In a post 9/11 world, engaging Islam in the college classroom is more important than ever. Unfortunately, too many evangelical schools are ill-equipped to meet the challenge. For that reason, I am working on a grant application presently titled “Islam in the Western Classroom: Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching about Islam in a post-9/11 World.” If successful, the grant would bring a conference to Gordon College, where I teach, at some point in the academic year 2014-15 or 2015-16. Below is the shape of my thinking so far. I’d welcome comments and questions from readers.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the complexities of the “Arab Spring,” and ongoing unrest in countries such as Syria and Egypt have brought the informed American citizen into almost daily media contact with events in countries with a predominantly Muslim citizenry. Since most of the coverage focuses on politics, foreign policy, and the immediate roots of violence, it is easy to ignore the deeper cultural and religious currents in the countries being covered. What is more, because of longstanding prejudice against and misinformation about Islam in the United States and other Western countries, it is all the more easy today for even the reflective student to associate Islam with violence and its extremist manifestations—which is, of course, not to say that those extremist manifestations are any less troubling! How then does one develop more nuanced, accurate knowledge?
I think evangelical/Christian colleges possess both assets and liabilities to answer this question. As church-related schools, they instinctively take religion seriously as a category of analysis in human affairs. They are not beholden to reductionist notions of “secularization” as the inevitable march of modern times nor are they given to explain religious behavior exclusively as manifestations of “deeper” socio-economic or political motivations. However, since many Christian colleges are more homogenous in their student and faculty make-up than larger public universities, they often have few or no practicing Muslims on their campuses. What is more, some schools are rooted in traditions whose past adherents (and, alas, some present ones) were more eager to refute or caricature before bothering to understand the religious Other—as fellow blogger Thomas Kidd has made clear in his excellent American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism, a book, I am proud to say, that began in part as a lecture at Gordon College.