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Pedagogy for a plural society.

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Monday 16 February 2004

Dr Ameer Ali, President, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils


Pedagogy for a Plural Society  

The forces of globalisation have made national boundaries porous in terms of physical intrusion of individuals and mental incursion of ideas. At the same time, political correctness has forced rulers to accept multiculturalism as the need of the day. However, unless efforts are made to change historically embedded thinking and prejudices against different cultures social cohesion will remain an elusive objective to achieve in multicultural societies. In the case of Christian/European/Western relations with Islam the time and need to embark upon an educational project to remove centuries-old prejudices and promote mutual understanding has arrived. Nearly one-fifth of the world population is following the faith of Islam with almost the same number or a little more than that practicing Christianity of some sort. The sheer population size of the followers of these two religions makes it imperative that peaceful coexistence between these two is a precondition for global harmony. 


There are two prerequisites to make this project successful. On the one hand the West must accept Islam as a religion like Christianity and Judaism revealed by God to humanity through Prophet Muhammad. On the other, the Muslims should reread their own history and accept the religious pluralism that flourished in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordova and Delhi during the most productive period of Islamic civilization. It was that pluralism rather than the literal interpretation of the Quran that contributed immensely to the Islamic chapter of world civilization. What these two prerequisites demand is an openness of mind to engage reason to reunite a world separated by religion. 


It is this openness that is going to save our future generation from religious fundamentalism, and this openness must be reflected in what we teach to our children in our educational institutions. But where does one start? In a unipolar world in which the ruling ideology is that of the hegemonic power our educational institutions particularly the centres of higher learning are turning themselves into - like the print and electronic media - organs of thought control.  


Instead of creating a thirst for knowledge universities have become secluded laboratories to train an elite of technical experts who are expected to provide mechanical solutions even to human behavioural problems. In such an environment opportunities for students to learn cross-cultural and inter-faith disciplines are very limited and such disciplines are often deliberately discouraged on the basis of inadequate funding.  


Since higher education is ideologically considered as semi if not pure public good universities are invariably compelled to raise funds from individual benefactors and industrial and commercial corporations. This again constrains the breadth of academic disciplines offered by universities. 


If centres of higher learning have limited scope for promoting cross-cultural and inter-religious disciplines where else can we look for such education?  


We can straight away rule out the public media whose task is to ‘manufacture consent’ to the polyarchy that governs us and sets the political agenda. There is profit in demonising Islam and there is popularity in promoting Muslims as barbaric and terrorists. Hollywood thrives on this recipe and television channels compete to market the Hollywood menu. Privately controlled print media is no better. 


Therefore, the only hope of success for the educational project lies in our primary and secondary schools. It is in shaping the young minds with dispassionate knowledge about each other’s religion, culture and contribution to civilization that we can eradicate the built-in prejudices in our environment.  


Since primary education is compulsory to all children in developed societies and since quite a vast majority of those children proceed to receive secondary education there is ample opportunity here to influence the thinking of a great portion of our future generation. The school curriculum has to undergo a radical change to meet this demand.  


If education were to manage Christian Muslim relations then those who impart that education should be adequately equipped with knowledge on Islam and Christianity. Textbooks used in schools for subjects like history, mathematics, science and geography must have a cross-cultural content in them. How many of our children for example know that even words like algebra, trigonometry, and chemistry are derived from Arabic and that the Muslims had been the pioneers in developing these disciplines. Even in history when teachers talk about Christianity and the Bible how many of them teach the children that the Quran has a lot to tell about the miraculous birth of Jesus and that there is a whole chapter in the Quran which deals with Mary? Likewise in the Muslim schools how many teachers teach the Muslim children about the enormous contribution that Christians and Jews had made to the administrative efficiency of the Islamic empire? When school curricula do not provide opportunity for inter-cultural learning knowledge received by children remains partial and biased. 


In Western societies where private schools are favoured more by parents and governments and where such schools are identified with religious denominations there is a desperate need for a common curriculum. That curriculum must be broadly based to reflect the values of a plural society. More than 20 million Muslims are currently living as minorities in the Western countries in a predominantly Christian environment. These Muslims play very little role in the decision making process of their respective countries. After September 2001 a sense of insecurity and fear has crept into the Muslim psyche in these countries, which is driving them to look for ‘ghetto’ solutions. Young minds are becoming victims of ghettoism. There is no better way to arrest this trend than through a radical pedagogy.  


Guests on this program:

Dr Ameer Ali  


Australian Federation of Islamic Councils