I typed “Islam” into the Google Images search engine. A display of violent images were shown: a cartoon of an assassin holding a knife under the words “stay quiet and you’ll be okay,” Adolf Hitler besides the quotation “I am fighting for the work of Allah,” and a fanatic running through a crowded narrow street burning an American flag.
Such caricatures serve to over-generalize and humiliate the diverse community of Muslims that constitute one quarter of the world’s population.
The current clashes between various religious groups have been brought about by ignorance and misunderstanding and this can prove dangerous in a world so interconnected by trade and globalization. His Highness the Aga Khan, leader of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslim community, calls this a “clash of ignorance” and it is evident, even here in Calgary, that most people are completely unaware or ignorant about Islam and the history of other countries outside of the Western world.
Canadian high school history classes focus primarily on European history. Classes on religion or cultures apart from western society are not often embedded in the curricula. In university, religion is not a required option for many disciplines, and majoring in religious studies is, for me, unappealing — the department of religious studies at the University of Calgary, for example, is underfunded and job prospects are grim.
The U of C’s department of religious studies, like most publicly funded religious studies across the country, faces major cutbacks in the years to come and class sizes are becoming smaller each year.
“We don’t have a specialist person doing research [on Islam] and that is a budgetary issue,” says Eliezer Segal, professor of religious studies at the U of C. Although there are classes on Arabic language and Muslim cultures, these classes are framed under the context of culture rather than religion — the pilot program was only made available this year in response to student complaints and initiative.
Even though Canada is proud to be a multi-cultural and ethnically diverse nation, educational institutions most often represent the view of the majority rather than the minority. Because Canada’s founding fathers were of Christian origin, Christian theology has naturally underlined most frames of Canadian education.
“For the last 300 years, European culture has been functionally Christian and that has turned into an ideology that has permeated a lot of what is thought, particularly in social sciences,” Segal says.
“The way we see the world, the way we’ve been brought up in a Western Christian society is not the only way. There are built-in assumptions and presuppositions that are not universally valid and not necessarily factually valid,” Segal says.
The implications of such a lack of cultural and religious understanding are profound.
“Religion, contrary to what so many people try to tell us, is very important in many people’s lives and unless we understand how it works and what ways it works, we are missing out on something. There are patterns and dynamics we won’t understand properly,” Segal says.
Ali S. Asani, chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department and Director of Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University, believes that such misunderstandings have even greater drawbacks.
“The world is marked with greater misunderstandings and misconceptions resulting in ever-escalating levels of tension between cultures and nations,” Asani writes in his article titled Enhancing Religious Literacy.
Such misunderstanding has led to Islamophobia: prejudice and fear of Islam. Stereotypes of violence and terrorism have led to dehumanization and unnecessary fear of the world’s Muslim population.
The reality of the Muslim community is much more complex and diverse. Islam has been established in Africa, Asia and Europe and among hundreds of different ethnic and linguistic groups. More Muslims live on the Indian subcontinent than the entire Arab world, and Indonesia has the largest Muslim population.
“The political and social contexts in which a Muslim practices his or her faith are just as important or, some would argue, even more important than doctrines and rituals in determining how contemporary Muslims experience and interpret their faith,” writes Asani.
For example, the experience of a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, where strict religious doctrine has been formulated under Wahhabi ideology, is very different from a Muslim practicing Islam in more secular states such as Turkey or Indonesia. The experience of a Muslim living in India is also very unique, where ethnic strife between neighbouring Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs is commonplace. The Muslims in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries lived under extremely stifling conditions under Soviet rule until 1991, often having to practice their religion in secrecy in order to avoid persecution. Muslims in the United States such as Malcolm X have also taken a different understanding of the faith as they have used religion as a subversion tactic against racial institutions.
The practice of Islam extends from Sufism, meaning a mystical view of Islam, such as the whirling dervishes, to the more secular practices of many who follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Such differences are often over looked and over simplified.
Without taking into consideration societal, economical and political circumstances, one can easily assume Islam is directly responsible for all actions of Muslims around the world.
“It also leads to the assumption that everything that happens in a predominantly Muslim country can be attributed to the religion. Thus many people commonly assume that Islam is the principle cause of a variety of ills that plague some Muslim majority countries, such as the lack of democracy, economic underdevelopment, unjust treatment and the marginalization of women,” writes Asani.
As it would be unfair to blame Christianity for the slave trade or persecution of the Jews in the Second World War, it is unfair to blame Islam for all injustices in the 21st century, including the attacks of 9-11 or the London 7-7 bombings. You can not lay blame on a religion for the actions of a few individuals.
In the recent conflict in the Central African Republic between Christians and Muslims, for example, it would be unfair to assume that religion is the reason for such disputes and atrocities, for the cause is often more political, economic and social. The root of such disputes often lies in conditions such as poverty, corruption and lack of education.
