Confronting Islamophobia | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Uniformed high school students read at their desks.
Lesson

Confronting Islamophobia

Students explore the roots of Islamophobia, reflect on its human cost and its impact on those who experience it, and start thinking about the importance of standing up against Islamophobia.

Published:

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Culture & Identity
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Equity & Inclusion
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Propaganda
  • Racism
  • Resistance

Overview

About This Lesson

This is the first lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with their students about contemporary Islamophobia in a safe, sensitive and constructive way. Use these lessons to help your students reflect on Islamophobia – how it manifests in contemporary society and its impact – and consider what needs to be done to challenge it.

This lesson, which frames the focus of the unit, explores how Islamophobia manifests in the present day, and its impact. The activities help students to understand that Islamophobia is a form of both racism and religious prejudice with deep historical roots; to learn about the history of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment (what we call Islamophobia today); to reflect on the human cost of Islamophobia and how it impacts those who experience it; and to start thinking about the process of standing up against Islamophobia.

It is important to note that Islamophobic ideas and tropes are in wide circulation in society – they are spread on social media, in the mainstream media, and by public figures and politicians. This mainstream acceptance of Islamophobia, and the fact it spans across political and social classes, has led to it being described as a ‘dinner table prejudice’, 1 which highlights how Islamophobic ideas do not face public censure: in essence, they are not controversial to discuss at the dinner table when contentious topics are often avoided.

Given the widespread acceptance and circulation of Islamophobic ideas and views, it is vital that young people learn about this form of prejudice. Educating young people about Islamophobia – its racial and religious elements, its history and how it appears in the present day – can help them better understand how such prejudice manifests and how it can be challenged. 

We recommend that you revisit your classroom contract before teaching this lesson. If you do not have a class contract, you can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

  • What is Islamophobia, and how is it visible in the world today?
  • What is the impact of Islamophobia?
  • Students will be able to define Islamophobia.
  • Students will understand how Islamophobia is a form of both racism and religious prejudice.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes the following student materials:

  • 1 video
  • 1 handout (intermediate and advanced versions)
  • 1 classroom-ready PowerPoint

Islamophobia is a form of religious prejudice and racism that impacts the opportunities and treatment of Muslims living in the UK (and around the world). 

Islamophobia is driven by bigoted attitudes towards Muslims, which in the UK are widespread. In research conducted by the University of Birmingham, 25.9% of Britons surveyed about their attitudes towards ethnic and religious groups harboured negative feelings about Muslims. 1 Stephen H. Jones and Amy Unsworth, the researchers behind the report, state that these attitudes highlight both greater levels of discrimination and ‘less public sanction against openly acknowledging one’s dislike’. 2 These negative feelings can result in acts of violence and discrimination. Muslims are regularly the victims of hate crimes: in 2021–22, 42% of victims of religious hate crimes in England and Wales were Muslim (there was a 22% increase in attacks against Muslims compared with the previous year) 3 , while over 35% of mosques reported experiencing a religiously motivated attack at least once a year. 

Islamophobia, however, does not just manifest in the perspectives and actions of individuals. It is also structural, impacting Muslims’ life opportunities. As highlighted by the Muslim Council of Britain, Muslims ‘face disproportionate [and rising] levels of deprivation’ 4 : despite only making up 6.5% of the UK population, 40% of Muslims live in the country’s most deprived areas. 5 They also face discrimination in the workplace: the Runnymede Trust notes that Muslims have the ‘lowest employment rates and earnings [of] any group in Britain’ 6 , while a 2022 survey found that 69% of Muslims surveyed had experienced Islamophobia at work. 7  

Muslims are also profiled by state institutions and disproportionately targeted by counter-terrorism policies: they are stopped and searched at airports; 8 surveilled in society, 9 including in schools; 10 and, according to the Institute of Race Relations, are at greater risk of having their citizenship removed than other UK citizens. 11 Moreover, the foreign policy of Western governments, notably the UK and the US, has seen Muslim countries invaded, 12 and Muslims illegally detained without reason and without trial due to the ‘War on Terror’. 13

These systemic and governmental forms of Islamophobia highlight how it is a form of racism. 14 It exists structurally, feeding into the way in which institutions are organised, dictating the laws that are created and how they are enforced, and underpinning a social hierarchy that privileges whiteness. This systemic form of racism impacts the opportunities available to Muslims – and all minorities – in the UK, and the way that they are treated, hindering their political advancement, accumulation of wealth and social status. 

