Revolutionizing Education by Reshaping Narrative

Aziz Abu Sarah will present the Opening Keynote, titled “Revolutionizing Education: Building Peace in a Divided World,” at the TESOL 2016 International Convention & English Language Expo, 5:30 pm, Tuesday, 5 April.  

“The West wants to destroy the Arab and Muslim world,” one of my Syrian friends told me as we were drinking coffee in Amman, Jordan. He is an educated man who works with humanitarian organizations, but I wasn’t surprised by his comment. I grew up exactly like him, believing the world is against us.

This idea of a “clash of civilizations,” or a struggle between “East” and West,” is part of a widespread narrative in the world today. Whether I am speaking to Arab audiences in the Middle East or Western audiences in the United States and Europe, I frequently receive questions about why “they” are against “us.” For instance, after almost every lecture I give in the United States, I am confronted with statements like “They want to destroy our culture” and “They hate us because we believe in democracy and human rights.”

I understand where those fears come from. Often, these fears begin in youth, with exposure to media, comments from adults, and narratives taught in elementary school. For instance, I was taught in school that the Crusades were Christian wars, waged against Islam and Muslims. These kinds of stories— invented narratives that tell us “we have always hated one another”— divide our world.

The problem is these narratives are not true. Both Western and Middle Eastern textbooks tend to teach the Crusades were “Christians vs. Muslims,” but I was astonished to learn that this just isn’t historically accurate. For example, the Fourth Crusade was fought entirely between Christians: during the crusade, the Venetians, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France fought the Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia. The Albigensian Crusade was also fought solely between Christian groups. Other crusades, like the Wendish Crusade and the Livonian Crusade, were wars between Christian and pagan groups. Still more crusades were called against against the Mongols, and one pope even launched a crusade against the Holy Roman Emperor!

It is also a mistake to think Muslims only fought Christians during the Crusades. In fact, Muslims frequently allied with Christian kingdoms. The Danishmends and Nizaris, both Muslim groups, allied with the Crusaders on more than one occasion. One might be even more surprised to learn that Muslims didn’t even think of the Crusaders as one, monolithic “Christian” enemy to fight against! Instead, Muslim chroniclers like Zakariya al Qazwini referred to Crusaders by their place of origin (as Franks, Byzantines, etc.); the term “Crusaders” (al-salibiyyun in Arabic) was only invented in the 19thcentury, when Arab writers angry at Western colonialism and missionary activity began using the term as part of an effort to link medieval wars with French colonialism. Overall, the Crusades as “Christian versus Muslim” is thus entirely a modern invention.

I also often hear Europeans describe the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople as another example of an ongoing “clash of civilizations” between East and West. But like the Crusades, the Ottoman defeat of the Byzantine Empire had little to do with Muslim-Christian relations. It was politics as usual, with cross-alliances of all sorts. Turks and Christians fought on both sides of the battle: the Ottoman sultan had Christian contingents in his army, and the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI was supported by Turkic Muslim units. This complexity is also reflected in the fact that the residents of Constantinople didn’t blame Muslims for the city’s fate. Instead, they believed God was punishing Orthodox leaders for trying to unify with the Catholic Church. As a result, when Constantinople fell, the cry on the street was not “Christianity has fallen to Islam,” but “It is better to see the [Turkic] turban ruling over the city than the Latin [Catholic] hat!”

These historical examples show how easy it is to fall into an “us vs. them” mindset; they also show how education has the power to either foster understanding or fuel conflict. Having grown up in Jerusalem, I know this from personal experience. As a result, much of my work centers on using narrative to break down barriers, promote reconciliation, and foster understanding between cultures.

In this spirit, one project I am involved in works to correct Holocaust denial among Muslims, and fights a misconception among Jews that Muslims generally supported the Nazis during World War II. The project, called “I Am Your Protector,” looks to reshape these narratives by highlighting stories of Muslim-Jewish friendship. For example, the project describes how Muslims in France, Albania, and North Africa saved thousands of their Jewish neighbors from Nazi purges. Abdul Hussein Sardari is one such individual. Sardari served as the head of the Iranian consulate in Paris in 1940s. Without the consent of his superiors, he issued over 2,000 Iranian passports to Jews to save them from the Nazi regime, and made a case to the Nazis that Jews were Aryans, and therefore should not be killed.

As the “I Am Your Protector” campaign has expanded, it has grown to highlight other stories of how people from different faiths and ethnicities have helped one another: stories of Christians and Jews helping Syrian refugees, and stories of Muslims protecting churches in Pakistan, for instance. Learning such stories is vital for changing the atmosphere of hate and fear that so often prevails in public discourse.

Overall, revolutionizing education involves learning to question and critically examine the stories we hear on the news, in books, and in the classroom. No matter our religious or ethnic background, we must struggle to understand the complexity of both historical events and modern issues. The only way to tear down the walls of hate and fear is to learn about other cultures and explore new ideas in education. If we change these popular dividing narratives and learn to humanize “the other,” we will witness the world change in our lifetime.


Aziz Abu Sarah is National Geographic Explorer and Cultural Educator,  and TED Fellow. Previously, he was the executive director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. In 2009, he cofounded MEJDI Tours to use as a bridge between conflict resolution and business. Aziz is a lecturer and has spoken and facilitated meetings for countless international organizations and universities on the subjects of peace, reconciliation, and interfaith dialogue. Aziz is an expert on Middle East politics, and conflict resolution strategies. He has published articles in The New York Times, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Alarabiya, and others, and regularly provides analysis for television news programs such as Al Jazeera, CNN, and Fox. He has been honored to receive numerous awards including the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, the Silver Rose Award, the Eisenhower Medallion, and the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Middle Eastern Journalism. He was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

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