Educating Ourselves Into Coexistence
By Anouar Majid, chairman of the English department
at the University of New England
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
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.
College of the Holy Cross
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
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
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.