Religious education, religious literacy, and Islam as an exceptional religion

In early analyses of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the issue of religious education rose quickly to prominence. Discussions of causation implicated religious schools, in educationally underserved areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, although the 19 men associated with the attack had not attended these institutions. The accusations led to the simple Arabic word madrassa (a school) becoming a negative term.

Religious education courses in Saudi Arabia, and the ministry textbooks used in these courses, came under the microscope for allegedly fostering hatreds that may have motivated the attacks. These ideas circulated widely and caused a ripple effect. Within weeks, Muslim private schools in the United States—of which there are fewer than two hundred, most less than 20 years old—also came under suspicion.

As an educator working in both private and public school settings, I noted journalists’ surprise upon hearing that Muslim schools teach “the 3 R’s” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) alongside religion classes, and that nearly all such schools in the United States actually follow local public school curriculum, though they are not legally required to.  The number of Muslim schools in the United States was overstated in the press, with little attempt among journalists to correct the reports based on empirical studies.

As the tide of Islamophobia in the United States rose in the decade after 9/11, critics of multicultural education latched onto the notion that teaching about Islam in public school textbooks and classrooms might be implicated in the existential national security threat. Initial arguments maintained that coverage of Islam in textbooks—like coverage of all world religions, only recently expanded from briefest mention—was excessively positive.

Subsequent arguments expressed alarm that textbooks excessively covered Islam at the expense of other religions, especially Christianity. Claims were made that the textbooks appear to proselytize Islam while being excessively critical of Christian history. Making these claims required a measure of manipulation of the facts about textbooks, state standards, and curriculum that lent these arguments little credibility. In the absence of solid evidence, supporters of this line of thinking appealed to activists who have been approaching public school boards to put pressure on textbook publishers, teachers, and district administrators. This process is still ongoing in Texas, North Carolina, and Arizona, for example.

In Europe, religious education related to Islam has come under scrutiny for similar reasons, but the emphasis differs with the role played by religious education in various national systems. In the United States, the constitution prohibits publicly funded religious education and permits only the academic study of religions. In contrast, some European countries include normative religious instruction conducted by teachers trained in schools of theology, using a curriculum devised by religious institutions.

These courses have expanded the choices open to pupils who do not belong to national or majority denominations, so that they now include normative instruction on Judaism, Islam, and other faiths. The most interesting of these European developments are efforts by national or provincial governments to shape what is taught about Islam to prevent negative effects of education (intolerance, for example). Other European countries treat religion from a historical and cultural perspective.

Some arguments against religious education single out teaching about Islam, but rarely note that Islam is not taught in isolation within the secular curriculum, or in nations that include religious instruction in schools. Curriculum on world religions reflects a consensus that students living in pluralistic societies in a globalizing world need to be literate about all religious traditions. Critics fail to mention that knowledge of basic beliefs, practices, and history of the Christian tradition should not be taken for granted even for children belonging to majority populations.

Decisions on teaching minority religions should not be confined to Islam. The soundest of the First Amendment guidelines for teaching about religion is the concept of teaching authentically about the basics, but without asserting truth claims or making qualitative comparisons. Authentic teaching about religion requires respect for accuracy and responsibility for balanced coverage of diversity and change over time.

This requires more systematic teacher education than we have today. Constructive efforts in this direction require setting aside notions of competition among religions. Religious education should recognize the existence of common and divergent values and historical processes rather than aiming to create a curio-cabinet of student knowledge about exotic practices and terminology.

A forthcoming paper by Jenny Berglund, “Publicly funded Islamic education in Europe and the United States,” to be launched this Thursday, April 2, lays a factual foundation for rational discussion of these varied and nuanced issues. As Western nations grapple with the role of religion in civic life, they will need to clarify how education on religion relates to the secular nation-state and its objectives while taking into account the needs of citizens to find a basis for living constructively within a common civic space. Religiously literate citizens might be able to find a basis for productive collaboration toward the solution of common problems rather than exacerbating divisions by exclusionary thinking and pressure to abandon their practice of faith as a constructive mode of life.