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Mahdi Tourage



In his recently published Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to
Know – and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero argues that although the United States
is secular by law, it is deeply religious by choice: it has a Christian majority
of roughly 85 percent, more than 90 percent of adults believe in God, more
than eighty percent report that religion is personally important, and more
than seventy percent pray daily.1 He also notes that with 1,200 mosques
nationwide, Islam will soon surpass Judaism as America’s second largest religion,
if it has not already done so.2 However, he opines that although
Americans’ commitment to religion may run deep, their knowledge of it runs
shallow. In her “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion,” Cathy Lynn Grossman,
discussing Prothero’s book, writes: “Sometimes dumb sounds cute: Sixty
percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments, and 50%
of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.”3
I wonder how American Muslims – who a recently publicized Pew
Research Center poll shows to be 65 percent foreign-born but middle class,
mainstream and “highly assimilated into American Society” – would perform
on a similar test.4 In my introductory courses, I have had Muslim students
identify minbar as “minibar.” Once, when asked to write their name
and its meaning on a piece of paper, a student named Muhammad wrote: “I
don’t know the meaning of my name, but I will find out and will let you
know next week!”
Colleagues who teach “Introduction to Islam” courses usually have
satirical stories of their own. Discussing Grossman’s article, Tazim Kassam,
editor of the American Academy of Religion’s Spotlight on Teaching,
cautions that dumb may be cute, but, more importantly, that “dumb is dangerous
and has terrible consequences.”5 The opposite is also true, for the
scholarly production of knowledge can be dangerous and have terrible consequences
(and thus can hardly be considered “cute”). For example, we can
discern more than mere hints of these dangerous consequences in traces
deposited by the academically produced “clash of civilizations” thesis on the
sociopolitical landscape. In any event, knowledge production (or the lack
thereof) is a product of historical processes that, as Edward Said has shown,
leaves “its traces without necessarily leaving an inventory of them.” ...

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