On a forum recently, we fell to discussing what should be taught about Islam in textbooks. Several people opined that certainly we must not have “pro-Islamic” textbooks because Islam, as a evidenced by recent events, was clearly violent in nature and contributed nothing but violence to world civilization.
I once wrote a book that featured some rational and intelligent Muslim characters (THE SPIRIT GATE, Baen, 1996). My publisher’s assistant—a Christian—was appalled and complained that I was making the Muslims seem enlightened. This was fiction, and even a neutral tone toward Islam was considered too “pro-Islamic”.
In my years at school, I never saw a textbook that did not gloss over such “Christian” actions as the forced conversion of aboriginal peoples in the US and abroad and yet insist that Islam, alone, was spread by the sword. Meanwhile, these same texts neglected to note, as Bahram pointed out in his series on Islam, that our higher education system, library system, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, astronomy and other modern benefits owe much to Islam. Heck, I play my musical instrument of choice thanks to the development in Muslim society of the tar.
There is plenty of both blame and kudos to go around when it comes to religion, and I fail to see why one religious tradition has to be put down in order to raise another up. I respectfully suggest that people who think religious belief is a competition or an “either/or” situation ought to check their assumptions against the teachings of their professed faith. It seems downright un-Christian not to accept responsibility for one’s shortcomings nor give credit where credit is due.
A correspondent in the textbook discussion wrote that “something went wrong in the Muslim world”. Something certainly did go wrong. But it’s nothing that didn’t also go wrong in the Christian world or the “atheist” world or the political world or in any other “world” within society. For example, what went wrong in the Communist world that Joseph Stalin blithely wiped out millions of my fellow Poles? What went wrong in Germany that caused an entire nation to allow Hitler to come to power (I know—it’s the economy, stupid) wiping out countless thousands of my Ashkenazi forebears?
Here’s reality, for ya: The monolithic institution some refer to as “religion” does not exist in the real world. And while it is not intolerant to struggle against dogmatism and irrationality, it IS intolerant (and irrational) to assign all religion “a grave with the wicked” regardless of the myriad forms religion takes or the good religious precepts and adherents have done.
I might think it is not intolerant to observe that Joseph Stalin was a monster. You might agree. But would it not be intolerant to insist that because Joe Stalin was an atheist, therefore all atheists are monsters and atheism, itself, is a monstrous ideology?
As a person of faith, that is the sort of “reasoning” I face every day. All sorts of whacky assumptions are made about my beliefs simply because there is a cadre of folk who believe the Straw Zealot evoked by the word “religion” is an accurate representation of all beliefs and believers.
It is not.
Naturally, our discussion of textbooks took in the Crusades. My own point of view was that any coverage of the Crusades ought also to allow the student to appreciate that while the Arab Empire extended itself into Christian lands, it did NOT—as a rule—force conversion of the peoples it conquered to Islam. The forced conversion carried out under Christian rule was institutionalized and sanctioned by church authority. The incidents of forced conversion in Islam have been the exception rather than the rule and were carried out by sectarian groups with more zeal than obedience to their faith.
A balanced view of the Crusades would need to note, I think, that the splendor Spain had under Muslim rule went into decilne when “Christians” once again wrested control and expelled and slaughtered the Jews and Muslims living there. The Spanish economy was wrecked, the agricultural system collapsed and the level of education guttered. Students should also be aware that the Crusaders destroyed countless volumes of scientific, philosophical and historical importance. BUT they should also be taught about enlightened Christians such as Roger of Sicily, who protected the vast libraries the Muslims had established, guarded the rights of the Muslims and Jews in his realm, and continued to allow the interfaith study of the texts by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars.
As I said, there’s plenty of blame and praise to go ’round on all sides.
The point really is that textbooks shouldn’t be pro or anti anything. Intolerance and irrationality are no prettier when practiced by secularists than when practiced by religious people or vice versa. As Abdu’l-Bahá notes, “hatred is darkness”—period. No ideology can redeem it.
I find it ironic when atheists display passionate intolerance of religion because “religion” is so darned intolerant, dontcha know?. But it’s downright disturbing when people of faith show such intolerance and hostility. Why? Simply because the teachings of their faiths so clearly call upon them NOT to be intolerant, hostile or fearful of others, but rather to love in response to hatred, to repay even cruelty with kindness, to give rather than take.
Clearly and unambiguously, demonstrating antipathy and intolerance of another group is a rejection of faith, not a demonstration of it. Recognizing that fact could go a long way to improving the dialogue between people of all faiths and no faith.