Religion and the State: Why Moderate Religious Teaching Should Be Promoted

By Etzioni, Amitai | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Religion and the State: Why Moderate Religious Teaching Should Be Promoted


Etzioni, Amitai, Harvard International Review


Should the US government and the international community actively promote religion overseas, especially in the Islamic world? Such an approach may seem wrong on many grounds. Religion is a major force driving jihadists in the Middle East, and separation of state and religion is one of the cornerstones of US democracy and the type of regime the United States promotes abroad. And, as young people say, religion is so "yesterday"; the march of history, starting with the Enlightenment, has been toward secularization and the dominance of reason.

The case of religious education in the Islamic world suggests, however, that all these assumptions are erroneous and that the United States should actively promote religion overseas, albeit not in any and every form. The United States is involved in changing schooling in several Islamic countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. One may oppose such an active US role, but as long as that role exists, the question remains: how should the US government affect the religious content of education overseas?

As with many other matters concerning education, the issues involved are much broader than deciding which books children should read and what teachers should teach. The key task is determining which, if any, values ought to be part of public education and what kind of society educators should seek to advance--one that promotes secularism, in which religion is relegated to the private sphere; one that promotes moderate but not fundamentalist religion; or one that promotes whatever form of religion the community favors, even if it is extremist.

The Need for Reform

In several Muslim countries, a large number of pupils are enrolled in madrasas. The education given in many of these schools promotes an extremist version of Islam. It is discriminatory against women, abusive to non-believers, and supportive of terrorist activities. In addition, madrasas and many other Islamic schools are often criticized for being counter-productive in their teaching methods for relying heavily on rote memorization. Religious education is the main subject and little room is provided in areas such as math, science, computer skills, and civics, not to mention English, which is becoming increasingly important. In short, madrasas do not educate for modernity.

In India, for instance, madrasa studies are largely limited to the Qur'an, the Hadith, and Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. The Indian government, as well as secular-minded Muslims, have come together to push for the modernization of the educational curriculum in hopes of curbing the poverty and social conservatism that they believe madrasas are breeding, but past government attempts to incorporate science, math, and English into these schools have essentially failed. The same holds true for madrasas in many other Muslim countries. They are shutting their graduates out of modern economic and political development.

One may grant that madrasas promote extremist values and behavior, both directly (by the content of the education they provide) and indirectly (by keeping their graduates out of modern life). However, one must also ask whether the United States or other Western nations should be involved in changing these schools and hence the way that millions of Muslims are educated. While political liberalism would argue that the United States ought to allow citizens of the nations involved to select which education they prefer for their children, this argument must be rejected. Citizens of other countries have a strong and legitimate interest in discouraging education that predisposes graduates to hatred, terrorism, and human rights violations. The United States, other Western nations, moderate Muslim nations, and the global community have a strong interest in ensuring that people of all nations are raised to respect rights, to participate in democratic politics, and to take part in a modern economy. …

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