We Americans need to teach about Islam in our public schools.
This is essential because there exists in our country among all Americans—whether Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, or non-believers—a huge and profound ignorance about Islam.
It is not that stories about Islam are missing from our media; there is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion, and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep Koranic roots. There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole. Thus, it has been far too easy to spread the image of Islam as enemy, as terrorist, as the frightening unknown.
How did this happen?
Part of the reason is the ignorance to which I referred. Part of the reason is the relatively modest number of Muslims in our country, preventing most Americans from forming the kind of friendships with Muslims that foster tolerance and understanding. Part of the reason is the sensationalist nature of our 24-hour news cycle. And part of the reason is the undeniable fact that there exists a radical fringe of Muslim fanatics who kill in the name of God and foment hatred of America and the West, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.
But as the small number of Muslim extremists becomes ever more skilled at commanding attention and manipulating the media for their own purposes, it becomes more important for the rest of us to avoid tarring all Muslims with the brush of fanaticism. This means rejecting the stereotyping of Islam, categorically and unequivocally. This means recognizing that normative Islam, which has a billion adherents, is a religion that promotes kindness and compassion, opposes violence, and promotes a middle way between extremes. This means speaking up when American bigots demonize Muslims and bash Islam. And this means, above all, educating Americans in a serious way about the teachings of Islam.
Teaching about Islam in American schools is permitted by our legal system. Indeed, it is encouraged.
In 1963, in the landmark case Abington v. Schempp, the Supreme Court prohibited school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools, but also allowed—and in fact endorsed—the study of religion in school settings. Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas Clark observed: “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its advancement of civilization.” Several subsequent decisions reiterated the point that schools may not advocate or indoctrinate when it comes to matters of faith, but they have every right to offer academic instruction about religion.
The virtues of teaching about religion to students—particularly older students—are obvious. Religion is so deeply rooted in the human experience that absent a fundamental knowledge of the major religious traditions, a sophisticated understanding of art, history, and politics is simply impossible. And what is true everywhere is especially true in America, where bonds of trust and understanding across religious and ethnic lines is what makes us unique in the world.
It is also obvious, in my view, that while students should ideally study all major religious traditions, Islam should be given special attention at this historical moment. Fanatics who have hijacked Islam were responsible for the horrors of 9/11 and continue to wage a war of terror, indelibly shaping the consciousness of a generation. And American forces have been fighting wars in the Islamic world for more than a decade. These factors make the study of genuine Islam, as practiced by the non-radical masses, all the more essential.
It is true that while the need to teach about Islam may be clear, implementing a program is a far more complicated matter. Even those who agree that teaching about religion in general and Islam in particular is valuable and important are quick to point out the innumerable problems that are sure to arise. (For a thoughtful symposium on the pros and cons of teaching about religion in public schools, see religionandpolitics.org.)
To begin with, Islam is not a centralized tradition. Pluralistic, diverse, and complex, it is not simply summarized, and there is no short list of beliefs and practices that can be easily digested by high school students. Instructing young Americans about Islam will require training the teachers and preparing the curricula that are not now readily available but are required to do the job right. More broadly, religion is a hugely sensitive topic in our country, and every high school principal in America is likely to struggle with how exactly to maintain the distinction between “teaching” and “preaching,” between “non-sectarian” and “sectarian,” and between what is objectively acceptable and what is not.
Nonetheless, as real as these problems are, Justice Clark’s admonition in 1963 is as valid today as it was then. Our children cannot be fully educated human beings if they do not learn about the great religious traditions of our world, and teaching about Islam—the most misunderstood religious system of our time—is a solemn obligation. Here in America, we must not permit ignorance to grow or prejudice to harden. The task is difficult, but let us begin.