Mandatory Learning of Islam in Educational Institutions

Position Paper on Education about Islam
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Prepared by:
Judith Jacobson, Dr.P.H.ColumbiaUniversity
and Charles Isbell, Ph.D., LouisianaStateUniversity.
Approved by Scholars for Peace in the Middle EastBoard

January 2003

On the morning of September 11, 2001, terrorists in the United States, acting in the name of Islam, murdered more than 3000 individuals, representing more than 80 nationalities. At that point, many educators realized that the existing educational system was not teaching students what they needed to know about Islam, or about the one billion Muslims who live in our world and the many thousands who live and work in the United States.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) applauds and supports the decision made in numerous educational institutions to teach students about Islam. However, SPME believes that establishing courses or other curricular experiences focusing on Islam is not a simple task. Staffing hastily formed courses with inexperienced instructors or with instructors who lack professional training and experience in the broad field of religious studies is a disservice to students.

In particular, SPME believes that education about Islam in public and secular (non-Muslim) institutions should:

1. Draw, at least at the introductory level, on a comparative methodology in which several religious traditions are studied objectively together.

2. Avoid what is known among professional instructors of religion as the “confessional” approach, in which instructors offer and encourage students to offer a personal validation of the religion under discussion.

3. Carefully distinguish between the political ideologies of individuals or groups who happen to be Muslims and the faith of Islam as a religious system.

4. Not be made mandatory.

These guidelines are critically important given the Constitutional requirement of church-state separation. They are also necessary given recent developments in education about Islam. Across America, colleges and universities have for many years offered courses on religion as part of a well-rounded curriculum in liberal arts. Virtually all teachers of these courses hold terminal degrees in their fields and routinely affiliate themselves with one or more professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Religion in the USA, or its sister organizations in other countries. These organizations are guilds of scholars and teachers that set standards, publish textbooks and other educational materials, and sponsor forums of debate and post-educational learning for their members. The professional guilds also play a role in the training and advising of teachers of religion at the high school and grade school levels. They can provide teacher training for courses at lower levels, within a framework of professional excellence and objectivity.

At every level of instruction, SPME strongly urges that those who teach about Islam display the same academic and intellectual rigor required for the teaching of all religious history, theology, sacred texts, theological tenets, and praxis, and convey the breadth and diversity of Islamic history and observance.

Wherever the concerns expressed above are addressed appropriately, SPME offers its support for the training of qualified instructors for courses about Islam, for the inclusion of Islam as part of a broader religion curriculum, and, in this context, for teaching about Islam in educational institutions.

SPME also supports the development of courses and curricular units that focus on Muslim civilization and culture and on the history, geography, and politics of predominantly Muslim countries. These parts of the world have been insufficiently studied until now. It is clear that we ignore them at our peril.

For Further information, contact Dr. Edward S. Beck, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, 717.545.5500Ext 0.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East is a not-for-profit, educational, grassroots and advocacy group of over 350 scholars and academics on over 150 campuses world-wide. SPME is committed to educating and advocating for Israel‘s right to exist within safe and secure borders at peace with her neighbors and address the increasing number of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents on college and university campuses.

–Judith S. Jacobson, Dr.P.H.
Department of Epidemiology
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University
600 West 168th Street, PH18-105
New York, NY 10032
(212) 305-2502(voice)
(212) 305-9413(fax)

