Author Interview: Liz Jackson

Liz Jackson is Assistant Professor at the University of Kong Kong. Her recent book, ‘Muslims and Islams in US Education: reconsidering multiculturalism’, reviewed here, won the University of Hong Kong’s  2014/15 Research Output Prize and the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia’s 2015 Book Award. As the book is released in paperback, Liz discusses why she wrote it and what she’s working on now…


Why did you decide to write Muslims and Islam in U.S. Education?

I started teaching in university for the first time a day or two after September 11, 2001. I found that my students could not focus on anything but the current events. But the media was reporting a lot of conflicting things and I didn’t consider myself an expert. I was also a counsellor for multicultural student groups on campus at the same time. Gradually Osama bin Laden and Muslim terrorism became a major focus of public discussion, to the dismay of the Muslim student group on campus, whose members started to feel unsafe due to prejudice and fear from peers. The following summer I travelled to Turkey as an educational counsellor for children whose parents were in the American Air Force. Often their parents were going to Afghanistan, so it was a scary time for them as well. They had conflicting feelings about being in Turkey and facing cross-cultural differences, enjoyable ones and less pleasant ones.

I started to feel personally alienated by media discourse connecting terrorism to Islam over the next few years, particularly as US forces moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. As a doctoral student, I travelled to the INPE conference in Malta in 2004 and decided to take a short backpacking excursion from there to Tunisia. I came back from that trip inspired by what I experienced, as I was treated to many local people’s hospitality and generosity as a dusty young backpacker there. Yet I also felt increasingly disturbed, that my experience of normal, nice (and not nice) Muslim people seemed so at odds with the views of many other Americans around me: my family, peers, and friends. I experienced this again when I worked and lived in Abu Dhabi, after finishing my studies. People tend to conflate the worst bits of popular culture and horror stories from Saudi Arabia to the whole Arab peninsula. It is rare that I mention living in Abu Dhabi without people asking me very naïve questions about gender oppression that bare no relation to my experience or knowledge of the society. In place of fashion choices and political acts, a lot of westerners see hijabis simply as victims of some kind of cruel torture by patriarchs. As a western woman, my experience there was not any worse than it has been, in terms of sexism, than most other places I have lived and worked.

A decade after 9/11, I was astonished how little research had been conducted and published on the topic of knowledge about Islam and Muslims in the United States, and how debates about religious education, multicultural education, and related areas continued without any meaningful discussions of Islam in relation to equity, tolerance, and recognition. After completing my PhD dissertation on the topic in 2009 and watching events unfold for another few years, I felt I had to get the ball rolling with regard to conceptualizing how these issues intersect with Islam in the US.

What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The main aim is to critically examine the curriculum about Islam in the US, both formal and informal. The unofficial aim is to consider why so many Americans know so little about the Middle East, Islam, and Muslim societies around the world, and why so much of what they think they know is wrong. So I consider curriculum development and reform, about historical and geographical knowledge connected to Islam, as well as the contemporary challenges. I also look at the media, which plays a big role in people’s knowledge, as teachers may be learning from media, and media (news and popular culture) can sometimes be a competing source to formal education when it comes to controversial issues. Finally the book aims to identify how Islam is related to debates about multiculturalism and religion in the US today, and offer some solutions.

It is important to examine the curriculum about Islam in the US because in a democracy people must rely on knowledge and skills to make decisions. If there are problems with their knowledge and skills, people are not going to act in their own best interests, or in collective best interests. Today we see Republican presidential hopefuls competing to say prejudiced and ignorant things about Islam to voters. Some people still worry that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. When half the country suspects most Muslims are like Osama bin Laden and ISIS, and have little opportunity to get a different perspective, we have a big problem. This perception is not accurate. Believing things that don’t hold up to social science evidence and methods and acting on those things hardly serves anyone.

And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

At the personal level, I’m against the loss of innocent lives plausibly related to lack of knowledge and systematically-given misinformation about major political events and issues. Young people must become independent critical thinkers, given the current imbalanced media portrayal of issues and events and a lack of comprehensive knowledge among teachers. I’m also drawn to this case because it is complex and doesn’t provide for a right answer. Traditionally, multicultural education is about appreciating difference within a society. With Islam it’s more complicated. Appreciating difference and not harming others within society is one thing; but there remain tough international issues that are unavoidable to anyone who wants to interact within the American sphere today. While I might say that Islam is not essentially linked to terrorism or sex oppression, my voice competes with those of self-identified Muslims who might say otherwise. In an educational space, given the pervading informal educational environment about Islam, who should students believe, and who are they likely to believe? The understanding of culture, religion, and identity required here must be nuanced, while our view of formal education’s role must also be limited, as teachers compete with Fox News and even ISIS here.

What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

I hope people find the historical and philosophical overview of multicultural education in the US helpful and clearly connected to educational decision making today. I’m worried that some people will find it is not severe enough in its condemnation of conservative and anti-Islamic agendas and voices in the US; one reviewer has suggested I needed to give Islam a voice and take on the role of an educator about Islam more than I have done in the book. I hope it is considered a foundational source for thinking about the curriculum and media in the US in relation to Islam.

What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

Researchers in multicultural education and social justice education are my main target audience. Originally I hoped that the book could be of interest to educated members of the public outside of education, but I’m afraid it is still fairly theoretical, as I found the use of jargon unavoidable to make some of the arguments. I’m also hopeful that people outside the US will find it beneficial to learn about the case and the American perspectives portrayed.

What’s your current project? What’s next?

I live and work in Hong Kong now, and have been living outside the USA since 2009. I felt funny writing the book from Hong Kong, actually. US politics have always been strange to me, but they become even more exotic the longer I am away. Given my multicultural intellectual background, I am not sure I feel comfortable telling Americans what I think they should do or think anymore! In Hong Kong I am conducting research on how ethnic and religious minority communities are represented in the curriculum and in textbooks. Multiculturalism has been undertheorized in the Hong Kong context, although the other side of the coin, civic and national education, remains very contentious today. The handover from Britain to mainland China was just a few decades ago, so who and what kind of people Hongkongers are is on everyone’s mind. I am in the planning stages of a book on multicultural and civic education in Hong Kong from the perspective of minorities. I won’t call it “Islam in Hong Kong education,” because in Hong Kong issues relate much more to culture and ethnicity than religion. For example, many Muslims here are Chinese but are not identified in the public sphere as Muslims due to their cultural differences from Pakistani and Indonesian Muslims here. But I do hope to use the steam around my book (which now includes several favourable book reviews as well as book awards from PESA and the University of Hong Kong) to fuel Hong Kong interest in multiculturalism, given Hong Kong’s self-image as “Asia’s World City.”

What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

As I tell my students in Hong Kong, philosophy of education asks the big questions underlying what educators try to do, what is important to know, think, and feel, and how to progress society in the future. There is a philosophy of education behind everything happening in schools, and we all have philosophies of education, whether or not we realize it. We need to focus on our assumptions in relation to our goals, bringing both to light and considering their potential and their limitations, if we want to improve education and thus society as a whole.