To the editor:
A letter from the Nov. 9 edition of The Gazette (“In defense of Dr. Carson’s comments”) provides local teachers with a fine opportunity to help students understand the meaning of the word “stereotype.”
In an effort to vilify Muslims, the letter makes reference to the battles fought off the Barbary Coast in the 19th century to combat pirating and slave trading perpetrated by Ottoman Empire Muslims. The author of the letter claims that the pirates’ criminality was inspired by the words of the Quran. The letter states that the Quran “enslaves women and condemns non-believers to death.” He concludes by connecting the Barbary Coast pirates to Muslims in general, imploring Muslims to turn away from the Quran and toward the Bible.
Suggesting that Barbary Coast pirates are representative of today’s approximately 1.6 billion Muslims is the kind of stereotyping that students need to be able to recognize and connect to other instances in which xenophobic/racist attitudes have allowed nations and individuals to blind themselves to their own actions. The “Great Nations of Europe” were able to justify the mass colonization of Africa by stereotyping the black race; America was able to justify interning over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent by stereotyping that entire group as unworthy of their rights as American citizens because of Japan’s military’s attack on Pearl Harbor; America’s Southern plantation owners distorted the Bible’s words to justify slavery because the owners, in their desire for cheap labor, found it necessary to stereotype the black race as subhuman.
We certainly would not encourage people to turn against modern Europe because of the unspeakable crimes that European countries perpetrated against Africa. We certainly would not encourage people to think of America as intrinsically immoral because of our actions against Japanese-American citizens. We certainly would not want people to believe that Christians are racists because Christian plantation owners (and their governments) instituted slavery. Nor should we believe that 1.6 billion Muslims can be painted with a dangerously broad stroke as a result of ISIS’s horrific criminality.
The display of stereotyping that propels the letter’s vitriol is of real educational value for our students. I genuinely encourage teachers to use the letter as a teaching tool. Political candidates are very much aware of people’s fears and prejudices; in order to advance their political fortunes (both in terms of votes and money), they play on those fears and prejudices. We can be more intelligent voters if we understand that.
So far in this campaign, we have heard Donald Trump demonize Mexicans and have heard Ben Carson dismiss American Muslims as second-class citizens, unfit for public office. By using the letter to the editor to which I refer here, teachers have a great opportunity to show their students how stereotyping works and how corrosive it is.