“Who Was Muhammad, Was He Violent?”: Teaching Islam Ten Years after 9/11

By Abbas Barzegar, Religion Dispatches

As millions of college students around the country begin the start of another school year most will encounter events, programming, and curriculum built around the tenth year anniversary of 9/11. Content will include paying honored respects to the victims and their families as well as interpreting the impact of the attacks on our nation’s history and identity. The events ten years ago will remain the defining moment of my generation and understanding how those events continue to shape the social and political landscape of our nation will be the responsibility of educators, politicians, and citizens alike.

As a professor of Islamic studies I will entertain a related (even if unwarranted) set of issues in the classroom because, whether we like it or not, Islam has become an indelible part of the culture and consciousness of 9/11. Ironically, the questions I regularly encounter have not actually changed much over the last ten years: Who was Muhammad, was he violent? What is Jihad? Why the scarves?

The problem isn’t about information. There is now a plethora of sophisticated resources available to educate the broader public about Islam. However, as the Center for American Progress has recently demonstrated, these resources are bettered by a sophisticated and well-financed misinformation campaign designed to singularly provoke fear and mistrust of Islam and Muslims. Even so, as I begin another semester teaching these subjects, I have come to accept that the limited capacity of public discourse to deal with Islam and the Muslim world isn’t about truths and untruths, media access, or political power. The problem is an epistemological one governed by what might be called the Dante/Deepak dichotomy and until we overcome this binary, I doubt a genuinely cosmopolitan and progressive post 9/11 America can be achieved.

The attacks on 9/11 unleashed a strain of anti-Muslim bigotry in this country that has roots not only in the classic structures of American racism and xenophobia but also in a centuries-old tradition of European anxiety with the Muslim world. Recall how the Italian poet Dante Alighieri depicted Muhammad suffering mutilation in the lowest depths of hell in his Divine Comedy. In the late 18th century such literary scenes were transformed into visual masterpieces by artists such as Gustave Dore. Dante and Dore were the inspiration, in turn, for the release of the first Italian feature length film, L’Inferno, in 1911 which became an outstanding success in the United States a year later. That the racist silent film The Birth of a Nation (which lionized the KKK and portrayed African Americans as unequivocally licentious) debuted at the White House just a few years later reminds us of an ever-looming undercurrent in American history.

While there is clearly much more to Dante’s epic poem than anti-Muslim angst, the embedded nature of such xenophobia into European and American national culture deserves recognition. Today, much of what manifests itself as anti-Shariah legislation, Muhammad cartoons, Quran burning, and the federally sanctioned policing of the Muslim community is a mere extension of these historic forces.

On the other hand the attacks of 9/11 have brought forth some of the best this nation has seen. I recall receiving flowers at the office door of our Muslim Student Association at the same time our members reported being spat on. Responding to such bigotry, civic leaders, faith-based coalitions, and academics charged the battle lines of public discourse in the best spirit of humanism to show that Islam, like all other religions, was at its core a force of good in the world corrupted by the ill-conceived actions of a few.

When opportunist authors and their presses released their provocations, Muslims and non-Muslim liberals launched their own visions of what Islam truly is. As universities around the country cut back hiring, departments in Islam and Arabic were funded enthusiastically.  New biographies of Muhammad and new translations of the Quran poured off the shelves. The minutest details of Islam’s origins and Muhammad’s life were the subject of documentaries and public forums. Even Deepak Chopra participated in the pluralist defense of Islam by writing a fictionalized account of Muhammad’s life and mission meant convey the humanism of Islam to a weary American audience. But as valiant as these efforts may be I am left wondering whether our society’s multicultural instincts are enough to get us out of the cultural quagmire 9/11 produced.

Between Dante and Deepak

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning this semester the product of this Dante/Deepak dichotomy sits before me in the form of 150 students. They are equipped with either their Dante-like prejudgments or their Deepak-like pluralist commitments looking for answers that will further their already hardened positions. For a swath in the middle the jury is still out and they look to me to answer, to level the playing field, to tell the truth: Who was Muhammad, was he violent? What is Jihad? and Why the scarves? It is precisely at this moment that all 150 of them turn on me…because, that is, I refuse to give them the cold hard answer they are looking for.

Islam is a religious tradition over fourteen centuries old that currently counts nearly a quarter of humanity among its adherents. As a civilizational force it has contributed to everything from water salinization and camera lenses to algorithms and medicine. I try to convey to my students that the first step to grasping the complexity of faith and history is precisely to forsake our quest for cold hard truths. Likewise, if America wants to deal with Islam after 9/11 we will have to let go of Dante and Deepak at the same time.

We will need to swallow the toughest parts of pluralism and see both the compatibility and contradiction of the Shariah with the Constitution, as we already do with countless other religious traditions. A post 9/11 America will need to know how and when to distinguish between the murderous acts of terror that mark the occasion of this anniversary and the spirited resistance of those choking under the heels of our empire. Our generation must be poised for a stout pragmatism that can manage gay marriage and Muslim face-veils in the same breath.

As an educator I am 100% certain that within six months 80% of my students will forget 90% of what they learn this semester. As a citizen I am sure that our society’s questions about Islam will not look much differently ten years from than they did ten years ago.

I am quite confident, though, that neither Dante nor Deepak will solve the problem.

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