Diversity and Democracy

Educating Ourselves Into Coexistence

Many years ago, a devout Muslim man who was a friend of mine—an avid reader of Islamic medieval theological texts and a bright scientist completing an engineering doctorate at an American university—discovered a secret about the United States that had eluded him in all the years he had lived in this country. He had always found Americans hospitable, but to him they were still Christian, Jewish, or even worse, atheist, and would do better if they could be guided to Islam, God's final revealed religion. It was a sincerely held belief, felt without malice or condescension. He wanted his hosts—and me, too, because although I was born Muslim, I wasn't as observant as I could have been—to share his joy.

Knowing me to be a student of American literature, he talked about ideas and science in the Koran. Once he froze me on the spot by citing two or three verses that unambiguously showed that time was relative in the eyes of Allah. I had an interest in notions of time (having just read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) and was working my way through the second law of thermodynamics (having just read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). The Koran also described in moving poetic detail the rotation of heavenly bodies; it even suggested that the sun was not stationary but drifting away at a slow pace.

All of that impressed me tremendously. I read the Koran chapter by chapter and took notes. We continued our conversation, now going on to Islamic jurisprudence and poetry. Yet our daily lives could not have been more different. While I went for long periods without thinking about the Koran or my religious beliefs, my pious interlocutor focused on every detail of daily life: He ate only halal food; averted his eyes from women; didn't watch much TV; played soccer with long, baggy pants; and prayed regularly and often.

Then, one day, he announced that the United States was a Muslim country. He had read the Declaration of Independence and was stunned to find that it—as well as the U.S. Constitution—embodied the Islamic tenets that he had spent his life promoting. Resistance to oppression, the ideals of social justice and good government, and the freedom of worship are what many committed Muslims want to see established in their home countries. Much like Jefferson and his revolutionary peers warned against the destructive effects of tyranny, the Koran recounts dozens of tales about rulers and nations who transgressed the limits of divine justice, and the horrible punishments that befell them. Now America’s secular manifestoes appeared imbued with the same divine intent. Why don't more Muslims know about this part of American history and culture?

With the same zeal he had used to try to convert Americans, my friend now started explaining to perplexed fellow Muslim students his new thesis about the U.S. government. What a shame that Muslims, Allah's intended inheritors of such a wise political system, should be deprived of it. That was an old idea I had heard constantly while growing up in Tangier, a liberal city dismissed as hopelessly corrupt by conservative Muslims and Westerners alike. The idea is basic: Europeans and Americans are the true Muslims because they have justice and democracy, whereas Muslims are infidels because their behavior contradicts their proclaimed faith.

I recall the experience of the pious Muslim engineering student at this tragic moment in the world’s history because we are, once again, misdiagnosing underlying causes of conflict and missing new opportunities to bring human cultures closer to one another. For I do consider that Muslim student, who had wanted to guide Americans to the truth, to have been guided by his reading of the founding documents of American democracy. His discovery disabused him of the misperceptions he had accumulated over the years—that nice, unsuspecting Americans (and Westernized Muslims) were a new people in desperate need of some uncorrupted, ancient truth.

Quite often, people like him wonder how such a permissive society could at the same time be a superpower. How could a just God allow infidels to rule the world while faithful Muslims suffered all sorts of indignities? Now he had the answer. The Declaration and the Constitution were the nation’s moral compasses. That’s why God allowed it to prosper, for God does not allow the unjust to flourish. The United States was doing something right.

In my almost 20 years of living here, studying and teaching American literature and culture, I have come to realize that the United States, the groundbreaking social and political experiment of modern history, somehow remains totally unknown to much of the rest of the world. If Muslims were to study the making of the United States, they would quickly realize that the country taken to be superficial and new has a history and culture as rich and tragic as any that they know. If the Muslim engineering student reacted so positively to the Declaration, how would he have reacted had he read Jonathan Edwards and the texts of other early American writers about the varied religious movements in American history, all struggling to establish the ideal society on earth? That classic American struggle, pitting pure faith against worldly success, is something Muslims could learn from, particularly educated youth looking for answers to their own cultural frustrations and identity crises.

In the aftermath of September 11, commentators wrote that the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on capitalism, America’s ultimate expression of freedom. Capitalism is certainly one of the key words that explains much of the present conflict, for consumer cultures invariably frustrate the religious life passionately sought by believers of all faiths. Mundane activities like banking, restaurant dining, reading magazines, watching TV, and traveling become emotionally charged undertakings loaded with meaning, since they all challenge the piety of devout Muslims. And because we live in environments that are always luring us into never-ending cycles of consumerism, the faithful’s anxieties are constantly being renewed, sparking an ever-mutating cycle of tension.

