Because I enjoy staring aghast at my computer screen, I wandered over to Glenn Beck's new blog, TheBlaze.com, just to see what was going on. The major complaint of the day seemed to be that some folks in Illinois were protesting the Republican candidate's campaign with signs, one of which depicted Beck with a Hitler mustache. *snort*
Elsewhere on the page was a story covering the shocking news that a middle school class had visited a mosque. Apparently to study it's architecture. There was a video of the kids bowing or some such. Scandal! Indoctrination! And the tour guide was recorded telling the kids that "jihad" means "struggle" not "holy war", and that women could vote under Mohammed. Lies! Brainwashing! Somebody think of the children!
Except that "jihad" does mean "stuggle" - often an inner struggle to be a better Muslim. And Mohammed did improve conditions for women at the time. And I think it would be a great idea for religion to be taught in public schools...
I went to a Catholic high school. Religion class was mandatory from grade nine to OAC (what grade 13 was known as in Ontario before it was scrapped). In grade nine we studied the gospels, including the broader context in which they were written, the literary and persuasive goals of the authors, and why Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were the ones chosen to be canonized. In grade ten we learned about the sacraments. The grade twelve class was known as "Building A Christian Lifestyle" which was basically, "these are the values we want you to have!" - which was somewhat undermined by the hippie-ish nun who taught the class. The OAC religion requirement was philosophy.
The grade eleven religion class was the best. The text books were dated, and the teacher was a bit of a lazy jerk, but the content of the course was interesting, enlightening, and practically applicable: World Religions.
Specifically: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha'i, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and First Nations spirituality. We learned about beliefs, practices, and traditions; but we also learned about the historical context and development of each religion, and the divisions that exist within them, and followed current events related to religion. We visited a Reform Jewish Temple, an Islamic centre, and a Mahayana Buddhist temple. Each unit ended with a comparison to Christianity, emphasizing the beliefs and values that are shared across religions.
Even though the class only provided an introduction to each religion, having that basis of knowledge is helpful in real life. For one thing, it means that you're not tempted to ask individuals to act as representatives of their entire religion and explain themselves to you. It means it occurs to you to wish your classmate a good Diwali. It means that you're prepared if employees ask for a later break time during Ramadan.
It also means that you start to get annoyed reading internet comments that say, "You need to educate your self on Islamist expansionism! Go to w-w-w-dot-the-Koran-is-the-devil's-handbook-dot-com!"
Over the past week or so, just perusing the internet, I've come across people claiming that if Muslims follow the Koran correctly, then they burn the US flag; that violence against women, political violence, and political domination are central to the Islamic faith (first link on the page contains graphic imagery); that Islam is an ideology rather than a religion (whatever that's supposed to mean); that winning the "war on terror" requires barring Muslim immigrants and preventing the construction of mosques in the United States; that all they need to know about Islam, they learned on 9/11.
It makes me wonder what would happen if these people were in an environment where they had the opportunity to get to know Muslim people, and had to work with them and get along with them every day. If such people were forced to deal with the reality that Muslim folks are just like anybody else; that they are not one monolithic group; and that Islam, like any other religion, can be practiced liberally or conservatively.
Of course, those opportunities don't exist for a lot of non-Muslims. Which is why I think World Religions, reworked for a public schools so as not to assume the class is all Catholic, would be a great addition to the high school curriculum as a social studies elective. Students would get a bit of world history, a bit of an introduction to other cultures, a better understanding of the contexts that other people live in.They would feel more familiar with different religions, and less susceptible to fear and misinformation.
But can you imagine how apoplectic the wingnuts would get if it were actually introduced?