July 1, 2012  

How to teach about Islam

Rather than seeking one ‘true’ meaning, explore the views of friends and foes alike

The United States government still has not figured out how to educate its employees about Islam.

In recent years, government training programs on Islam have suffered one embarrassing scandal after another. Law enforcement, intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense have all come under fire for relying on self-appointed “experts” who make sweeping generalizations about Islam and impose rigid “threat doctrine” templates on a faith of more than 1.2 billion people. In the most stunning example, an instructor at the Joint Forces Staff College proposed the use of “Hiroshima” tactics against civilian Muslim populations as part of a “total war” with Islam.

At the same time, some complain that political correctness is stifling legitimate discussion about Islamic doctrine. They argue that this process has accelerated since Islamophobia scandals — and popular complaints — have prompted government leaders to scrutinize course materials. Critics also allege that Islamic organizations with supposed links to the Muslim Brotherhood are being given a voice in the censorship process.

Much of the debate now hinges on which voices educators should trust. The question is no longer “What is Islam?” but “Who should teach about Islam?” Government agencies struggle to answer that question, because they often feel compelled to choose between two camps: those who believe extremism is intrinsic to Islam itself, and those who see no relationship whatsoever between Islamic doctrine and extremism. Although much thoughtful and scholarly discussion of Islam does exist, it is these two camps who now dominate the popular conversation.

Government agencies will never escape their dilemma if they continue searching for an authority who can speak for “true” Islam. Islam is a deeply contested religion, even among Muslims, and the arguments of both extremes are shot through with truth, falsehood, exaggerations, omissions and assumptions. Much of the debate about Islam in the United States is intellectually dishonest. Rival voices are less concerned with sincere discussion than with heavy-handed tactics to dominate the conversation, such as efforts to control government classrooms. The only way out of this dilemma is also the most intellectually honest one: to understand the battle for American perceptions of Islam, to map out the topography of the debate and to teach students to critically evaluate rival arguments.

At the heart of this debate lie fundamental questions about Islamic doctrine and its relationship to extremism. Although U.S. government policy usually differentiates between “moderate” and “extremist” Islam, it has no clear and consistent standard for understanding or explaining the difference. Islam’s critics argue that extremism is deeply embedded within Islam itself; apologists for the religion see no relationship whatsoever.

The controversy arises because primary Islamic sources really do contain prescriptions and rulings that are disturbing to the secular, liberal mind. To begin with, Islam was originally conceived as a comprehensive way of life that included political, economic and legal dimensions in addition to religious ones. Muhammad’s followers expected that Islam would be lived out in a political community, raising concerns today about the rights of religious minorities and the feasibility of the “separation of mosque and state.” Furthermore, the Quran and hadith (sayings of Muhammad) clearly establish prescriptions that are problematic today, such as harsh punishments for theft and adultery (cutting off the hand and stoning, respectively), polygamy (up to four wives for a man if he can treat them fairly), the death penalty for unrepentant apostasy and different rights for men and women. Although these rulings may have been progressive for their time, the West now sees them as retrograde. Early Islamic scholars endorsed these prescriptions and enshrined them in Islamic law. They also gradually developed the concept of “offensive jihad” to expand Islam’s domain by warring against unbelievers, and developed the dhimmi system, under which religious minorities could live in Islamic lands with protected but restricted status in exchange for paying an additional tax.

When critics of Islam draw attention to these concepts, they aren’t lying or plucking verses out of context. Although Sunni Islam does not have a structured clergy like the Roman Catholic Church, the elaborate methodology of Islamic jurisprudence known as usul al-fiqh gradually shaped Islamic orthodoxy. Islam’s most learned and pious thinkers meticulously studied the Quran, hadith and previous rulings to explain how Islam should be interpreted and applied. Because Islamic jurisprudence places such value on consensus, these medieval rulings have survived intact to the present day and are clearly spelled out in orthodox Islamic scholarship. When conservative Muslims call for shariah law, it is this body of scholarship they often have in mind. Reformers who challenge doctrines upheld by traditional jurists are extremely controversial among Muslims.

One does not have to look hard to see the living force of these doctrines. Polls in Muslims countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria show widespread support for harsh Quranic punishments, polygamy, the death penalty for apostasy and Islam-based governance. The rights of religious minorities are notoriously limited in many Muslim-majority countries. One reason these issues keep surfacing in Muslim societies is that a deep undercurrent of traditional doctrine flows in that direction.

Many of Islam’s loudest defenders — who decry hateful Islamophobia — barely engage with these doctrinal issues at all. They treat doctrine almost as irrelevant, on the assumption that all religions are malleable and can be interpreted to mean whatever an individual wants. They compare isolated Quranic verses to similarly violent verses from the Bible, and emphasize the many verses of the Quran that discuss peace and mercy. Although the approach does have some merit, this pick-and-choose mentality downplays how religious doctrine is actually formed. Each religion, Islam included, has established principles for how its scriptures should be interpreted. Islamic jurisprudence has traditionally defined the correct interpretation and application of the Quran and hadith, and these canonized interpretations are often worrisome.