Many Americans, in some ways, share the Muslims’ predicament. Granted, the U.S. Constitution (like Islam) never explicitly separated the unhindered flow of commerce from political freedom, but one still wonders whether Jeffersonian democracy is truly compatible with the dictates of the prevailing economic ethos. Jefferson’s enlightened Republicanism, with its stress on agrarian virtues, is obscured by the glaring lights of corporate logos, the blaring sounds of commercials, and the dizzying proliferation of franchises. Similarly, the Koran encourages trade but contains economic activity within the higher imperative of spiritual and social obligations.

The question then is, how do religious and even truly enlightened secular cultures preserve themselves while they are fully inserted into the machinery of laissez-faire capitalism? Since a bland deculturing process is making all of us unrecognizable to ourselves (both as human beings and as communities), a strong consciousness of the corrosive powers of the reigning global economy is a necessary first step toward a cultural dialogue and a true multicultural human civilization. Education can play a vital role in this process, yet our educational systems, increasingly geared to accommodate the needs of the marketplace, are perpetuating that destructive tendency, not alleviating it. To restore the balance, we must reinvigorate the humanities as the central component of all academic curriculums.

[In the Fall of 2001], Lynne V. Cheney challenged educators to teach more American history and not spend so much time on efforts to devise a dubious multicultural agenda. In many ways, she is right. American students ought to know their history first, just as Muslims ought to know theirs. But what kind of history are students being exposed to?

Critics seem to suggest that multiculturalism weakens the national resolve and produces a breed of weak, uncertain citizens unfit to defend the nation in times of crisis. I’d like to suggest the opposite: that the problem with multiculturalism is that we educators haven’t invested the concept with solid substance, or expanded it broadly enough. A required multicultural education solidly based in the humanities could do more for U.S. national security than all the resources of the military. It would allow students to realize how other nations and cultures are made up of human communities wrestling with familiar issues, how all people are ultimately influenced by local dogmas, and that no one society holds the monopoly on a universal truth. Once we begin to see others not as others but as ourselves, the inclination to inflict injury on them diminishes; to humanize members of different cultures through education is to begin forging ties of sympathy with them.

By virtue of its diverse population representing every part of the globe, the United States has the unique opportunity of incorporating various experiences and points of view into its curriculums. Much of this is already being carried out through the globalizing of Western-civilization courses and the inclusion of indigenous, non-Western, and female perspectives in the literary canon. All it needs now is to strengthen the process by making it more rigorous, and then modeling the idea to Muslims who resist incorporating the study of other cultures and religions into their academic programs. Of course, not all Muslim countries are the same. Some, like Morocco, have fairly advanced bilingual—or even trilingual—curriculums that do a good job preparing students for higher education at home or abroad. For example, I studied Western literature and philosophy, Islamic thought, and the history and economy of the United States and other Western countries in high school.

Other Muslim countries load their curriculums with heavier doses of Islamic studies and neglect the study of other cultural and religious communities. Foreign students also miss out on opportunities to study the histories and cultures of their host countries, which is why many Muslim students in the United States and Europe know so little about Western philosophy and literature. A well-designed multicultural education that puts one’s community in global perspective is good for everyone. Just as American students are encouraged by many educators to question their own cultural assumptions, Muslims would benefit from asking such questions as whether Islam is the “only” true religion, or whether women and members of minority groups enjoy their God-given rights in Islamic states. Muslims who censor such questions to protect their faith are in fact impoverishing their intellectual heritage. Even major prophets, according to the Koran, challenged God to prove his existence.

A multicultural curriculum that showcases the contributions of other cultures is certainly consistent with Islamic teachings. The Koran states that God’s will is to have a world made up of many different nations, and that the challenge for Muslims and others is to know one another and compete in the performance of good deeds. Such an education would allow students to see civilization as a mosaic of traditions ultimately sharing the same cosmic destiny. Even while Muslims and non-Muslims must do their utmost to preserve a world of diversities, we should all remember that our human civilization—as embattled and fragmented as it is—needs to be understood as a common venture. For better or worse, we are one another’s keepers.

A solid education in the humanities is the answer to the post-September 11 world. Such an education would allow us to distinguish the essence of Islamic and U.S. cultural traditions from the proliferating dogmas and rampant commercialism that have come to replace them. A dialogue of cultures begins here. Every other strategy of containment will most likely make things worse.

Editor's note: This article is included by permission of the author and was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 12, 2002, B10. The author retains the copyright to this article.

Anouar Majid is chairman of the English department at the University of New England.

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