Education for religious tolerance: a neglected topic

opinion January 11, 2016 01:00

By Gerald W Fry

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GIVEN that this is a special time of year when many across the globe are celebrating important religious holidays, I thought it appropriate to write about the controversial and contentious topic of education and religion.

Also, recent tragic events in Paris and San Bernardino have led to an unfortunate backlash of hatred and bigotry.
With the Asian Economic Community (AEC) becoming recently, there is great importance in having a deeper understanding of the rich religious diversity of the Southeast Asian region.
This column has also been inspired by the celebration on November 16 of the International Day for Tolerance.
There are two aspects of my personal background that inspire my interest in this timely topic. My father was raised as Old Order Amish and as a child I frequently visited the Amish community in the area of Yoder, Kansas. The Amish suffered terrible persecution in Europe, which led to their fleeing to the United States. Some were even burnt at the stake because of their religious beliefs.
Then, following a stint teaching at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), my students strongly encouraged me to become a Buddhist monk. As a great profit of life, I had the opportunity to study at Wat Suan Mokkh under the tutelage of Tan Ajarn Buddhadasa Bhikku, who Unesco named in 2005 as one of the great personalities of the last century.
Interestingly, novels can be a valuable learning resource about religions. My introduction to Buddhism was a gift given to me of the novel Siddhartha, by the German-born Swiss Nobel laureate Herman Hesse, a major theme of which is reverence for life in all its forms.
There are several major issues related to the topic of education and religion. First is what has been termed the “crisis of representation”. Often the media distort and misrepresent various world religions. 
On December 21, the Washington Post carried an article written by two Muslim women in which they argued rather persuasively that there has been much misrepresentation about the “hijab” and headscarf in Islam. They noted that the Arabic word for headscarf is tarha, not hijab, and that true Islam as represented by the Koran does not require Mustlim women to wear headscarfs.
To develop a deeper understanding of Islam, the Brookings Institution recommends two short books by Michael Cook: The Koran: A Very Short Introduction and Muhammed.
Another major issue is the confusion of religion with ethnicity. Not all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, the majority of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs, and there are many Arabs who are Christians. The country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia in Southeast Asia, not in the Arab world. 
There is also the issue of showing respect for religions other than your own. Unfortunately some Western tourists and Western business establishments show disrespect for the Lord Buddha through highly inappropriate behaviour or the use of Buddha imagery for commercial purposes.
With respect to the great diversity in world religions and value systems, there are two vastly different approaches to this phenomenon. One articulated by the political scientist Samuel Huntington at Harvard has been termed “clash of civilisations”. This has contributed to the unfortunate viewing of “Islam” as an enemy of the West.
An alternative, more humanistic perspective is offered by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a former professor of philosophy at Princeton and now at NYU, who emphasises civilisational dialogue and cosmopolitanism. The UN and Unesco also emphasise this peaceful approach.
Unfortunately, education for tolerance is a much neglected topic and an important element of progressive citizenship education. Dr Somwung Pitayanuwat in Thailand has made important contributions in this area. 
Education about religion in the US is particularly |challenging, given its legal separation of church and state. Schools teaching religion are not allowed to receive public funding. Thus, all religious schools such as the Islamic School of Minnesota must be private. 
Fortunately Thailand does not have such constraints. Several years ago I had the privilege of visiting the Islamic College of Thailand in Thon Buri. This fine school is publicly funded. In Buddhist areas of Thailand, in the principal’s office there will invariably be an attractive, large image of the Buddha.
Since numerous students do not go on to college, it is important to have education and religion as part of the secondary school curriculum. When I was in Oregon, I was involved in establishing the International School of Eugene, a public school. We wanted the students in this new international school to become familiar with the world’s major religious and philosophical systems. 
Thus, we introduced a core course, Comparative World Value Systems. There was no attempt whatsoever to try to persuade students to adopt a certain faith, but instead for students to develop an in-depth understanding of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc. It was one of the most successful courses of the school and there were no legal problems nor objections from parents.
As part of a genuine liberal education, it is important for all college students to become exposed to comparative world value systems and to have a basic understanding of key world religions and philosophies such as Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. 
As mentioned earlier, it is important for all students in the AEC era to appreciate the great and rich religious diversity of Southeast Asian region, a paradise for students of comparative religion. 
One of my former Thai students, Watcharee Srikham, learned Vietnamese and did important and insightful research on Vietnamese Buddhism. Vietnam itself has great religious diversity. Its prevailing religion is known as lam gi o (a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism). But it also has other religions such as the syncretic religious group, Cao i, which has more than 4 million followers who worship as saints such as Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen and Trang Trinh Nguyen Binh Khiem, a prominent Vietnamese educator, administrator, poet and sage of the 1500s.
Thus, educators must be committed to fostering a world of genuine religious tolerance with no religious persecution to ensure that their students are loving, compassionate and genuinely tolerant, without bigotry, hatred or prejudice. Only then will we realise the ideal of cultural democracy.
Gerald W Fry is a distinguished international professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota;