08/10/2010 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Crisis of Religious Understanding: Redefining the 'Educated Person'

How can the United States guarantee multi-religious understanding, pluralistic tolerance, and strong social cohesion amongst its citizenry of different faiths for generations to come? The answer is simple, radical, urgent and necessary: incorporate the teaching of world religions into the curricula of secondary and post-secondary educational institutions. Such instruction should be mandatory, and alongside mathematics, science, English, and the humanities.

A so-called educated person in today's society is uneducated if they do not have a basic grasp of, at minimum, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. We must redefine what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century, and this redefinition begins in the classroom. Approximately 83% of Americans identify themselves with a particular religion--78% identify as Christian, while the other 5% include Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and others. In particular, and at this moment of crisis and hostility towards the religion of Islam, Americans must make the extra effort beyond superficial portrayals of the faith and willingly enter into substantive dialogue and discussion. There is no substitute for engagement.

With 70% of the world's population--or 4.8 billion people--identifying with a particular faith, education of 'the other' must not be a choice, but rather a requirement in the pursuit of both safeguarding American ideals and building bridges of international tolerance. Such instruction is part and parcel of building respectful and stable societies domestically and abroad, and if the United States wishes to continue to set an example in the arena of religious pluralism, it must enact a radical change to its education system.

"What is the definition of an educated person today? Does that definition include some basic knowledge about the Islamic world or not? If it doesn't, perhaps that needs to be corrected," stated His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Shia Ismaili Muslims, to National Public Radio. In our forever-globalizing world, the content of our education system must reflect the local, regional, national and international societies in which we will ultimately find ourselves. The system must also prepare us with the knowledge and background to avert crises of understanding each other's history, culture, and religion, cementing our social structures as one grounded in intelligent discourse and voluntary engagement, rather than superficial knowledge and willful ignorance. The latter, we cannot deny, has proven disastrous.

Imagine a world in which every student--more than 40 million--attending a secondary and post-secondary institution across the United States was instilled with a basic understanding of the world's great religions, diving deeper into the histories, traditions, practices and beliefs as they climbed the ladder of academia. Imagine this cycle repeating itself, year after year after year. The results would be astonishing: millions and millions of bridge builders acting as ambassadors of religious tolerance and understanding within their family, workplace, community, and nation. This generational shift in education is a long-term solution, and it will not solve the immediate crisis.

With the media architecting discourse on a daily basis in which one pit-bull is pitted against another, and issues of Islam and politics, culture and tradition are debated in a do-or-die format, misperception, anger, hate, and fear of the highest order triumph over reasonable and rational dialogue. This is a disservice to the American public, and fuels the very intolerance such programs purportedly seek to address. They are complicit in endangering their fellow Americans to a future of internal religious strife--one that could cost more American lives.

In the immediate term, more American-Muslims--Imams, scholars, and everyday Muslims--need to reach out to their neighbors, friends, communities, and religious counterparts, and introduce them to the practices and beliefs of Islam. We are not a monolithic entity, and there are multiple shades of Islamic thought and practice. Engagement is a two-way street, and we Muslims must be willing to extend a hand, too, in order for such dialogue to come to fruition. I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters to do exactly that, and I urge anyone on the other end of such a gesture to kindly accept and embrace. Let us now educate each other.

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