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Editor's Note: Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed, a distinguished professor at American University, first submitted this posting to Public School Insights in March 2008. Ambassador Ahmed's comments on education about Islam are particularly timely during this presidential election, which has stirred ugly anti-Muslim sentiment in some quarters. We're pleased to publish this contribution by a man the BBC described as "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam."
As a Muslim professor teaching on campus, nothing is more important to me than the education of the young generation, who represent the future of this planet. In the United States, the world's only superpower, knowledge of the rest of the world is often startlingly lacking, and misperception, intolerance, and hatred against "others," especially Muslims, are far too common. Popular media conceptions of Muslims as evil or Islam as an inherently violent doctrine are widespread. Prominent media figures and government officials have referred to Muslims as "ragheads" and "satan-worshippers." Muslims have been the target of cross-burnings and widespread intimidation. An atmosphere of fear dominates life in America and rabid Islamophobia runs just below, or indeed often above, the surface. It is in this environment that thousands of young Americans out of high school are sent to places like Iraq to fight wars in cultures they don't understand.
It is imperative that Americans understand the world of Islam, not only because US troops are fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan or because the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Muslim but because of Islam's immense significance on the world stage. Muslims today constitute about 1.4 billion people and can claim to be the majority in 57 states. Besides, some of the key allies in the War on Terror, such as President Musharraf of Pakistan, are Muslim.
The characterizations of an inherently violent Islam are flat-out wrong, and it is here where we see society's lack of education in appalling clarity. Little mention is made in the media-where so many of our perceptions originate- that Muslims each and every day refer to God as "merciful" and "beneficent, that the Quran states "there is no compulsion in religion" and that killing one person, said the Prophet of Islam, was analogous to killing "all of mankind." In absence of education like this, many in the West have come to equate all of Islam with terror and suicide bombings, without ever taking "Islam 101" or attempting to understand the complexities of the Muslim world.
Aware of the enormity of the problem and the need to discover solutions, I embarked on a tour to nine countries in the three major regions of Islam-the Middle East, South Asia, and Far East Asia-speaking with a wide range of people, from President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to students and sheiks, and visiting mosques, madrassahs, campuses, and classrooms. My young American team consisted of two of my honors students. These students paid for the trip themselves and took the term off in order to educate themselves in ways to build bridges between their nation and the Muslim world. For me they had become the "best ambassadors" for the United States.
Through our trip we sought to build bridges change opinions and to better understand Muslim culture-and to show a side of the United States that Muslims rarely see. I realized that the problem was worse than I had originally thought. People were frustrated and confused. They see their societies collapsing amid staggering poverty. They feel persecuted and see the Iraq war as an attempt to destabilize and pull apart the Middle East. They spoke angrily of Muslims imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay and tortured at Abu Ghraib. They resent U.S. support of oppressive governments. They feel overwhelmed by Western culture.
In this environment of hostility and social breakdown, hate and intolerance of the West is rampant. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is at an all time high. Fictitious propaganda like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is widespread. Too many young Muslims, educated in madrassas, are taught hate against other religions and cultures. Muslims often asked us why the West equates Islam with terrorism, yet these same people often equate Americans with warmongers. There is a great need for education and bridge-building on both sides.
Despite strong levels of Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, we found that nearly everyone we met with, even the most conservative Muslims, desired dialogue with the West. They were hospitable and reached out to my American students. They wanted Americans to understand Islam. In questionnaires distributed by our team, a strong majority cited "American misperceptions of Islam" as the number one threat facing the Muslim world, outpacing expected answers like Iraq and Israel.
In this environment, it is imperative that we understand one another, and this can only be done through education. Fortunately American education has the potential to be the best in the world in terms of resources, teachers, and facilities. We therefore need to be aware that our actions at home have consequences. Everything that occurs here is seen worldwide. In an era of globalization America cannot afford to remain isolated and ignorant about the rest of the world.
The reality is that there is little to no education about Islam in the chronically underfunded American public school system. This is due to weakness in the curriculums but also an aversion to teaching religion of any kind in school, which reflects a larger debate in American society. Education in this sphere is imperative, though, if we are to have any hope of understanding each other. If Americans do not learn about Islam and other world faiths they will be unprepared to live in a world where religion is resurgent, not just in the Islamic world, but the whole world.
In the Muslim world, people must return to the cherished Islamic values of compassion, knowledge, and justice, exemplified by the Prophet of Islam who commanded Muslims to go "as far as China" to seek wisdom. The Islamic world, once the world's leader in philosophy, science, and medicine, needs to reacquire the values which made that possible. The United States can do much to help by giving development aid to Muslim countries and helping to reform the madrassas.
Therefore I recommend that in the ideal every educational institution in both the U.S. and the Muslim world hold conferences on intercultural and interreligious understanding. Everyone should be encouraged to visit a house of worship that isn't their own. Finally, books that promote ecumenical understanding in an ever dangerous world, such as Karen Armstrong's Battle for God should be widely available. My own book, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, based on my trip to the Muslim world, allows Muslims to speak for themselves and also includes the perceptions of my young American team, both of which are all too rare.
Editor's Note: The 2007 Learning First Alliance Summit featured an interfaith dialogue between Ambassador Ahmed and Dr. Hillel Levine. The two scholars spoke about the importance of education in fostering dialogue and respect among different faiths and cultures. Dr. Levine is a Boston University professor of sociology and religion, president of the International Institute for Mediation and Historical Conciliation, and an ordained rabbi.
Hear brief highlights from Ambassador Ahmed's comments below [5:20]
Or download the entire dialogue:
Ambassador Ahmed's remarks [11:26]
Dr. Levine's remarks [15:50]
Moderator questions on how best to engage students in dialogue, understanding, and friendship after 9/11 [11:26; unfortunately, this recording cuts off in the middle of discussion]
Audience questions [23:09]
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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