Religious ignorance

It's the time of year when columnists sharpen their pencils and launch the annual bashing of public schools and other governmental institutions for taking Christ out of Christmas.

Mostly, the uproar involves the fear that we're losing our national soul by excising the religious--i.e., Christian--heart from our culture. "In a society already known for its selfishness and consumerism," writes John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, "it seems that a religious holiday would be an opportunity to celebrate something more essential...something that would remind us of our nation's history--one that is dominated by a spiritual and religious heritage."

The tragedy, however, is not that we're taking religion out of schools. Instead, it's that five years post-9/11 we still confuse teaching religion with teaching about religion. Failure to do the latter deprives our children of a deeper understanding of Western culture. That's the rallying cry of the Bible Literacy Project, which is working to improve K-12 students' understanding of the Bible's place in Western literature, language, and philosophy.

Even more sorely needed, however, is a "Muslim Literacy Project." Our K-12 schools rarely teach Islam well--if at all. And we are harvesting the bitter fruits of that legacy today.

According to a recent article in Congressional Quarterly, just a half-dozen folks out of a thousand employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad--BAGHDAD!--are fluent in Arabic. Perhaps more people would have been moved to study Arabic, one of the world's great languages, had they as students had their imaginations fired by the richness of the Muslim culture.

The incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes, displayed his knowledge of the Muslim world by muddling basic questions about al Qaeda in the same CQ article. Asked whether al Qaeda was a Sunni or Shia organization, Reyes said, "Predominantly--probably Shiite." Wrote the reporter, Jeff Stein: "Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they'd slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball." Would that Reyes were the only one. Nor is the problem confined to Democrats. Stein notes that "Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., both back for another term, were flummoxed" by the same basic questions in an earlier interview, "as were several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI." (And then there were the confounding remarks by Trent Lott in September, who, when asking rhetorically, "Why do Sunnis kill Shiites?," concluded, "How can they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.") 

It's not as if school leaders haven't had fair warning that Islam is a force to be reckoned with. In 1979 Iranian students eager to install a theocratic government kidnapped and held 52 American hostages for 444 days following the fall of the Shah. Government officials were no smarter about the role religion plays in foreign affairs then than now. In a 2001 National Journal article I quoted a government official who, in the wake of the 1979 kidnapping, despaired, "Who ever took religion seriously?"

The prospects of tomorrow's leaders having any better understanding aren't good (see here). For the institutions charged with training our middle- and high-school history teachers about Islam--our universities--have repeatedly failed to appreciate the role that Islamic extremism plays in Middle Eastern political life. Even after the events of 1979, America's Islamic scholars were dismissing jihadism as little more than a "theological experiment and spiritual phenomenon" that wasn't worthy of their time or attention, writes Walid Phares in the November issue of Homeland Security Today (see here).

"More jihadist terror is to be expected--not less--if only because the doctrinal factory is still working, with greater technological resources at its command," he continues. "Hence, the essence of homeland security resides in its ability to mobilize the public and its talents and isolate the would-be terrorists before they become actual terrorists and strike."  

This requires understanding the subtleties of Islam. But many of the programs and organizations that are leading the charge to improve instruction about Islam in American schools, such as Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center who overly worries about offending people's faith sensitivities, and the Muslim activist groups Council on Islamic American Relations and Middle Eastern Policy Committee, continue to soft-pedal the ugly underbelly of Islam (as well as Christianity and Judaism).

Our failure to teach about religion seriously will prove far more damaging to America in coming years than our stumbling over the right words to use in school around holiday time.

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