Diversity and Democracy

Educating for Religious Pluralism and Inclusive Citizenship

In One World: Ready or Not, William Greider describes globalization as "a wondrous free-running process that is reordering the world" (1997, 11), resulting in "an economic system of interdependence designed to ignore the prerogatives of nations, even the most powerful ones" (17). Greider argues that such interdependence requires a new global consciousness—one accepting of the idea that "humanity is now a shared enterprise" (468–69). Greider's words suggest a new global humanism in which the dignity of one human being is indivisible from that of any other.

What kind of education do students and society need to advance such global humanism? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes of "an education based on the idea of an inclusive global citizenship and on the possibilities of the compassionate imagination" that "has the potential to transcend divisions created by distance, cultural difference, and mistrust" (2004, 42). Nussbaum suggests three crucial capacities of a responsible, globally minded citizenry in a pluralistic democracy: critical thinking, the ability to bridge and understand different cultures and religions, and the ability to imagine the situations of others and sympathize actively with them (1998).

I believe that the interreligious understanding and engagement of which Nussbaum writes is an important component of teaching students to understand and address the consequences of globalization at home—especially in the United States, arguably the world's most religiously diverse nation (Pluralism Project n.d.). Such understanding is both imperative to America's global competiveness and national security and an effective approach to addressing global interreligious conflict and extremism.

Interreligious Understanding

As the Islamic world undergoes tumultuous reformation, it is critical that Americans of all backgrounds see our interdependence with those in majority-Muslim countries and seek compassionate and energetic engagement across our differences. While Muslims are about 1 percent of the US population (GhaneaBassiri 2010, 2), almost one quarter of the world's people are Muslim (Pew Research Center 2011); and by 2050, the world's Muslim and Christian populations will be equal in size (Pew Research Center 2015). Enormous ethnic, racial, and theological diversity is found within the Muslim population, in the United States and globally. Experts generally agree that jihadism, the violent extremist interpretation of Islam, is followed by, at most, 0.1 percent of Muslims (LaCasse 2015). So how can we engage across our differences to defeat jihadism and avoid destructive calls for a "war on Islam" that come from some quarters?

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University provides an excellent paradigm. Its director, Diana Eck, distinguishes between "diversity" and "pluralism," noting that "mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies." In contrast, "pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another" (Eck 2006). In the face of modern interreligious conflict, this idea of pluralism is more important than ever. As we have sadly witnessed in the allied war against the self-described Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), military power alone cannot eradicate jihadism and end the flow of alienated and disaffected youth to ISIS's ranks. Instead, it is through pluralism and by creating common ground that we can find a lasting solution to violent extremism.

In contrast to European Muslims, American Muslims are relatively well-integrated and prospering, mainly due to a longstanding national framework of religious inclusion (The Economist 2014). Such a framework of inclusive citizenship for Muslims began with Thomas Jefferson, who purchased a copy of the Quran eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence (Spellberg 2013). Denise Spellberg writes that "Jefferson could imagine Muslims as future citizens of his new nation" (3), even though they were then deemed the ultimate outsiders in Western society and not even known to exist in the colonies. Jefferson and a few other exceptional founding fathers created an unprecedented, uniquely American model of religious pluralism and universal citizenship that would encompass not only future Muslims, but also contemporary religious minorities such as Catholics and Jews. The contentious public debate concerning inclusion of Muslims "set the parameters of religious freedom and civic inclusion for all non-Protestants" (271), ultimately leading to the decision not to establish a Protestant nation. Thus Jefferson's founding ideal of inclusive citizenship for Muslims became the essential historical backdrop for today's national framework of integration. Poignantly, Jefferson's Quran was used by the first American Muslim in Congress, Keith Ellison, to take the oath of office in 2006.

But the ideal of inclusive citizenship that existed at our country's creation is not well known, despite its fundamental implications for our future. Nor is the interrelationship between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As scholar Richard Bulliet has written, "The past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries. The same is true of the Islamic world" (2004, 45). Scholars like Bulliet have urged that we not miss the opportunity to focus on common ground for building a common future and lasting peace together.

Implications for Higher Education

With a "diversity explosion" (Frey 2014) coming in the next few decades, our campuses will increasingly resemble miniature global societies with tremendous cultural and religious diversity that we can actively engage to cultivate the capacities for global humanism for which Greider, Nussbaum, and Eck argue. Engaging with globalization at home should not be seen as an "add-on," as educating our students for inclusive global citizenship is essential for their success in the twenty-first century.

Many of our large urban community colleges serve as vital interfaces connecting the local and the global. My own institution, Kingsborough Community College (KCC), is a global village in its own right, with students representing 142 national backgrounds and speaking seventy-three languages. The community beyond our campus in Brooklyn is the second most diverse community in the United States (Davidson 2010). At colleges like Kingsborough, faculty and students can engage with globalization at home by engaging the incredible national, cultural, and religious diversity in our midst.

In addition to sending students to the Salzburg Global Seminar and other study abroad opportunities, Kingsborough's faculty are providing meaningful opportunities for students to learn about and practice inclusive global citizenship at home through programs and activities such as the National Model United Nations, the Student World Assembly, the KCC Common Reading, and the Annual Eco-Festival, as well as grant-funded projects such as Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation and Brooklyn Public Scholars. We are about to establish a vibrant Intercultural Center and Student Union, where our various global, intercultural, curricular, and cocurricular programs and activities can cohere, expand, and find support.

In this time of conflict and opportunity, we must take advantage of our interdependence to advance religious pluralism and inclusive global citizenship. We must leverage the great cultural and religious diversity of the United States and educate our students to become successful twenty-first-century global citizens.

Editor's note: This article originated in an address on "Globalization at Home" presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in January 2015. To download a podcast of the original address, visit http://www.aacu.org/meetings/annualmeeting/am15/podcasts.


Bulliet, Richard. 2004. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press.

Davidson, Justin. 2010. "Reasons to Love New York: 19. Because Brooklyn and Queens Are Competing to Be the Most Diverse Counties in America (and Maybe the World)." New York Magazine, December 12. http://nymag.com/news/articles/reasonstoloveny/2010/70074/.

Eck, Diana. 2006. "What Is Pluralism?" The Pluralism Project at Harvard University. http://www.pluralism.org/pluralism/what_is_pluralism.

The Economist. 2014. "Islamic, Yet Integrated: Why Muslims Fare Better in America than in Europe." 2014. The Economist, September 6. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21615611-why-muslims-fare-better-america-europe-islamic-yet-integrated.

Frey, William H. 2014. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz. 2010. A History of Islam in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Greider, William. 1997. One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster.

LaCasse, Alexander. 2015. "How Many Muslim Extremists Are There? Just the Facts, Please." Christian Science Monitor, January 13. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/terrorism-security/2015/0113/How-many-Muslim-extremists-are-there-Just-the-facts-please.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1998. Cultivating Humanities: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2004. "Liberal Education and Global Community." Liberal Education 90 (1): 42–47.

Pew Research Center. 2011. "The Future of the Global Muslim Population." http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/the-future-of-the-global-muslim-population/.

———. 2015. "The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050." http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.

Pluralism Project at Harvard University. N.d. "On Common Ground." http://www.pluralism.org/ocg/.

Spellberg, Denise. 2013. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders. New York: Knopf.

Reza Fakhari is associate provost for faculty and academic affairs at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and vice chair of Amnesty International USA.

Previous Issues