Such racism has deep roots and is deeply entwined with the religious prejudice that arose with the emergence of Islam and the Early Muslim Conquests (622–750 CE), which saw military campaigns that spread Islam from Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia to areas of modern-day Spain to the west and India to the east. As Muslim leaders claimed land that was part of the Christian Roman Empire and people converted to Islam, there was a backlash from the Christian Church. That said, it is important to note that, despite this conflict, there is evidence of trade and good relations between Christians and Muslims – in eighth-century England, King Offa minted an Anglo-Saxon coin that was modelled on an dinar coin made by Al-Mansur, the Caliph of Baghdad, 15 while in Spain, the ruling Muslims established working relationships with senior Christian figures. In Spain, the Muslim influence on art, culture and architecture can still be seen today.

The establishment of a Muslim ‘other’ in the minds of Christians can be traced back to the Crusades, when the Catholic Church, led by Pope Urban II, called on Christians to take up arms against Muslims, who he described as ‘pagans’, ‘the enemies of the Lord’ and ‘a despised and base race, which worships demons’. 16 While race did not exist as a concept denoting supposed biological differences, the term possessed meanings related to lineage and kinship, and its use depicted Muslims as a distinct group to Christians.

When the Crusades ended in 1291, Muslims had been established as a spiritual and cultural enemy in the mind of Christian Europe. 

As academic and writer Todd H. Green notes, 

Christians increasingly saw in Islam a formidable threat to Christianity’s claims of superiority and hegemony in Europe and beyond. Faced with the Muslim world’s competing theological claims, impressive military accomplishments, expanding empire, and superior intellectual and scientific advancements, mediaeval Christian authors responded polemically and aggressively. 17

This notion of the Muslim ‘other’ was reinforced throughout the Middle Ages with the advent of colonialism, and as a means of attacking successful, and somewhat threatening, Muslim empires. Dehumanising Muslims and depicting them as inferior thus served both theological and political ends. 

Tropes that emerged in the Middle Ages that portrayed Muslims and Islam as antagonistic to Christianity, as violent and barbaric, as oppressors of women, as monolithic and as a threat to Europe continue to circulate to this day, having been adapted to different socio-historical contexts. These tropes shape how Muslims are treated, both in European countries and elsewhere through the foreign policy of Western/European governments. 

Understanding the historical roots of Islamophobia, how it manifests in the present day and the impact it has on Muslims is vital if it is to be challenged. 

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Given the widespread acceptance of Islamophobia, and its detrimental impact on Muslims, it is vital to educate people about this form of hatred and what can be done to challenge it. An important step in this educational process is outlining exactly what Islamophobia is, which remains a point of contention in some areas. 

Since the term Islamophobia gained prominence at the end of the 1990s, there has been much discussion about its appropriateness for describing the discrimination faced by Muslims (and those perceived as Muslim). Detractors of the term critique it for two reasons. Firstly, they argue that focusing on Islam endangers the right to criticise and question religions, which are systems of belief and thus should be open to critique, particularly in societies that value freedom of speech. Secondly, they assert that the suffix ‘phobia’ with its suggestions of illness and/or fear is confusing to use when describing prejudice (though, in such debates, its deployment to describe other forms of discrimination, such as xenophobia and homophobia, is often ignored). 1

As Shenaz Bunglawala 2 and others 3 highlight, this focus on the appropriateness and semantics of the term can detract from the oppression faced by Muslims, and thus can divert energy away from countering it.

Acknowledging the religious element of the discrimination faced by Muslims is important. One element of Islamophobia is anti-religious prejudice, which is fuelled by bigotry and ignorance, and miseducation concerning the principles of Islam. 4 People’s misconceptions of, and hostility towards, Islam thus impact the treatment of Muslims. 5

The Runnymede Trust’s seminal 1997 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All captures this interplay. Claire Alexander (in Runnymede’s subsequent 2018 report Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All) explains that the original report highlights how ‘antipathy towards Islam as a religious ideology and set of practices, and discrimination against Muslims’ are inseparable: the former leads to the latter. 6

Islamophobia, however, is not just a form of religious hatred; it is also a form of racism. 

