With the dramatic opening last month of the U.S. House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee hearing on "the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community," the country was once again confronted with anti-Muslim sentiment based on fear. The recent dispute over the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, legislative proposals in 15 states to bar consideration of Islamic law in American courts, and the founder of Tea Party Nation calling for a Muslim-free Congress are a few examples of why the United States must carefully examine its relationship with the approximately seven million Muslims who live here, and the nearly one out of four individuals on the planet who subscribe to Islam.
College and university campuses are not immune to the wave of Islamophobia. Consider Geert Wilders's 2009 speech at Columbia University in which he stated that "the Koran is an evil book, full of violence, murder, terrorism, war," and that "Muhammad was not a perfect man—he was a mass murderer and a pedophile," or the public outcry and polarizing lectures last fall when Brooklyn College assigned Moustafa Bayoumi's book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America to entering students as part of its Common Reader program.
Fear of Muslims has been exacerbated by professors in the booming field of terrorism and security studies, who not infrequently characterize Islam as an inherently violent religion. Those who speak favorably of Islam come under fire from organizations like Campus Watch, which monitors what professors are saying and applies its substantial resources to challenging the reputations of those with whom it disagrees. This has created an ugly atmosphere on some campuses, as professors teaching courses on Islam may have to worry about how their remarks might be reported and how that may affect their careers.
If combating ignorance is the overarching mission of educators, then not since the great era of civil-rights awareness in the 1960s has there been such a compelling need for involvement by the academic community on behalf of a minority population. Unfortunately, today such involvement is neither widespread nor growing. Yet it is critical that educators formulate appropriate and imaginative responses, in their classrooms and on their campuses, to this anti-Muslim culture. While no single solution fits all circumstances, certain possibilities are worth consideration.
For instance, when potentially divisive lectures are contemplated, two formats might be entertained: a debate or a jointly sponsored talk. The former has the benefit of a stylized yet civil form of discourse; the latter would involve both sides of contentious issues, thus promoting an atmosphere of civility engendered by the interest of each in having its viewpoint granted serious consideration. Indeed, using planning meetings of student organizations not only to co-sponsor and mediate presentations but to contribute to an exchange of viewpoints leading up to the lecture or debate may help establish shared standards of procedure.
Such joint involvement may not, of course, be sufficient to avoid all disruptions. When such disturbances do occur, however, the participants should be subject to university disciplinary proceedings—to the standards of which each presenting organization should be required to subscribe.
One of the most effective ways to achieve greater understanding is to have students in a variety of courses make contact with members of the local Muslim community and enter into discussions with them. Social-science students could include interviews with people in the area or arrange and analyze a community meeting; literature students could organize a reading by Muslim poets or writers; art students could discuss with local congregations the way in which an American mosque is being designed. Such field-based projects, organized as part of coursework, can help produce useful ethnographic information as well as provide opportunities for meaningful local interaction.
To counter pervasive stereotypes, we need solid sociological accounts that will address the development of homegrown terrorists, the generational conflict within many Muslim families, and the roles played by Muslim religious leaders and the boards that run their mosques—studies the academy has so far failed to provide. Faculty can also make themselves available to local groups for lectures. The extensive experience of the authors at such events clearly suggests that one is not merely preaching to the converted: Local church and synagogue groups often simply do not know how to contact Muslims in their area. Universities can act as facilitators in such cases.
Universities also must take a close look at their own programs, including "terrorism studies" classes, and ask themselves if those courses are conveying an accurate view of Islam and the Muslim world. This can be done through faculty forums on teaching, so that no one professor feels under scrutiny, and all can be encouraged to build into their courses some component that discusses, in a realistic and accurate way, the nature of Muslim life, science, art, and politics.
It may not, of course, be possible to compel civility. But we do know that when groups have a vested interest in gaining access to a campus forum, the opportunity presents itself to develop shared rules of the road. One can always go too far in this regard: The British experience with its Anti-Social Behaviour Order, aimed at punishing disruptive or discourteous acts, has demonstrated that civility is not advanced when standards are overly broad or purely subjective. But the recent creation of the University of Arizona's National Institute for Civil Discourse, whose honorary chairs are Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, suggests that universities may serve our society as a base for imagining alternative ways of carrying on our conversations.
The stakes of the debate about Islam could not be higher. Just as it was the academy that so effectively combated claims of scientific racism and has so assiduously fought against stereotypes of women as less capable or academically talented than men, so, too, the image of Islam and of Muslim cultures must be wrested from those who have dominated the terms of discussion in ways that are both misleading and dangerous.
"Knowledge" is the second-most frequently used word in the Koran, after the name of God. And there is no university whose mission fails to give the pursuit of understanding equally high priority. At a time when Muslims are acting in consort with our own revolution—courageously rising up against tyrants and laying down their lives to resurrect their dignity and authenticity—the academy owes them and our fellow Muslim citizens every effort to think creatively about this people and this faith. This we must do if, in years to come, we are to answer the question, "Where were you then?" with all the energy and pride that our universities' pursuit of truth requires of us.
Akbar Ahmed, formerly Pakistan's ambassador to Britain, is a professor of Islamic studies at American University. Lawrence Rosen is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University.