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Is Secularism the Best Antidote to Islamism?

04/03/2007 03:20 pm 15:20:49 | Updated May 25, 2011

A candidate's past is always fair game in a presidential election, so it was no surprise when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama received questions about his, even if the questions reached decades back into his school-age years. After all, Obama had attended a primary school in Indonesia, and the inevitable question followed: Was it an Islamist preparatory school for terrorists, or a secular school, teaching mainly the three Rs, reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic?

Soon it became clear that it hadn't been a school for terrorists, perhaps to the consternation of the rest of the presidential field. But behind the question lurks a much more pivotal one: Should the United States promote secular education throughout the Muslim world? Even more critical: Is secularism the best antidote to Islamism?

This issue was highlighted by an almost trivial matter. In Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction officials removed from textbooks materials that extolled Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, but they were at a loss as to what values to insert in their place. In new Iraqi schoolbooks, history ends in 1968 -- meaning that there is no mention or valuation of Saddam's rule, the Iran-Iraq war or the new regime that the United States has promoted since the current war started in 2003.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) repeatedly stated that it will "fund only 'neutral, apolitical and areligious' (educational) materials because the U.S. Constitution prohibit(s) proselytizing with U.S. government money." And although in the case of Iraq, USAID holds that all education initiatives must be Iraq-led, it also confirmed that "guidelines exist not to fund school materials that violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits using government funds to promote religion." According to Jessica Jordan, chief of the USAID program in Baghdad, "Before we use taxpayer money to print textbooks we need to ensure that we are not infringing on separation of church and state and the First Amendment."

The fact is, providing no values education and teaching merely
academic skills hardly satisfies the majority of Muslims in Afghanistan,
Iraq or other largely Muslim countries. It is a fool's errand for the
United States to try to force-feed secular education on these religious
populations, and not only because such education is unlikely to be
supported by the majority of the parents involved. After all, in the
20th century, the main sources of justification for violence were
secular ideologies, especially fascism and communism. If the most
immediate threat today is religious extremism, what is the best antidote?

The notion that an Islamic school graduate is terrorist-prone has
as much validity as the assumption that Catholic school graduates are
inclined to bomb abortion clinics, or that evangelical Christian school
graduates are destined to stone homosexuals. Indeed, this syllogism is
precisely what all too many progressive people presume: Religious people
are true believers, true believers are a violent lot, and therefore
religious people must tend towards violence.

Islam is no different than the other major religions. For every Muslim who favors a religious war, there are many who see jihad as a spiritual journey of self-improvement. For every Muslim who blindly accepts the rulings of the mullahs, there are many more who favor communal consultation -- the notion of shura. Hence, rather than vainly trying to replace religious education with secular teaching, the issue should be what kind of religious education is made available.

Teaching Western, secular ethics, such as the moral theories of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, will not get one much traction in large parts of the devout Muslim world. Instead, the best remedy to extremist, violence-prone interpretations of Islam is a moderate, albeit religious, one. Muslims accept that while there is the text of the Quran, there are also records of the words and deeds of the prophet known as hadith. These different texts open the door to varying interpretations of Islam rather than simply going "by the book," tolerating only one strict and rigid interpretation. This is especially true about the status of women, which is much less restricted in some texts than in others. Also, moderates hold that although there are three major "Abrahamic" religions, in which respectively Muhammed, Christ and Moses play a key role, all are to be respected, as those of "people of the book."

In the United States we hear a largely liberal chorus arguing that value education should take place only at home. However, given the beleaguered state of the family in much of the modern world -- and the cacophony of commercial and sexual voices that youngsters are increasingly exposed to -- schools should play a role in the proper upbringing of the next generation. Religion is the major source of such education, especially in large parts of the Muslim world. It follows that the choice the United States and its allies often face -- to the extent that they are involved in reforming Muslims schools in the first place -- is not between Islamic or secular education, but rather between Islamist and moderate religious education.

This latter type is precisely the kind of school Obama attended. Indonesian schools are divided into nonsectarian public schools supervised by the Department of Education and Culture, and private religious (usually Islamic) schools supervised by the Department of Religious Affairs. Obama's school, the Basuki school of Jakarta, belonged to the first category of schools, which 85% of Indonesian children attend. These schools combine secular education with moderate religious instruction. As Sofwam Manaf, the headmaster of one such school in Jakarta put it, "Yes we teach the Koran here from an early age, and we teach Islamic law and Arabic, but we teach our students about the different interpretations of Islam as well, so that they learn to respect different opinions." "Islam teaches us to live in peace, not just with Muslims but with other religions," said Mussallam, a teacher of religion (many in Indonesia go by a single name).

A Boston Globe reporter who visited another such school writes, "The faculty unequivocally rejects all use of force in the name of Islam. 'Islam teaches us to live in peace, not just with Muslims but with other religions,'" Another school official, Hasbullah, added, "We educate our students to think critically."

There is surely room to raise many questions about Obama. But the fact that he attended a public school in Indonesia should not raise anyone's hackles. And if he did receive some moderate religious education in that school, one should only wish that more people in the greater Muslim world were so exposed.