speakers of other languages (Esol) classes less than a year ago. Secondly, it is based on an ill-informed and unproven connection between Muslim mothers having difficulties speaking English and that of Islamist extremism. As Dr. Nafeez Ahmed wrote, “What you have done, Prime Minister, is abused your position of authority to broadcast a false, and absurd, image of an incoming swarm of dangerous migrant Muslim women giving birth to potential jihadists, that can only be stopped with extensive English language lessons.” Lastly, the figures used by Cameron are inaccurate and misleading, but essential for the ‘us and them’ rhetoric peddled out and used by the neoconservative establishment to frame Muslims as ‘the other’.

Othering – a term created by Cultural theorist Edward W. Said – is a commonly used agenda that seeks to ‘other’ a minority group on the basis that their culture and beliefs are fundamentally different (and deemed as a threat) to the rest of society. By deliberately creating the idea of an alien ‘other’ it reinforces difference and promotes social and political dominance over the group deemed as being ‘the other’.

Said, in his 1978 book, Orientalism explains that, “Orientalism is a study based on the re-thinking of what had for centuries been believed to be an unbridgeable chasm separating East from West” he suggests that we should, “challenge the notion that difference implies hostility, a frozen reified set of opposed essences, and a whole adversarial knowledge built out of those things.”

Using the theory of ‘otherness’, we can deconstruct Cameron’s unsubtle attack on Muslim females, in which he delibrately portrays, “them as linguistically deficient, culturally suppressed and visibly alien is reminiscent of a long line of colonial repression.” Sadia Habib goes on to write that, “The prime minister is playing the ‘white male saviour’, seeking to rescue this meek and downtrodden Muslim woman from barbaric and backward Muslim males, by giving her the freedom of the English language, the power of speech and by unveiling her to the world.”

Cameron’s antagonistic approach enables the morally tranquillised Non-Muslim media consumer to not only agree with the ‘othering’ of UK Muslims but to also feel in a place of security and comfort in belonging to a (supposedly) superior group defined by shared beliefs, values and culture.

“The distinction between difference and otherness is that difference is descriptive, whereas otherness is strategic. Otherness describes the distribution of power; the differences between known and unknown are not mediated equally or neutrally. Othering always refers to the other party being repressed in a relation. When the other is being judged, the emphasis is on what differentiates instead of what connects. The encounter with the other is dominated by our preconceptions, which depend on public representations. The less one knows about distinct people, the easier one interprets these people through presupposed characteristics; the “knowledge” and perceptions one gains are stabilised as simplifications and stereotypes that become part of the common stock of knowledge through inter-subjective activity” The Othering of Islam in a European Context

It is clear that the ‘Othering’ theme permeates mainstream media used to promote and support racist government strategies, but is it evident in schools and education? Do we do enough in our schools to promote and celebrate the various different cultures of all the students present in our schools?

And, we need to do so much more than the well-intentioned yet insensitive attempt of looking at different cultures through a ‘saris, samosas, and steelband’ approach.

Are we really doing enough to challenge the unbridgeable chasm, as Edward Said describes?

“Individuals who know the world only from their own cultural perspectives are denied important parts of the human experience and are culturally and ethnically encapsulated. These individuals are also unable to know their own cultures fully because of their cultural blinders. We can get a full view of our own backgrounds and behaviours only by viewing them from the perspectives of other cultures.” (An Introduction to Multicultural Education, James A. Banks. 2013)

The Eurocentric curriculum that many schools promote, “negatively affects many students of colour because they often find the school culture alien, hostile and self-defeating. Because of the negative ways in which students of colour and their cultures are often viewed by educators and the negative experiences of these students in their communities and in the schools, many of them do not attain the skills needed to function successfully in a highly technological, knowledge-orientated society” (Conchas & Vigil, 2012: Darling-Hammond, 2010)

We must design and embed a curriculum and a “culturally relevant pedagogy” (Ladson-Billings, 1994) that identifies the cultures and communities of all our students as assets rather than things to be replaced. As I have written before, we see examples where schools have intentionally decided to, “de-culturalise their pupils and convince them into believing that it is necessary to cast off their own backgrounds, values and culture in order for them to become ‘successful’ and ‘achieve’.”

Carol Lee (2004) supports this idea by saying that, “teachers must be better equipped to investigate what is going on in the lives of their students generally so that their curriculum and pedagogy can be reflective of those lives.”

In their 2008 book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools; Jeffrey M. Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell suggest that, “Nothing promotes tolerance more, than a pedagogy that enables students to arrive at an implicit understanding of what they have in common with those they are taught (through media and education) to perceive as different.”

In a morally bankrupt society where ‘otherness’ is used by the governments, assisted by the media, to insight hate and promote inequality of ‘the other’, perhaps education is the only solution? As Michael D. Yates writes in Henry A. Giroux’s new book, “Without transformational education, society is doomed to ignorance and autocracy. No democracy can function without the people having a strong sense of public values, seeing themselves in others, and willing to suppress self-interest for the common good. It is critical education that embodies and disseminates this sense.”