Teaching Islamic studies – post-9/11

We are living in a world of nearly instantaneous communication. Visual and oral media reports are crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries with a speed and impact that written texts cannot. Our public and political conversations increasingly use a variety of abbreviated and formulaic means of communication that only hint at complex social, economic, and political issues worldwide.

As we veer from one crisis to another with the Muslim world, there are a number of topics one needs familiarity with in order to make sense of events.

To mention just a few, there is the history of the creation of the state of Israel and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Then there is the history of the rest of the modern Middle East. There is the history of the economic, military, and political agreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The list goes on.

How many of us are wellread on European history and the current situation of its immigrant communities? How about the timeline and details of European and American military interventions in the Muslim world? How many of us understand global economics? How many non-Muslims are familiar with the basic texts, practices, and interpretations of Islam and the histories of Muslim cultures?

Faced with the daunting challenge of comprehending the many historical and contemporary factors leading up to current events, it is hardly any wonder that we all gravitate toward the simplicity of images, symbols, and slogans that encapsulate what might otherwise seem too exhausting to even contemplate.

The uproar that followed the published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad is a case in point that reflects the failure of our common political conversations. In an increasingly interdependent world, we are all faced with the necessity of making sense of complicated situations that demand extremely difficult and painful decisions that are heavy with unintended consequences.

What is needed in this avalanche of images and soundbites is a greater emphasis on low-tech, unglamorous, and labor-intensive education. Teaching Islamic studies post-9/11, as I have, is much more challenging than in previous years. Although my non-Muslim students freely acknowledge their ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world at the beginning of my classes, they carry with them the baggage of years of media images portraying the "veils and violence" of Islam.

It takes time and patience to avoid apologetics, to avoid Islam bashing, and to demonstrate instead, example by example, the richness and variety of Muslim cultures and peoples, past and present. It takes time to learn foreign languages. It takes time to encourage critical thinking, not only of written texts, but also of visual and multimedia products. It takes time to address the complexities of the relationships between religious, ethnic, and political communities. But it is time wellspent.

Creating an environment conducive to dialogue, debate, and deliberate action requires patience and persistence. It may not be as spectacular as the controversies that periodically grab our attention, but it works, one student at a time.

Kristin Zahra Sands is a Mellon Fellow and professor of Islamic Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also a fellow at New York University's Center for Religion and Media.

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