Fighting Our Phobias

Fighting Our Phobias

While the U. S. President continues to wrestle with the American judiciary over whether people wanting to enter the United States can and should face religious screening—this morning’s story is of Muhammad Ali’s son, an American citizen, being asked at a Florida airport whether he is a Muslim—our Canadian parliamentarians are value-signaling like mad.

The Liberals support a motion (M-103) of one of their rookie backbenchers, Iqra Khalid, that would draw the federal government’s attention to something called “Islamophobia.” They feel so strongly about this legislation that they defeated a motion supported by all the other parties to combat “all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination.” The Liberals have apparently “got religion,” and that religion is, for now, Islam.

No one in this vituperative discussion has made clear how any such bill would make a material difference to the life of a single Muslim in Canada, especially when we already have laws against hate crimes and religious discrimination. Indeed, according to a national poll, the vast majority of Canadian Muslims are far more unhappy about Canada’s demanding weather than by any frosty reception they have received from their neighbours.

Still, the recent murder of six Canadians praying at a mosque in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy while nativist politicians press the “Islam-as-threat” button in French, Dutch, and, indeed, American elections means that there are serious matters to consider here.

Having studied Islam for almost forty years and having participated in dialogues with eminent Muslims in Jerusalem and at Yale and Stanford universities, let me make a few practical suggestions.

The first step is education. Not to put too fine a point on it, we all should at the very least know what we’re talking about.

The provincial ministries of education from coast to coast, therefore, should make religious studies a mandatory high school subject, not an elective at university. And only those trained in religious studies should teach it, just as we don’t want people who can’t even spell “calculus” teaching math.

I certainly am not recommending a return in our public schools to religious rituals, such as the Christian prayers mandated when I was a kid in northern Ontario. No, I mean the neutral, descriptive accounting of the actual beliefs, practices, and values of the world’s major religions so that students learn, for instance, that not all one billion Muslims are exactly the same.

Second, the federal parliamentarians spending so much time on bills that won’t matter could instruct the national broadcaster to produce interesting radio and television programs to inform us of the basics of these religions and of the particular ways they are present in Canada. Most Canadian residents practicing Islam, for instance, don’t look or act or think much like ISIS fighters, but some do, and that’s a good thing for us to learn.

Third, we can cease waiting for someone else to teach us and we can inform ourselves about world religions. My favourite textbook, a standard volume used in universities for years, is Theodore Ludwig’s The Sacred Paths. Christians who want a more elementary text from their point of view will find helpful Gerald McDermott’s World Religions: An Indispensable Introduction.

Fourth, we can enroll in a local university course in world religions or, if that is too much, hire a local professor to teach a condensed version of the course in one’s local church or community centre. (We professors can be hired less expensively than you might think.)

Finally, visit a mosque—or a synagogue or temple or gurdwara. Make a point of getting to know at least one Muslim—and Jew and Hindu and Buddhist and Sikh…and, indeed, a Christian.

Merely increasing civic knowledge about world religions isn’t going to usher in the Peaceable Kingdom, of course. Jews and Muslims understand each other pretty well in the Middle East. Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists understand each other pretty well in South Asia. Catholics and Protestants understand each other pretty well in Northern Ireland. And none of those places are Happy Valleys.

Where there are blanks in our knowledge, however, our minds will fill in the gaps as best they can—with stereotypes. Whatever else we need, we need at least the facts.

And, if available, we need personal acquaintance as well.

For nothing erases a stereotype better than a friend.

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