Strife between various religious groups is also a recent phenomenon. Islam was not initially thought of as a “religion” as we understand it today. Islam referred to a private act of faith — anyone who submitted to God’s will was considered a “Muslim” by adherents of the faith.
“Since submission to God was a central precept in each prophet’s teaching, a Jew, Christian or a follower of an religion who submits to the one God may be called a Muslim,” writes Asani.
Historically, Muslim societies were peaceful communities. The Arab dynasty in Spain from AD 756 to 1031 is often described as a Golden Age of learning where libraries and colleges were established and literature, poetry and architecture such as the Al-hambra flourished. Many scholars including Asani believe that this was an era of interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
In 1606 the Mughal Emperor Akbar in India, as another example, was well known for promoting religious tolerance and respect for Hindus and Buddhists. Akbar did not force the Hindu population, over whom he ruled, to convert to Islam. Instead he abolished all tax they were forced to pay.
Such intellectual, artistic and culturally advanced pluralistic communities can be found throughout the Islamic world. The Fatimids in North Africa, the Ottomans in present day Turkey and even as far as Samarkand in Uzbekistan under emperor Timur were communities of astounding modernity.
Such views of pluralism today still exist in various Muslim communities, but there are other Muslim communities that hold a very narrow perspective of the faith.
The emergence of distinctive rituals, such as the tenets of Islam: Salat, ritual prayer; Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca; Sawm, fasting and self restraint during Ramadan; and Zakat, giving 2.5 per cent of one’s savings to the poor, came about to distinguish Muslims from Christians and Jews.
“The conception of Islam as an ideal religious system, and later a civilization is the result of Muslims attempting to defend and articulate their faith and their beliefs within European colonial contexts,” writes Asani.
The term “Islam,” initially understood by Europeans, was thought to equal the same as the Christian conception of religion. However, this was not how most Muslims perceived their faith until interacting with European colonizers.
There currently exists two diverging views of Islam. The broader, universal meaning of “Islam” is a pluralist worldview, acknowledging that there are many ways to submit to God, many ways to be “Muslim.”
Such a perspective lent Muslim communities to be tolerant and respectful to different people of all faiths and traditions.
If one views Islam as an ideology, a doctrine of strict laws that serve to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims, this can lead to a sense of exclusivity and superiority. A promise to return to Islamic orthodoxy can help elites control an unstable populace afraid of change in a rapidly globalized world.
“It is this utopist Islam, unpolluted by human context or any foreign influences, which some contemporary Muslim groups, including the so-called fundamentalists, invoke today in their quest to re-create an ideal and imagined golden-age Islamic state as they respond to the failure of economic and political policies in many Muslim nations to deliver social justice,” Asani writes.
Such specific and narrow notions of Islam serve only to foster animosity and misunderstanding.
There is a lack of understanding of the diversity of Islam within the community of Muslims, by fundamentalists, for example, but also in the greater global community. Understanding the origins of faith, apart from social, economic, cultural and even religious understandings, would help to reduce animosity between believers of different faiths.
Salima Versi, a PhD student of religious studies at the University of Alberta believes that a broad-based education is essential to overcome barriers to understanding.
“For me, that includes being educated in religious traditions [from a religious studies perspective, rather than a faith-based one] and broader notions of history that include the history of non-European peoples, including the Middle East, Far East and Africa, for example,” she says.
She believes this is best accomplished through well-rounded curriculum that encourages educators and students to engage with world history rather than just European and North American history.
“The development and implementation of these types of curricula can be encouraged in a number of ways, but in general, what is required is a re-thinking of the basic assumptions behind existing curricula, moving away from a euro-centric position towards a more global one,” Versi says.
This type of work is being undertaken in various communities and institutions with varying degrees of success, from liberal arts based degrees in American universities, to the ethics and religious culture curriculum in Quebec, to some aspects of the International Baccalaureate program. The U of C should seek to learn and emulate successful strategies embarked upon by such institutions. The university should also aim to move towards educating all students with a global history and religious background.
“At the university level, which is my own focus, I feel that all undergraduates should have to take at least one non-European history class, as well as an introduction to religion class, both of which I feel would help to address the current dearth of knowledge on both subjects that appears to be quite common among Canadian university students,” Versi says.
As we progress towards a modern and interdependent global society, education will be key to dampen the effects of a “clash of ignorance.” As pursuers of knowledge, we should responsibly and carefully tread into the future aware and respectful of cultural and religious differences. This will only come through greater understanding. The U of C and other educational institutions around the world have the responsibility to fully educate students about our diverse planet, creating leaders to guide our diverse communities into a more peaceful future.