In 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims created the following working definition of Islamophobia: 

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. 7

This definition of Islamophobia, however, has been criticised: some detractors state that, given its religious focus, Islamophobia cannot be a form of racism, ignoring that, as Farah Elahi and Omar Khan highlight, ‘justifying discrimination or inequality by referencing the cultural practices of minority groups is a defining characteristic of all forms of prejudice and racism’. 8 All forms of racism have a cultural element 9 and, since Nazism’s support for eugenics resulted in the Holocaust, people have sought to distance themselves from eugenics and the ‘scientific’ racism rooted in ideas of biological difference, focusing instead on cultural differences. 10

Others argue that Muslims do not constitute a race, despite the fact that race is a social construct, used to enforce hierarchies and justify oppression. While systems of racial classification often focus on appearance, thus giving physical differences significance, race is not a biological reality. 11 What Stephen H. Jones and Amy Unsworth call ‘the malleability of race’ is evidence of its invented nature; they explain how ‘[p]ast attempts to racially classify Irish people as “Iberian” act as an instructive reminder of how flexible racial thinking has often been’. 12

Furthermore, they continue, 

Islam has been, and is today, racially coded. In many countries, being Muslim is associated with ethnic group membership and skin colour. In Britain, for example, being Muslim is typically associated with being South Asian or Arab. Imagery denigrating Islam has also often utilised somatic tropes such as the ‘bulbous nose and bushy eyebrows’ familiar from the history of antisemitism in Europe. Islamophobia is a centuries-old prejudice and, as with antisemitism, it prefigured modern racism, with depictions of Muslims (or to use the time-appropriate terms, ‘Moors’, ‘Turks’ or ‘Saracens’) echoing the tropes later used to classify racial groups. … The argument that Islamophobia and racism are separate, then, involves ignorance of Europe’s history as well as its current reality. 13

Muslims were racialised for centuries before race existed as a concept. They have also been at the receiving end of what is today referred to as ‘cultural’ racism, having been attacked for their customs, practices and religion. 

Islamophobia is therefore a form of both anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-Islamic prejudice; it is a hatred borne of the racialisation of Muslims and of religious hostility. Both these forms of Islamophobia, while they may manifest separately, are connected, reinforce each other and impact the quality of life of Muslims – and those perceived as Muslim – all over the world.

Throughout the unit, when referring to the West and Western views, we mean countries that have cultural and ethnic similarities either by geographic origin in western Europe or through settler colonisation by Western Europeans; that share economic, social and political views and interests; and that, due to their colonial histories, have significant economic and political power. This includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, alongside European countries.

While there are many problems with this term, notably its colonial roots and how it places ‘the West’ in contrast to ‘the East’, it does still have widespread traction and use. Moreover, it highlights the shared culture and mindset of countries that cannot be grouped together under a geographical term or location.

As noted above, there are disagreements over the exact definition of Islamophobia. Facing History and Ourselves UK is opting to use the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ working definition of Islamophobia: 

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. 1

This definition has been adopted by some organisations and political parties, but not others. If you would like to share other definitions with your students, you can find some here, and if you would like to discuss the lack of consensus on a definition, you can find information here

  • Islamophobia: a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.
  • The West: Countries that have cultural and ethnic similarities either by geographic origin in western Europe or through settler colonisation by Western Europeans; that share economic, social and political views and interests; and that, due to their colonial histories, have significant economic and political power. This includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, alongside European countries. There are many problems with this term, notably its colonial roots and how it places ‘the West’ in contrast to ‘the East’; however, it remains a quick and clear way to describe the connection between culturally similar, yet geographically separate countries. 
  • Trope: A commonly shared idea, phrase or story.
  • Orientalism: Western ideas about the Middle East and about East and Southeast Asia, especially ideas that are too simple or not accurate about these societies being mysterious, never changing, or not able to develop in a modern way without Western help. 2


Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

While the term Islamophobia is relatively recent, anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice are not a recent phenomenon: they have been circulating since the emergence of Islam and were cemented by the Crusades (1096–1291). These wars and the rhetoric used by the early Christian Church in the lead up to them, painted Muslims as an inferior ‘other’, a notion that was reinforced over the  following centuries and during European colonialism. Understanding this long history is an important step in tackling present-day Islamophobia.

