Sitting in a cool room on the fifth floor of the Hotel Salisbury in Midtown Manhattan, Ali seemed content with my response. “Education!” It was the single word response that non of the students expected in the wake of the recent pressure cooker bombing incident. Ali and his friend Ayan were taking my course on Islam. His sincere question was meant to be a rhetorical one, but I took the opportunity to expressed what my lived experience has taught me.
My class exhibited the unique diversity of New York City. I had Muslim and Christian students of all ages, colors, and backgrounds. Each student was attending my class for a different reason, but collectively they were seeking an answer, if not a solution to terrorism and fear.
The couple sitting in the back close to the door was from the Philippines, and they wanted to know if there is any hope for the world and for their home country. An African American father who served in a church as an elder was concerned about his son who recently embraced Islam. A Puerto Rican lady was worried about her husband because since he came back from the Hajj he has become a totally different person. “He is more aggressive in this approach to defend Islam while condemning the way the west is killing Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan” she said.
An older white lady impressed upon the fact that she has recently read a book written by a Pakistani Muslim woman which has opened her eyes. Consequently, she has come to believe that there is a lot of misinformation circulating in our society regarding Islam. Ali and Ayan, Turkish Muslims, had their own individual preference regarding Islamic teachings and its interpretation. Every student was different in his or her approach to Islam because of their personal interaction with Muslims and Islam.
We all based our response on our personal needs, fears, concerns and desires. I was using the Quranic text and the Hadith, but I was teaching out of my personal experience. I was intentionally interacting with my students on a personal level so that it was not just a theoretical or historical course, but rather a practical course. Therefore, my response was simple, yet it is a proven solution to the problem of extremism in the world.
I grew up with Muslims. Some of my friends were very committed Muslims, yet they loved me as a Christian friend and I loved them. Non of them ended up in joining a Jihadi group, however this was not true for my college friends. We went to a school that was owned by a Christian family. We were not taught anything that was targeted to any religious groups or that favored a certain faith. Therefore, we never had any issues and Muslims and Christians lived side by side in my town.
Contrary to the school we went, another school not too far from ours was busy creating future soldiers of Islam. The difference was evident in both bodies of students. The leadership and the student body reflected the vision and mission of each school. As a grown young man, when I was discriminated against and persecuted by fellow Pakistanis simply because we followed different religions, I realized the importance of education. I saw a clear difference between those who have been trained in the culture of tolerance, peace and harmony versus those who were trained in Jihadism and told the inferiority of other religions and belief systems.
What I find interesting is that the Pakistan education system is heavily influenced by radical Islamic teachings. This is done to protect Pakistan from divisions within. Islam serves as a glue to hold Pakistanis together and as a motivation to fight against domestic and foreign enemies of Pakistan. However, it also causes division, fear and instability within the country bases of sectarianism.
The good education in Urban areas of Pakistan can be looked at as a perfect example of tolerance as compared to rural and tribal areas where Islamist insurgence has become a headache to the Pakistani government. “Only if the Islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan vow to revise their education policy and philosophy the world can become a better place for everyone especially for Muslims” I proposed.
Thus, I conclude this article with the same proposal and hope that one day we may all achieve peace as we work together to bring an end to terrorism and extremism.