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As Tensions With Iran Escalate, It Is Time to Challenge Empire in the Classroom

Schools must not continue spreading the ahistorical narratives of empire that promote endless wars.

Families of children from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other parts of the region want U.S. schools to support their children by refusing narratives that normalize empire, dehumanize whole populations and pave the way for endless wars.

For educators, war is one of the most difficult topics to discuss within our classrooms. And yet, with the recent U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iraqi senior military leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other Iraqis, the threat of imminent war is now forcefully part of the everyday thoughts of many students.

For families from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other parts of the region, the weight of these anxieties has been carried for decades.

As Iranian educators and scholars who attended U.S. public schools, and as parents of young Iranian-American children, we see an urgent need to support our young people, and to refuse narratives that normalize empire, dehumanize whole populations and thus pave the way for endless wars.

Students Carry a Heavy Burden

It is crucial for educators to acknowledge the emotional and psychological burden that Iranian, Iraqi and other Middle Eastern students are carrying, and to stand in solidarity with them. This means recognizing that when classrooms operate according to business as usual while families brace themselves for impending war, the asymmetrical violence of imperialism is normalized in the eyes of children. It means anticipating and actively working to address anti-Muslim racism and bullying — not only through supporting students targeted by such violence, but also crucially through explicit anti-racist work with those who perpetrate harm, including, at times, our fellow teachers. Every single student in our K-12 classrooms has grown up in a post-9/11 context, in which the demonization of Arab, Muslim, Iranian and South Asian communities has been taken for granted. This demonization is fueled by longstanding representations of the Middle East as inherently threatening, and of the U.S. as perpetually innocent.

Solidarity with young people also means openly discussing world events, premised on an understanding of children and youth as thinkers with agency who are actively making sense of the world. Young children in our communities are feeling the weight of stress on their parents, and learning to make sense of what these events mean for their identities and families. Our communities are also feeling enormous grief and anger in response to the tragically lethal strike by Iran of a civilian airliner carrying many Iranian students and families traveling with young children. Many students are navigating deeply complicated and emotionally laden political debates and legacies of historical trauma within their own families and communities. Educators, particularly those without roots in the region, must remember to listen and eschew simple assumptions about what “those people” think or feel about any singular political event.

Normalizing Empire

Empire” is not part of our everyday lexicon as educators. For some, the term is at odds with the dominant image of the U.S. as a global force for good. Yet, one cannot understand the political and economic might of the U.S. without contextualizing it as a settler-colonial state, with more than 800 military bases around the world, and with a history of intervention in Latin America, Africa and Asia. To define the U.S. outside of this history is also to discount and erase the perspectives of the vast majority of the world’s population who contend with the reverberations of American power every day.

Recent Iranian history provides a case in point. In 1953, the CIA worked with British intelligence to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Nationalization upended half a century of the British taking $0.84 of every petrodollar from the sale of Iranian oil. The overthrow of Mossadegh also resulted in the U.S. reinstating Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose rule was characterized by mass political repression, extensive corruption and widening social inequalities, culminating in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The revolution brought about significant political changes and a break with monarchy, while enacting its own forms of social inequality and repression. For many Iranians, the U.S. support for Iraq during the subsequent Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), its longstanding sanctions regime against Iran and recent “maximum pressure” policies constitute an enduring imperial legacy. The crisis spurred by recent U.S. assassinations also directly undermines democratic uprisings in Iran and Iraq.

For educators committed to justice, we know that our teaching cannot be ahistorical and apolitical, nor can we be silent in the face of popular struggles and vast inequities of power. Why then, do empire and militarism so often fall by the wayside in our teaching?

A formidable challenge is the myth of the U.S. as a country uniquely rooted in ideals of freedom whose military power is inherently justified. Building pedagogical space to critically engage with militarism, nationalism and empire therefore first necessitates acknowledging how deeply saturated schools are with assumptions of American goodness. We can then work with students to examine how those narratives confer or dissolve ethical obligation and humanity on different bodies.

Media representations also contribute to these challenges. On January 7, news outlets tweeted that, “Iranian missile attacks only resulted in Iraqi casualties.” Whole civics lessons and units can be constructed around the word “only.” Such hierarchies of human value are crucial teaching moments that can support students to trace the operation of white supremacy across time and place. Jim Crow laws codified a system that benefitted “only” whites, and the 1875 Page Act was “only” enforced against Chinese immigrants. Anti-immigrant narratives justify family separation at the border by arguing that they “only” affect undocumented immigrants. Analyzing such statements is a powerful way for students to understand the dehumanization words like “only” perform, and to develop a critical eye toward the workings of language.

The rise of the ethnic studies movement, as well as the development of “histories from below” offer important counternarratives to American exceptionalism by highlighting community knowledge and struggles for justice. Curricular resources can support students and teachers to critically interrogate Eurocentric understandings and essentializing representations of the Middle East and North Africa. Critical approaches to science and technology, similarly, can foreground indigenous and non-Western knowledge, and desettle hegemonic and racist representations of the world’s diverse intellectual and scientific traditions. A critical STEM education also makes visible linkages between militarism and the development of scientific and technical knowledge, including histories of resistance to the exploitation of science for war. Rather than consigning these perspectives to a standalone civics education, they ought to infuse the curriculum as a critical and ethical stance of inquiry. Indeed, the political, economic and ecological challenges of our time demand that we contend with the deeper purposes of knowledge and learning.

There is no consensus on how to teach these issues, and the tenor of these conversations will certainly vary across settings. Some of us teach in communities where there may be vocal opposition to such approaches, and have family members or colleagues in the armed forces. Still, we must not be dissuaded from working with our students and colleagues to query their assumptions and beliefs. We may find that no one has asked them these questions before, let alone given them the space and tools to explore them. What might happen, for instance, when we contrast “MAGA” talk with the realities that the U.S. military is heavily dependent on the recruitment of low-income youth of color, and that there is a diversity of political thought among veterans? How might it impact our students to explore the lengthy history of pacifism in the United States? Muhammad Ali taught us that an anti-imperial and antiwar stance does not demonize our community members, but rather, invites the possibility of solidarities across struggles for justice.

Political Memory and Dignity

For us — the coauthors of this article — and for many children coming of age in this historical moment, the political is deeply personal.

In 1991, when the first Gulf War happened, a white male teacher pulled Roozbeh (then 13 years old) aside to ask him how he was doing. The teacher told him that if anyone said anything, to let him know, because he wanted to ensure that Roozbeh was OK. That 30-second interaction before lunch has stayed with him to this day.

At the outset of the same war, Shirin’s father took her (then 11) to an antiwar march in Seattle, where protesters of different backgrounds shouted to passersby in a nearby mall, “The bombs are dropping while you’re shopping!” The current conflict may be many students’ first memory of war. Our responses shape the ethical stances they develop toward militarism, and toward the lives of those consistently treated as expendable.

During the 2003 war on Iraq, Sepehr was an undergraduate student studying engineering at UCLA. Despite the prominent presence of numerous defense companies as funders of the engineering school, their role in the profoundly immoral and deadly Iraq War was seldom mentioned. The link between scientific and technical knowledge production on the one hand, and war and militarism on other, was thus effectively obfuscated.

These memories evoke the legacies of learning environments that affirmed or diminished our personhoods, that normalized or questioned demands for war. Despite accountability pressures that increasingly narrow the profession, we understand teaching — widely defined — as a vital site of social and political possibility. Enlivening these possibilities matters most when our young people’s belonging, rights and dignity are under question, and when our politics are being reduced to binaries. Crucial to this work is a need to develop critical understandings of empire, and the ethical vision to dream beyond it.

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