Several Islamophobic tropes have their origins in the discriminatory behaviour of the early Christian Church and its treatment of Muslims. When teaching the reality of this difficult history, it is important students understand that a range of organisations around the world are working on creating interfaith dialogue. In the UK, these organisations include the Christian Muslim Forum, The Inter Faith Network and The Centre for Muslim–Christian Studies.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Lesson Plans

Activities

Before you begin engaging with the content of the lesson, we recommend that you create a classroom contract or revisit a previously created one. You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

Then, explain to students that you will be exploring Islamophobia, and that you will be beginning this exploration with some reflections on how people are judged and/or treated differently on account of their cultural practices. This is because one of the manifestations of Islamophobia in society is when Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) are attacked due to their cultural practices.

Ask students to record their reflections on how cultural practices can impact perception and treatment from their own experiences by responding to some or all of the following questions in their journals:

  1. Have you ever been judged and/or treated differently on account of your cultural practices (these could be linked to clothes, food, traditions and/or beliefs)? 
    • What happened?
    • How did the situation make you feel?
    • What, if anything, were the consequences of this judgement and/or treatment? 
  2. Have you ever judged someone and/or treated them differently on account of their cultural practices? 
    • What happened?
    • What, if anything, were the consequences of your judgement and/or actions? 

Given the personal nature of these reflections, students should be allowed to keep their responses private. However, you can ask for volunteers to share their more general observations on how people respond to the cultural practices of others, sometimes judging them and treating them differently; they can share these thoughts without having to share details of the particular incidents they recorded.

Next, inform students that they will be reflecting on what Islamophobia is and how it manifests in society. Explain that Islamophobia is a form of racial and religious prejudice and share the working definition of Islamophobia from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims with them: 

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

You might wish to explain that expressions of Muslimness can be related to appearance, and to religious and cultural practices, including the choice of names. The APPG also included the phrase ‘perceived Muslimness’ to highlight how other ethnic and religious communities are also targeted when they are perceived to be of Islamic faith – Sikhs, for example, have been attacked with Islamophobic slurs. 1  

You may also wish to explain that some people argue that Islamophobia cannot be called a type of racism because Muslims are not a race. Race, however, is a social construct that has been used to justify hierarchies and inequalities; Muslims have been racialised throughout history; and in the present day, cultural racism, in which people are discriminated against for their customs and beliefs, is a common manifestation of racism. Moreover, the term racism highlights the structural inequalities that Muslims face. This contention over the definition of Islamophobia means that it has not been accepted as a type of racism by official institutions, such as the police, which impacts people’s ability to report and fight against discrimination.

Play students the video Islamophobia: A Structural Racism in which writer, poet and educator Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan explains why Islamophobia is a form of racism. 

  1. What did you find surprising and/or troubling about what was covered in Manzoor-Khan’s poem? 
  2. Why, as Manzoor-Khan highlights, is it important to understand Islamophobia as a type of racism?
  3. What impact does the racialisation of Muslims have on how they are treated? 
  4. Manzoor-Khan alludes to one of the criticisms some people have about calling Islamophobia a form of racism: it can prevent religious debate. What do you think about these criticisms?

Next, distribute the appropriate version of the handout Islamophobia, its Past and its Present (Intermediate / Advanced) and share the following definitions with students:

  • The West: Countries that have cultural and ethnic similarities either by geographic origin in western Europe or through colonisation by Western Europeans; that share economic, social and political views and interests; and that, due to their colonial histories, have significant economic and political power. This includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, alongside European countries.
  • Trope: A commonly shared idea, phrase or story.
  • Orientalism: Western ideas about the Middle East and about East and Southeast Asia, especially ideas that are too simple or not accurate about these societies being mysterious, never changing, or not able to develop in a modern way without Western help. 1

Either read the text to the class, asking students to follow it, or invite students to read using one of the Read Aloud strategies. 

Next, invite them to respond to the following questions, before discussing them in pairs and then as a class.

  1. Is there anything you found surprising, interesting and/or troubling in the text?
  2. The term Islamophobia only gained widespread use at the end of the 1990s. Note down three ways that anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment has manifested throughout history? 
  3. What are the consequences of Islamophobia for Muslims in the present day?
  • 1Definition of orientalism from The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus.

Next, inform students that they will be thinking about the impact that Islamophobia has on those who experience it. 

