Recently, my local newspaper (yes, I still get a paper delivered to my “newspaper box” every morning!) carried a short article that caused me to stop and reflect.
The headline read, “Use of ‘Jihad’ on school test assailed.” A local, elementary school principal had pulled a math problem from the school’s resource pool when some parents and other community members objected to the use of “Jihad” as a name for one of the characters in the math exercise. In the exercise, Roberto, Kwame, and Nika (along with Jihad) collected leaves for a science project. The elementary school students’ assignment involved drawing bar graphs, showing how many leaves each character collected.
A local resident brought what he termed an “inappropriate name” (Jihad) to the attention of the School Board. He said, “I believe this [using Jihad as a character name] is a very subtle desensitization of impressionable young minds,” citing Webster’s College Dictionary’s definition of jihad as “a war by Muslims against unbelievers or enemies of Islam, carried out as a religious duty.”
Another local resident posted the math problem on his blog saying, “The use of the name Jihad indicates a push in the…schools toward a ‘pro-Muslim’ agenda” especially since “Jihad collected the most leaves.”
The article included a couple of statements from a religious studies professor who teaches at a local, public university. He said, “…jihad is not commonly used as a Muslim name and…is a widely misused and misunderstood concept.” He further explained that jihad means to “struggle” as one lives out his/her faith, noting that Muslim extremists use the word to justify the use of violence. He added, “…only a small percentage of Muslims share the extremists’ understanding of the word jihad…[and Muslims] primarily understand the concept as a spiritual, personal struggle.”
The individual who thought young minds could easily become desensitized by using Jihad as a character name in a math problem said that he did not think parents could explain the concept of jihad to their elementary school-aged children. Which brings me to my point–America is a religiously illiterate country.
Every so often, the subject of mandating the teaching of religion in public schools gets coverage in the news. People debate the issue–both in structured settings (TV, radio, and blogs in social media) as well as in less structured places (coffee shops, grocery stores, and the bleachers where children play soccer). People for and against such instruction have strong opinions. Soon enough, the subject dies down, the people who are against teaching religion in public schools “win,” but before long the subject surfaces again.
I wonder. If teaching religion in public schools were part of the regular high school curriculum, would the article I’m using to make my point (Americans, for the most part, are religiously illiterate) even be news? If the local resident is correct in his assessment that parents are not able to explain the concept of jihad to their children (and I believe he is), I need to ask why is that the case? Why can’t parents explain a basic concept from a major world religion to their children?
People often shy away from accepting religion as a subject–no different from history, philosophy, psychology, chemistry, and math–to be taught in public schools. How often do we hear the phrase, “separation of church and state,” articulated as a shield to keep the subject of religion out of the public school system. The constitutional amendment often cited as “evidence” to not teach religion in public schools forbids the establishment of a religion by the state. Teaching ABOUT religion does not violate that amendment. Studying ABOUT religion looks at the various ways people within their societies have “done” religion throughout time. It’s no different than looking at how people have contextualized themselves within politics, literature, and language throughout time.
Another concern people have regarding teaching religion in public schools is the fear that children will be swayed into accepting a religion different from the one parents want to inculcate in their offspring. But, teaching ABOUT religion is not the same thing as proselytizing.
I think it’s important to understand the huge difference between studying ABOUT religion and studying religion devotionally. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision (McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948) barred religious instruction in public schools. The ruling came about as a result of Jim McCollum, an elementary school student, who (along with his family) was persecuted for not participating in religious classes. The Supreme Court’s ruling a few years later (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) barred Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Both of these cases, I believe, came about because the majority religion at that time (Christianity) was used as a devotional exercise. The intention of the rulings was never to make religion a subject “non grata.” Justice Thomas Clark said, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion….”
When I presented the article that featured Jihad as a character name in an elementary school math problem to my first-year (for the most part) university students along with the community’s response, they were unsure how to respond. When the class realized that Jihad is a person’s name as well as a Muslim’s personal, spiritual struggle, one brave soul said, “I had no idea that jihad meant anything other than holy war.”
According to Stephen Prothero, the chair of the religion department at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, writes, “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.” He adds, “Religious literacy refers to the ability to understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are employed in American public life.”
The superintendent of the local school system with the “problematic” math exercise supported the principal’s decision to pull the question from the teachers’ resource pool saying, “It was divisive.” Subsequently, I’ve not heard any talk about educating students regarding the term “jihad.” Do people really need to wait until they take an elective religion class in college to understand a basic term from a major world religion?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.