School is starting just as the issue of building an Islamic Center close to the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks is sweeping through the political landscape. I can imagine that many school may want to avoid talking about the controversy, and they have a full year of challenges ahead without mentioning it. And yet it is, in two crucial ways, a perfect educational opportunity. On the one hand, any class that is going to study government, the constitution, religious freedom, separation of church and state, immigration, prejudice, even the Japanese internment camps, later in the year has a perfect opportunity in this issue. This is a conflict going on right now which can help kids understand the passions, prejudices, fears, and beliefs of earlier times — as well as the principles of our nation, which otherwise may seem abstract and distant. If any of you have not read or seen the speech Mayor Bloomberg gave, this is your chance: http://tinyurl.com/2ekc4e8 There are a whole set of history lessons in that talk. And yet everything I’ve suggested so far is only the half of it.
The largest educational opportunity the Center controversy presents is to begin to open students’ eyes to the range of different kinds and varieties of Islam. One reason for the objection to the Center seems to be emotion — the feeling that it is offensive to place anything Islamic so close to a place in which thousands of people were murdered in the name of Islam. The analogy used is the controversy over placing a convent at Auschwitz, which arose several years ago. But it seems to me that very emotion creates an opening to ask a crucial question: what is Islam? Is Islam the words of the Koran taken literally? No one judges Judaism by the most violent preachings in the Bible, nor Catholicism by the Inquisition, nor Protestantism by Luther’s anti-Semitism. We can assume that most students will soon know, or soon enough know, that Christianity comes in two basic flavors, Catholic and Protestant, and some may know — or will learn — about the Eastern Orthodox verson. Some students will know, or will learn, that Judaism comes in three basic forms — such that the fact that your friend is having a Bar Mitzvah does not necessarily mean he wears black and will grow a beard. And perhaps in some high school classes students will learn of the Sunni-Shia split in Islam. But where will they learn about, say Sufism? Rumi is the most popular poet in America — so I’ve read — but while his poems are surely read at weddings and funerals and all sorts of other events, he is never seen in context — as a Sufi.
My wife is reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives http://tinyurl.com/2bf2moq which explains that Sufism is under attack today from the very same brand of Islamic extremists we are fighting in Afghanistan. Dalrymple links the new center to the Sufi issues in this recent Op-Ed, http://tinyurl.com/2bybkpw. Shouldn’t students know that Islam does not = extremism? The best part of the Islamic Center controversy is that it can push us to learn about Islam. For the teacher and the school willing to wade into these waters, the Islamic Center controversy, just as school begins and we near the anniversary of 9-11, is a perfect subject for current events, for American History, and for World History. If you know of any teachers who want to engage in these issues I can find resources to help them.