Inform students that Islamophobia is connected to individual acts of hate and is structural. Muslims are regularly the victims of hate crimes: in 2021–22, 42% of victims of religious hate crimes in England and Wales were Muslim (there was a 22% increase in attacks against Muslims compared with the previous year); 1 Muslims ‘face disproportionate [and rising] levels of deprivation’: 2 despite only making up 6.5% of the UK population, 40% of Muslims live in the country’s most deprived areas; 3 and that Muslims are disproportionately targeted by counter-terrorism policies, which is evident in how frequently they are stopped and searched in airports. 4

Then, share some or all of the following experiences of Islamophobia from research conducted by the APPG on British Muslims:

  • ‘I was stopped at Heathrow airport. The policeman said that they targeted me because of my attire. This has happened to me so many times. I cannot report it because the police do not see this as Islamophobic behaviour.’ 5

–(Muslim male, London)

  • ‘On different occasions, I have been spat on, verbally abused, have had eggs thrown at me, physically attacked, and on one occasion someone tried urinating on my residence. I reported it to the police for the first few times, but no action was taken so after that I stopped reporting it to the police.’ 6

–(Muslim male, UK)

  • ‘Whilst using public transport, I was receiving verbal abuse, about my appearance and dress code. As I turned I was then provoked with pieces of paper being thrown towards me, the transport was in fact surrounded with members of the public of many races yet nobody thought to end the abuse. It then came to a point where I was made to exit a couple of stops early for both mine and others’ safety.’ 7

–(Muslim student, Sheffield)

  • ‘My daughter was attacked on the bus for wearing a headscarf. She ran off the bus and was followed and beaten up outside of my home. They were her friends but couldn’t understand why she started wearing it. I reported it to the school and only one of the pupils involved was excluded. My daughter was depressed, she feared school and never returned … the school should have supported my daughter not left her feeling isolated. I felt frustrated … children need to be educated at school to not bully and respect diversity.’ 8

–(Muslim female, Sheffield)

Next, share the following questions for students to respond to in their journals before leading a short class discussion. 

  1. What impact does Islamophobia have on the Muslims featured here? Consider how it impacts their feelings, behaviour, experiences, etc.
  2. How do you think it makes people feel if they are targeted or treated differently on account of one aspect of their identity? Explain your answer.
  3. How do you think acts of hate, such as targeted verbal abuse, graffiti or trolling, impact communities? 
    • How could they make it more likely that people will commit violent acts?
  4. What factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hateful acts feel emboldened?

Finally, invite students to reflect on the following prompts in a Think, Pair, Share:

  • The Holocaust survivor Marian Turski gave a speech at a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz concentration camp in January 2020, in which he stated that ‘democracy hinges on the rights of minorities being protected’. 1
    • Why might the rights of minorities need to be protected for something to be a democracy? 
    • If some people’s rights are taken away, what can this mean for the future of the rights of others?
    • What does his statement suggest about the importance of standing up against discrimination?
    • How is it relevant to the study of Islamophobia? 

Extension Activities

Ignorance and miseducation about Islam drives bigotry and discrimination. It is, therefore, important that students learn about the beliefs and customs of Islam, so that they can challenge ignorance and they do not themselves believe falsehoods spread about Islam and Muslims. Share information from one or more of the following sources with your students: Key facts about Islam: KS3 (BBC Bitesize), GCSE Religious Studies (BBC Bitesize), and/or Beliefs and Daily Lives of Muslims (PBS). You might also choose to share this video about the founding of Islam: How Islam Began – In Ten Minutes (True Tube).

To teach your students more about the Crusades, you might choose to share the Khan Academy’s lessons, which include videos on the Crusades: Introduction to the Crusades (7:24) . To teach your students about the Spanish Inquisition, consider sharing the video Ugly History: The Spanish Inquisition (5:41) by Kayla Wolf (TED-Ed).

There are several Islamophobic tropes in circulation, some of which students will learn about in Lesson 2: Exploring Islamophobic Tropes. The trope depicting Muslims as monolithic fuels much Western Islamophobia. Viewing Muslims as the same, and as holding the same views and ideologies makes it easy to collate the actions/experiences of one Muslim as representative of all Muslims as a whole: one person’s act of violence or oppression, for example, marks everyone. To introduce students to this trope, you might wish to share the Get the Trolls Out! video Islamophobic Narratives: Monolithic (4:02).

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organisations

These are the resources from external sources used in this lesson’s activities. 
Islamophobia: A Structural Racism
Muslim Council of Britain

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif