Breaking down stereotypes and prejudice is my life’s mission. That’s what I get out of bed for day in, day out. Then something like the recent atrocities in Paris happen, and I can’t help but worry about what effect such an awful attack will have on vulnerable young minds.
Children may hear a few words, see an image or two and begin to develop their own ideas on what has happened. Unfortunately, for many Muslim children this means that their identity is tarnished, as they get a twisted idea of the religion they identify with. Those Muslim children might get the idea that Islam is a religion of violence rather than peace. And even if they have been given enough education at home to realise that these acts are not Islamic, they may still face prejudice that they do not know how to overcome. They could experience taunts at school from children who don’t know any better or they may hear talk of hate crimes against Muslims, as fear propagates quickly on social media.
There is often talk of focusing efforts on disenfranchised youth, which obviously has its place, but I feel that investing equal effort into ensuring children do not learn to feel alienated in the first place is crucial. Children’s books are a vital tool for approaching these topics at school and at home.
We need books that portray the everyday lives of British Muslims as being part of the wider society we live in. Books that will make the reader think, “Hey, I have a lot in common with this Muslim character!” Fun and quirky books that tell a great story and just happen to feature a Muslim protagonist.
It is also important that these books are available everywhere. If a child can only pick up a book that features characters like them in an Islamic bookshop, it feeds an “us and them” mentality. They imagine that they are only understood by their own community. But if a child walks into a major retailer and picks up a book with a character just like them, they immediately feel a sense of belonging. That is a powerful thing.
It sets off a domino effect where the child is more confident in his or her skin, and is able to build stronger relationships with people of other backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, children are more likely to share these books with friends of other faiths (or none) than if they bought them at an Islamic bookshop. Needless to say, sharing opens up dialogue and builds trust.
We can convey the peacefulness of Islam through books which not only act as a mirror for Muslim children - reassuring them that they are understood and their religion is one of love and peace - but also as a window into the lives of peace-loving Muslims, to break down prejudice and teach empathy, respect and understanding.
Zanib Mian is founding director of Sweet Apple Publishers.