Informing students about Islam

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Do your students learn everything they know about Islam from their Facebook news feed?

There’s no doubt that there’s been resurgence in religious conflict dominating the news cycle. The international violence around the ugly, offensive video of the Prophet Muhammad has perpetuated the cycle of misinformation and prejudiced opinions between the American public and the Muslim world.

The national political scene has also had its fair share of religious name-calling. This tendency comes from both sides of the aisle, including regular references to Governor Romney’s inability to drink a beer or a Coca-Cola as obvious reasons why he has a difficult time connecting with the American public or continued whispers about President Obama’s Muslim heritage despite his own repeated affirmations of his deep Christian belief.

And over the summer, we saw these sparks of religious bigotry fan into flame in the attacks on the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., and on a Muslim mosque in Joplin, Mo.

With this kind of information and misinformation circulating in the news media and in the broader public discourse, it’s only fair to wonder where and how Americans get information about their religious neighbors. Furthermore, the information that they’re getting isn’t good – Pew research tells us that the average American scores about a 50 percent on a religious literacy quiz. For the higher education community, the question is even more specific: Do our students know how to distinguish fact from fiction about religious diversity and identity in the global landscape?

For many campuses across the country, proactively addressing this question goes beyond providing neutral facts. For these institutions, it’s not enough that a graduating senior can tell you the role of the Prophet Muhammad in Islam or explain why Mitt Romney won’t join you for a beer on Friday night.

These institutions want something more – they want positive, productive relationships between religiously diverse students on campus. More than that, they want their students to gain the leadership skills to cultivate that same positive interaction between individuals of religiously diverse backgrounds into the future.

Campuses are putting this vision into action in a variety of ways. Elon University is establishing a brand-new campus interfaith center specifically designed to build interfaith literacy and leadership on campus. Dominican University has incorporated particular texts on interfaith cooperation into its required first-year and sophomore seminar program.

In addition to these kinds of proactive efforts, campuses are reacting positively to the recent international events. Following the recent spate of religious violence overseas, students at Augustana College reached out to local media contacts to share accurate information about Islam and meet with student leaders committed to advancing interfaith cooperation.

Religious conflict in the news and public discourse couldn’t make the need to promote interfaith cooperation more clear, regardless of the method that a campus chooses to prioritize this important issue. With the dual realities of global religious conflict as well as broad religious illiteracy, the responsibility of higher education to prioritize interfaith cooperation is as pressing as ever.

This priority is in fact shared by President Obama – in 2010, he launched the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge as a call to action for higher education to make interfaith cooperation a norm within the sector. Over 250 institutions participated last year and 260 have joined the Challenge this year. (Here’s more information about it.)

Campuses across the country have the opportunity to join this Challenge as a proactive way to educate their students and build positive relationships across religious identity lines — and we can show the world that this is what it means to be an American.

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