However, Islam’s harshest critics make their own profound errors. They argue that there is only one Islam and one shariah, and that anybody who claims otherwise is either lying or is not a “real” Muslim. These authors miss the great diversity of Muslim thought. They lump all sources of Islamic authority together and ignore the fact that there is disagreement even among traditionalist Muslims about controversial doctrines; they ignore Muslim progressives, modernists and reformers who re-interpret primary Islamic sources for the contemporary world; and they ignore the incredible diversity in Islam as it is actually lived out. They also focus only on the most controversial threads within Islam, ignoring the overall tapestry of Islamic belief. The word shariah literally means something like “the path to water.” For most Muslims, it is concerned primarily with individual piety and building just, moral, harmonious families and communities.

That is why Muslims are shocked when they encounter the presentations of Islam’s fiercest critics: the terrifying, bloodthirsty, and intolerant caricature looks nothing like the Islam they believe and practice.

Progressive Muslims have many approaches for engaging with controversial prescriptions in Islam. Some believe that crucial hadith or events from Muhammad’s life, which seemed to promote intolerance or misogyny or Islamic expansionism, were later forgeries crafted to buttress personal agendas or government policies. These false hadith should be rejected.

Many believe that early Islam was quite progressive and egalitarian for its time, but that subsequent Islamic jurisprudence crystallized within medieval or tribal cultures. The task for Muslims today is to understand the historical context of the Quran and hadith, drill through later accretions and recover the underlying spirit of Islam, which upholds overarching principles like justice and dignity.

Still other Muslims argue that early Islamic jurisprudence was once more diverse than it is today. Political and religious powers suppressed more moderate schools of thought, leaving the field to narrower, less tolerant scholars. These Muslims often blame Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism for stifling true Islam and pouring billions of dollars into promoting its own intolerant brand of the faith. These reformers can be fierce critics of other Muslim leaders and organizations.

Finally, there are plenty of Muslims who do not wade into the deep waters of classical doctrine but who nonetheless embrace progressive views of their faith. For them, ancient doctrines are as far removed from contemporary life as the gruesome battles of Joshua in Canaan. They interpret the Quran and sunnah for themselves, guided by intuition, their life experience and an innate feel for right and wrong. The individual’s right to seek truth through reason has been present in Islam since its inception.

Dishonest Debate

Clearly, there is a rich and complex conversation to be had about Islamic doctrine. Unfortunately, this conversation is often stifled. At one end of the spectrum, many of Islam’s defenders cry “Islamophobia” whenever the slightest concern about Islamic thought is raised. At the other end, anti-Islamic pundits impose a doctrinal straitjacket that most Muslims vehemently reject. Although a rich and thoughtful middle ground does exist, it is these two camps who now dominate the conversation. They do not recognize the other’s right to speak, let alone join in dialogue. Both sides rely on aggressive tactics to silence rivals and shape how Americans view Islam.

One of the strategies both sides use is to gain control of the institutions that help shape American perceptions of Islam, such as schools, universities, chaplaincy programs and government-Muslim partnerships. Government educators need to realize that their classrooms are one more arena where this struggle plays out.

A 2011 Public Research Associates report titled “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace,” for example, called for federal oversight of counterterrorism training programs and enforcement of standards that “prohibit religious discrimination and emphasize respect for civil liberties.” Groups or speakers failing to meet these standards would be banned. The problem is that many people believe all concerns about Islamic doctrines are intrinsically discriminatory.

On the other hand, anti-Islamic groups say Muslim Brotherhood front organizations are influencing the U.S. government to censor Islam training programs, and they want these organizations out. Both sides claim to represent “true” Islam, and both want exclusive rights to students’ minds.

Both sides are also waging a relentless war on each other’s legitimacy. They use a variety of tactics, most of which do not involve engaging with the other’s arguments: They ridicule, dehumanize, question moral character, expose financial and power interests, and evoke historical allusions that resonate powerfully in American minds like Nazism, Communism, McCarthyism, appeasement and the civil rights movement.

A few tactics deserve special mention, because they are so powerful.

Islam’s defenders have forged an extremely lethal weapon in the charge of “Islamophobia.” Most Muslims sincerely believe that Islamophobia is a crisis of epic proportions, and this concern isn’t without basis: Practically every day, Muslims suffer new hate crimes. However, the charge of Islamophobia has become a weapon of first resort. Reports like “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace” and “Fear, Inc.” include savage attacks on hateful “Islamophobes” and “misinformation experts” but contain almost no discussion of their arguments. Islam’s critics claim that their concerns are rational and warranted. Unfortunately, those concerns are taboo, and even serious scholars may fear that discussing them will bring down charges of bigotry. Islamophobia is a real and toxic phenomenon, but the overuse of this weapon stifles rather than promotes conversation.

On the other extreme, anti-Islamic writers have crafted a master narrative about a “stealth jihad” to impose shariah law in America. The basis of this conspiracy narrative is extremely weak; it is comparable to anti-Semitic myths of a Jewish cabal running the world. Viewed through this lens, what would be considered ordinary activism in other contexts becomes a dire threat to American national security. Since jihad can be “stealthy” as well as violent, a lawyer defending a woman’s right to wear hijab at work or a teacher advocating better treatment of Islam in schoolbooks are both part of the same grand enterprise as al-Qaeda. Because of the way terms are defined, it is virtually impossible for a Muslim to prove her innocence.

