Politics & Policy

Ignorance of Islam

Universities are derelict in their duty of making students into knowledgeable citizens.

I was in Cambridge, Mass., in February of last year when I heard the latest from Iraq: The al-Askari Mosque, the so-called “Golden Mosque” of Samarra, had been nearly leveled in a devastating explosion.

That night, I attended a regular, rather casual seminar on the works of Cantabrigian authors, led by a prodigious member of Harvard’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. The professor arrived late to class, and was not in the mood to talk about T. S. Eliot when he did. “Do any of you know what the Golden Mosque is?” he asked. Blank stares followed, punctuated only by the eager nodding of my roommate, whose passion is the Middle East.

Smart though they allegedly are, few Harvard undergraduates had heard of the mosque, or knew that it is one of Shi’a Islam’s most holy sites. “This war is something completely different than it was yesterday,” said my professor. “The violence this is going to unleash will make the last few months look positively tranquil.”

His warnings were prescient. Despite increased security restrictions, the number of bodies dumped on streets, in rivers, and in shallow graves soared. The spring and summer of 2006 saw the bloodiest months for Iraqi civilians since the war began.

The vicious escalation was an entirely and immediately predictable outcome of the Golden Mosque’s bombing. Indeed, only the most cursory bits of knowledge about Islam and its sects were necessary to deduce the gravity of the crime and the reprisals it would inspire.

But how many students had even this basic knowledge?

The answer is a sad one, especially for a university such as Harvard, which routinely trumpets its “international” character and insists its students are “generally educated”: instructed not to be pre-packaged professionals, but to obtain a broad education that, supposedly, helps one understand our “global society.”

I spoke with as many of my classmates as I could on the day of the bombing. It was, to them, a pedestrian event: one bombing in a troubled place where bombings are mundane. My professor came to class unnerved, saddened by the violence to come; but in the student body, a tranquility that bespoke blissful ignorance reigned.

In the weeks after, I gently quizzed my friends and acquaintances. Did they know:

‐ Whether al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite? (This same question was posed last year to Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who now heads the House Intelligence Committee; he answered incorrectly).

The results were informal, but militated grandly enough toward a conclusion of ignorance to be disappointing.

It is all the more disappointing because we really do live in that much-prophesied global, interconnected world: What happens to a mosque, especially one in Iraq, may well impact us or our cause. For as long a time as that is true, understanding cultures outside our own will be one of the foremost intellectual necessities.

This sounds flaky in the extreme to a good many conservatives. Their suspicion is well-placed — a true understanding of another culture is very different from the “understanding” fostered in higher education. To “understand” is rarely about obtaining specific knowledge about a foreign culture through patient study; usually, to “understand” is to indulge in self-guilt about our own society.

One week at Harvard, not so long ago, there were no fewer than five panels bemoaning American “militarization,” “imperialism,” and supposed human-rights abuses. As it happened, this was the same week when riots exploded across the globe in response to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of several cartoons depicting Mohammad. But a student would have tried in vain to find a panel addressing the question that obviously needed to be asked: Why was the Muslim world burning over a few cartoons, printed in an obscure source? (It was not until The Harvard Salient republished four of the cartoons that a debate was ignited — albeit, even then, it mostly concerned The Salient’s alleged insensitivity in republishing them.)

Outside the realm of extracurricular panels, there is the question of coursework. Or, rather, there’s not the question, at least for most students. Add Islam and Muslim society to the long list of subjects, from Shakespeare to American history, which Ivy Leaguers from Yale to Princeton to Harvard can avoid ever encountering in their academic careers. Despite a pretense toward “internationalism,” this new pedagogy manifests itself only in small bits. In Harvard’s latest curricular review, it is claimed to be a “serious commitment” to our “global society” that the university requires its students to take one year of a foreign language. Not enough to have a conversation or read a newspaper, mind you, but perhaps graduates will be able to order falafel at their nearest Lebanese restaurant.

Islam and the Middle East have a surprisingly low profile in most universities’ core curricula. Columbia’s still-comprehensive if recently diminished Great Books program devotes the most attention to the subject. At Harvard, meanwhile, students must fulfill a “Foreign Cultures” requirement by choosing from a small but schizoid list of courses.

Incredibly, in the 2007-08 academic year, none of the offerings in “Foreign Cultures” concerns Islam or the Middle East. Two irregularly offered courses do. One is “Gendered Communities: Women, Islam, and Nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa,” taught by the chairman of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Department. The other, “Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies,” seems comprehensive, but hardly lives up to its grand name, as it trails off in pursuit of the professor’s own passion: Sufi mysticism in India and Africa. Doubtless this is a topic worthy of study, but it has little to do with why, in this decade, a student would sign himself up for a course called “Understanding Islam.”

Those who do venture into academic coursework on Islam are unlikely to find any class that will give them a simple reprise of Islam’s theology, history, and cultural geography; missing are the basic facts that could answer questions pertinent to the modern world, like those above. It has been an oft-repeated criticism of higher education that schools have stopped teaching facts per se, touting instead overarching theories that organize facts in a manner convenient to theorists’ work. In Middle Eastern or African or Latin American Studies, a student rarely will be held accountable for definitional knowledge — you don’t need to know why Shiite Iranians call their religious leaders “ayatollahs,” or even when Mohammad lived, but you had better understand how the emergence of Islam reshaped gender structures in Arab society. There is a good case to be made for knowing all of that, but without the bare facts of people, places, and the dates they intersected, a critical analysis of the same is useless.

Nevertheless, in a college course on Islam, you are more likely to be assigned Edward Said’s historiography, as the theory and method of writing history is known, than an actual history textbook. Learning this way is like wearing jeans with a button and a zipper, but no denim: quite impossible.

Despite all the pretense about “understanding” other cultures, or “respecting” or “being sensitive to” them, few universities have taken measures beyond the platitudinous. A real sensitivity for other cultures entails discerning their differences, perhaps even more than finding common ground. What is not respectful of Islam is to assume that those of its adherents whose theology brooks no separation of civil and religious authority would be motivated by the same incentives that motivate us in the West. A person who truly respects Islam should be able to understand the signs sent by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s millennial behavior, and appreciate that he is perfectly serious in his belief that the twelfth Imam, reputedly hidden for more than a millennium, will be reappearing soon to redeem the world for Islam.

Learning the fundamentals of world religions once was, and still should be, a cornerstone of a liberal education, for reasons that both a century ago and today are perfectly obvious. Much of this knowledge seems pedantic or arcane, especially in a realm like American higher education where Islamic unction no longer has a Christian analog and is consequently incomprehensible to mostly agnostic, or at least not fanatically committed, scholars and students.

But it is not too much to ask that anyone who graduates from a prestigious American university in our time should have at least a functional knowledge of Islam and the Muslim world. This is the least effortful and most practical thing we can ask of American universities. If such a simple calling cannot be fulfilled, then American higher education will have further endangered its reputation as a useful institution.

–Travis Kavulla is an associate editor of National Review.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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