Mandatory Learning of Islam in Educational Institutions

Position Paper on Education about Islam
  • 0

Judith S. Jacobson

Universities have never been perfect, but they were not always the way they have become in the past decade or so. I graduated from Brown in 1964. In my day, old-fashioned anti-Semitism was not quite dead. After World War II, Brown and other ivies had increased their admissions of Jewish students. There was still some discrimination about financial aid, which Jews were thought not to need, but in the classroom, we had a kind of freedom and openness that is rare now. And for a while, things got better.In the 1960s because of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, faculty and students brought advocacy into the classroom. We believed that professors should express their opinions instead of hiding behind a façade of objectivity. We believed, and I still believe, that honest and open exchange facilitates the pursuit of truth. Students as well as professors had freedom of speech, and all ideas were up for grabs. It seemed like a good thing. But it was hijacked by people with a different agenda.My friends and I were civil rights activists, and then anti-Vietnam war activists. We thought every leftward leaning person wore a halo. Some of us still think that. But in early June 1967, my friends and I were all worried about Israel; a bunch of young men I knew were ready to head over to Israel to help, and then, before they could get on a flight, the Six-day War was over.Wonderful, I thought. Now I can relax, right? Wrong. Within days, it seemed, the left had turned against Israel. The Israelis were doing terrible things in Ramallah, my friends told me.I concentrated on the Vietnam War until my buddies on the left started supporting North Vietnam. Wanting the United States to get out of Vietnam seemed to me very different from encouraging people to kill American soldiers.So then I concentrated on the Women’s Movement, but luckily, before that got too weird I got married and started having babies. And then the babies grew, and I went to graduate school in public health at Columbia. In 1996, a few weeks before my younger son graduated from college I got my doctorate and joined the Columbia faculty in the Mailman School of Public Health.But in the 1970s, before I was on the faculty and while I wasn’t paying attention, the brilliant and charismatic Edward Said came to Columbia. His special mission was to use the tools of liberal education to undermine western civilization. From his base in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, he dispensed what is now called postcolonialism to a generation of academics and students in the humanities and social sciences. He was full of charisma and Euro-Palestinian radical chic, and he argued that being an American of European descent makes one incapable of understanding the terrible suffering and oppression experienced by the Third World, especially Palestinians. He also said, famously, “Facts don’t count; only emotions count.”Thereafter, postcolonialism and the demonization of Israel and the United States spread through university departments of literature, history, anthropology, and the social sciences, with disastrous consequences for the pursuit of truth.Those of us who love Israel tend to take its bashing personally. We either fall into soul searching, asking ourselves if we really did those bad things in a fit of absent-mindedness, or we start sputtering defensive denials - no, we are not an apartheid state, no, we don’t do genocide. Neither response does any good or addresses the real problem.Israel, however much we love or hate her, is one small country. The time that professors spend on Israel-bashing is time not spent on the actual politics, cultures, economics, geography of the vast and complex Middle East. It is time not spent on honor killings or slavery; on the differences between Iran and Iraq, or the cultures of the Kurds, the Copts, and the Assyrians. It is also time not spent on Dante or the deforestation of the Amazon or the role of the geisha in Japanese business. However, postcolonialism and Israel-bashing have had relatively little impact on the medical schools, the public health schools, most of the other professional schools, and the hard sciences.So in the spring of 2002, I was studying the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients when a friend who had college-age children asked me to join an on-line listserv called Professors for Peace. When I asked why, he replied, So you can respond to the lies about Israel. Within minutes of subscribing, I was being deluged by poisonous anti-Israel nonsense emailed by my fellow academics.Over the next few weeks, a few of the lies were so preposterous that I lost control and let out a little squeak of outrage on the internet. For example, someone quoted a Columbia professor, Gayatri Spivak, about the beauty of suicide bombing. I could not help responding that that was not my idea of beauty. But I kept wondering, Where are all the other Columbia professors who know the truth about Israel? Why aren’t they on the job here?After a month or so, someone named Ed Beck from Harrisburg PA emailed me off the listserv and suggested that we start our own listserv. I asked, Wouldn’t we be preaching to the choir? He said, If we are going to have no impact, preaching to the choir will be more fun than being preached to by the devil. That was the beginning of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.Since then, SPME has grown from an email list of some 300 academics to a global organization reaching more than 30,000. Our growth has made it possible to respond to some of the lies disseminated by Israel’s enemies. We have worked both behind the scenes and in public to preserve the integrity of academic institutions.We have been misrepresented as an organization of knee-jerk right-wing Palestinian-oppressing Zionists who seek to suppress the free speech of anyone who implies that Israel is not perfect. We concede that Israel is imperfect, but we do not believe it is so much less perfect than, say, India or Italy that it does not have a right to exist. No serious efforts are being made to promote boycotts of or divestment from other countries, however much they violate human rights.It is important to remember that although much of the Middle East is undeveloped, it is not poor. Even the Palestinians, or at least their leaders, are not poor. If you are not really trying to provide services for your population, and you are getting handouts from the European governments, you can put together enough cash even after your suicide bomber expenses to fund several professorial chairs, as well as to send to American universities a number of students whom you have trained in the fine art of propaganda.The sources of funding for the Edward Said chair at Columbia, now occupied by Rashid Khalidi, include, in addition to the United Arab Emirates, a number of sources close to the Palestinian Authority. Khalidi’s Middle East Institute has also received funding from the Saudis. (Of course, as Martin Kramer points out, people without a specific interest are unlikely to fund Middle East studies.)The source of the problem on campus is:1. A systematic and well-financed effort to use educational institutions to undermine public support for Israel and, to the extent possible, the United States2. A widespread bias among academics in the humanities and social sciences against anything the US government or Israel is associated with; all such causes are termed right-wing and are therefore anathema3. Even among academics and students who support Israel and are aware of the problem of anti-Semitism on the campuses, a kind of cognitive dissonance, a refusal to see that the left does not have a halo (neither does the right, but it is not useful in this context to classify things as left or right), and a tendency to deny or minimize the problem.However, little by little, we have helped to make faculty aware that the enemies of Israel are also the enemies of academic freedom. With support from those faculty, we hope to preserve the integrity of our academic institutions. That is our mission.

Read all stories by Judith S. Jacobson

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