Islam’s critics lay a similar trap with accusations of taqiyya, which they claim is a doctrine allowing Muslims to lie in the service of Islam. They say that any Muslim who argues Islam is not extremist and is not concerned with global domination is simply lying; he is engaging in taqiyya. If Muslims claim that Islam’s critics are misrepresenting taqiyya, then the critics accuse them of “engaging in taqiyya about taqiyya.” Muslims cannot defend themselves because they cannot prove they are not lying. Anybody who defends Islam is branded either a “useful idiot” or an extremist in disguise.

In fact, anti-Islamic writers grossly misrepresent taqiyya, which is an old Shia doctrine that permitted Shias to conceal their true faith in the face of life-threatening Sunni persecution. The word is virtually absent from the lexicon of modern Muslims, in both English and Arabic, and the overall thrust of Islamic ethics is toward honesty and right living.

All these tactics have one thing in common: They work to dominate the intellectual marketplace. They discourage rather than encourage meaningful discussion. Each side wants to silence rivals, enshrine its perspective in institutions and control how Americans view Islam.

The Honest Way Forward

This is where the debate stands today. Genuine dialogue is rare, and government educators are often caught between extreme anti-Islamic voices and aggressive lobbying by Islamic organizations to silence criticism of Islam.

There is only one way out of this dilemma, and fortunately it is the most intellectually honest one: to understand the battle for American perceptions of Islam, to map out the topography of the debate and to teach students to critically analyze rival arguments. Such a program would teach the basics of Islamic history and sources of doctrine, then explore how they have been interpreted and used by various groups throughout history. Instead of searching out and identifying one “true” meaning, it would explore the manifold meanings suggested by Islam’s friends and foes alike. It would also explore possible reasons why various groups embrace the meanings they do.

Such an approach has numerous advantages.

First, it would give students the clear upfront understanding that there is no easy answer to the question, “What is Islam?” Instead, they would learn to expect complexity. They would confront a range of answers and be comfortable with the fact that most of those answers have some grounding in Islamic history and doctrine. Students would be unsurprised that Robert Spencer’s “The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion” and Tariq Ramadan’s “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad,” two diametrically opposed books, are both based on the same early biography of the prophet’s life. Even better, they would understand why each author argues the way he does. They would emerge with sophisticated views that are nuanced in all the right ways.

Second, students would learn to critically evaluate discourse about Islam. Instead of being taught a series of “facts” representing one authorized viewpoint, they would wrestle with clashing viewpoints. They would learn to recognize what constitutes good reasoning and what does not; which authors and which arguments deserve consideration and which should be tossed out. Students would also gain an appreciation for the power contest underway and would learn to tell the difference between productive argument and discussion-crushing power plays.

Third, this is the only approach big enough to encompass the broad range of viewpoints in the Islam debate and to ensure that potentially valid perspectives are not censored. Virtually any viewpoint would be welcomed, as long as students realize that it will not be wholeheartedly embraced; it will be scrutinized, picked apart, tested, and set against other viewpoints. The political and financial interests behind each voice would be discussed. Biases would be excavated. Arguments would be analyzed. The strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint would become clear during this rigorous examination.

Fourth, this process would help students recognize the tremendous diversity within Muslim thought. This approach would not just pit Islamophobes against Islamic apologists. It would juxtapose Muslim reformers with the traditionalists who consider reform to be heresy; set Muslim feminists against the men who evict them from mosques; consider spokespeople for American Islamic organizations alongside Muslim reformers who consider these organizations dangerous. This approach would ask how an al-Qaeda terrorist, a Sufi mystic and a hip young Muslim lawyer can all make use of the same history and same early doctrine.

This approach would be challenging because it demands so much of educators. Government agencies would need to seek out teachers who have some scholarly background in Islam. They could not merely teach sources that conform to their pre-existing biases; they would need to read widely, deliberately seeking out contradictory viewpoints. These educators would need a good feel for various perspectives within the Islam debate, and would need to know something about the major participants. They would need to be relentless about uncovering biases and assumptions, both in themselves and in their students. They would need courage and fortitude, because every text they use and every speaker they invite would inevitably draw criticism from some quarter or another. They must be tireless champions of academic freedom.

Time is also a challenge. Islam is a vast subject, and within government it is ancillary to most students’ careers and educations. It is one more course or lecture to be crammed into busy counterterrorism, law enforcement, military or public policy programs. Few students will have time to become experts, so the principles in this article must be condensed to fit the specific venue. A one-hour lecture on “The Uses of Islamic History” or “Approaches to Shariah” drawing on the principles outlined here still might be more useful than a one-hour lecture purportedly explaining Islamic belief.

Despite these challenges, such an approach is desperately needed. Discourse about Islam is in an abysmal state today, and educators are suffering for it. The only sure way sure forward — just as it has always been, in any subject — is academic freedom, an honest attempt at objectivity and genuine critical inquiry.