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Beyond the Veil

Kristin Sands, Religion

Students enter Kristin Sands’ “Introduction to Muslim Thought and Culture” with predictable biases. In fact, an important part of her teaching strategy is to immediately expose these preconceptions. “In my first class, I show my students a series of photos, of veiled women, violent men, and crowds of demonstrators. These are the images many of them associate with Muslims.” In a post 9/11 world—in which Islam is a ubiquitous bogeyman—Sands works hard to get her students to realize they are not blank slates when it comes to Islam, even as they confess their own ignorance.

“Every year,” Sands says, “I have to start from scratch again. I ask my students, ‘What do you know about Islam? And how do you know it?’” Her pedagogy requires time and patience, as she seeks to gradually replace the sound bites and stereotypes that come courtesy of the media with a more sophisticated, measured attitude toward Muslim cultures. “What I need to do is to get my students to stop thinking, when they hear that someone is Muslim, that they know what that means.” The simplistic, culturally received view—that people who are more religious are more violent—can’t survive a more contextualized understanding of Islam or the Qur’an.

Sands also tries to get students to understand that most of them are spectators, and that as spectators they are manipulated. As Susan Sontag suggested in On Photography, there is a “predatory nature to images”: They are designed to have a specific effect. Says Sands, “We receive a set of images that does not tell the entire story. If I can teach my students to understand that, and if I can give them the tools to uncover nuance and complexity, they’ll be able to step back from the representation of events and strive to find a deeper truth.”

Kristin Sands

Illustration by Joseph Adolphe

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