Educating against religious bullying

by W.Y. Alice Chan



Montréal is known for being multicultural; however, with respect to religion, individuals who self-identify as Christians compose 74 per cent of the population, followed by 15 per cent who are non-religious, six per cent who are Muslims, and two per cent who are adherents of Judaism (Statistics Canada, 2013).  Although diversity exists, as Christians include those who are Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Orthodox, and other denominations of Christianity, the multi-religious representation in Montréal is quite uneven.  As a minority group, many Muslims in Montréal are experiencing the most hostile climate they have faced since 9/11.

Instances of this tension are easily found.  In 2013, the Premier of Québec proposed a Charter of Values that would prohibit public service staff from wearing religious symbols in public institutions, albeit certain exceptions such as the wearing of a small cross.  While encouraging a common value that reflected feelings of a majority within Québec, it created tension towards minority groups, and was referred to as “bullying” by the English Montréal School Board.  From 2014 to March 2015, a dozen Islamic centres were vandalized.  In October 2015, a veiled pregnant Muslim woman was attacked by teenage boys in Anjou, Québec.  The list goes on.

In hopes of addressing such societal issues, my research aims to better understand the occurrences and nature of religious bullying in public schools, and address religious bullying by exploring the potential link it may have to religious literacy – understood (briefly) as the ability to discern and analyze (non)religious beliefs, diversity, and the role (non)religion plays across time and space historically and today.  If a connection exists, perhaps religious literacy may be one viable way to address religious bullying – an avenue towards religious extremism.

Little research is conducted on religious bullying but 8 to 15 per cent of North American students have experienced it (Craig & Edge, 2012; Harris Interactive, 2005). In the United States specifically, the Sikh Coalition reported that turbaned Sikh children experience bullying at more than double the national rate in 2014. Religious bullying occurs when a religious or non-religious person chooses to intentionally degrade another person emotionally, mentally, or physically based on the bullied individual’s religious or non-religious identity; like other forms of bullying, this can occur through physical, psychological, or verbal means in-person and/or online (Kirman, 2004).  As with other forms of bullying, religious bullying can lead to anxiety, depression, poor academic performance, or suicide. Furthermore, witnesses or victims of religious bullying are often alienated and exposed to injustices, which can lead to mental health, suicide, and religio-political affiliation through religious extremism, thus harming the global society (Keddie, 1998; Moghaddam, 2005).  Many who experience religious bullying also experience the societal factors that push one towards religious extremism.  These include a threat to individual and collective identity, marginalization from mainstream society, revenge and hatred against a group, the need to take a religiously motivated stance, and the experience of systemic inequalities, among others (see Ghosh, Chan, Manuel, & Dilimulati, forthcoming).  As an example, a member of the ‘Toronto 18’ terrorist cell, that plotted to behead Canadian politicians, witnessed Muslim girls having their hijabs pulled off, being physically beaten, bullied and teased as ‘Arabs’, ‘Pakis’, and ‘terrorists’ while he was in high school (Gojer, 2010).  Perhaps witnessing this manifestation of religious bullying fuelled his extremist and terrorist attitudes.

Based on this possible progression from religious bullying to religious extremism, the implications of religious bullying cannot be ignored.  To prevent such occurrences, the Québec Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) religious literacy program appears to be a practical option to consider.

The ERC promotes the “recognition of the other” and the “pursuit of the common good”.  It is a mandatory course for all private and public school students from Elementary Year One to Six and Secondary Year One to Five (the equivalent of Grade One to Grade Eleven), with the exception of Secondary Three (i.e. Grade Nine).  Through the course, students are expected to develop the ability to reflect on ethical questions, and understand the phenomenon of religion.  To understand the phenomenon of religion, religious culture is taught thematically in each cycle (which is a grouping of two or three school grades) where the cultures of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and Native spirituality is to be taught in each school grade.  Other world religions and non-religious worldviews are to be taught at least once every cycle.  With its laudable goals to recognize all individuals and pursue the well-being of all peoples, the program appears to be a precise option in addressing the misrecognition or non-recognition of religious identities when religious bullying occurs.  Thus, it also appears to be a considerable option in countering violent extremism.  Yet, ongoing struggles remain.

If the ERC is an option for countering violent extremism, why do occurrences of religious extremism still occur?  The ERC was established in 2008 across Québec, and admittedly, “growing pains” within the first ten years of a program are natural. But are there underlying issues that hinder it from its success?  Is the curriculum itself of concern?  Currently, the curriculum focuses on four specific religions annually to reflect the cultural heritage of Québec while other religions are included in every cycle.  This does beg the question about how one should monitor if a world religion or non-religious worldview was already taught in a current cycle.  In this regard, does the concern fall on the curriculum or some teachers?  Subsequently, concerning teachers, Boudreau (2011) referred to the religious illiteracy of ERC teachers as the “Achilles heel” of the program.  Is this still valid?  If so, does the onus fall on the teacher or teacher education programs?  Fundamental in this discussion also lies the potential progression of an individual from religious bullying to religious extremism.  However, to further explore this development, the phenomenon of religious bullying needs to be recognized and better understood first.


Ghosh, R., Chan, W.Y.A., Manuel, A, & Dilimulati, M. (forthcoming). Can education counter violent religious extremism? Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

Gojer, J. (2010, September 13). Fahim Ahmad’s psychiatric evaluation. Unpublished clinical evaluation, The Manasa Clinic, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Statistics Canada. (2013). Montréal, CMA, Québec (Code 462) (table). National Household Survey (NHS) Profile. 2011 National Household Survey. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-004-XWE. Ottawa. Released September 11, 2013. Retrieved from (accessed January 24, 2016).

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