Orlando Massacre Underscores Need for Diversity Education

Updated Jun 23, 2016

The Orlando massacre puts it out there for all to see, no matter where you are in society at large.

America has a diversity problem.

And our leaders don’t seem to know the next move.

Republicans awkwardly try to show compassion toward the LGBTQIA while we all know that a good many of the pols would have no problem discriminating against them on marital rights, bathroom rights, or any kind of civil liberties, if they were to suddenly be raised from the dead.

And then there is the gun issue. How false is any show of sympathy when there is no will to pass meaningful legislation on guns?

But the biggest problem may not be homophobia and guns, but rather Islamophobia.

And, of course, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has taken this moment to fan the flames of Islamophobia.

Invoking the politics of fear is something that Asian Americans in particular know all too well.

From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese American internment, fear has always been a failed American response.

It has always been the first response to America’s “others.”

But it has never worked short-term or long-term.

This week, we saw Trump baiting President Obama with the “Islamic Radicalism” argument. The best we could hope for was the president angrily exposing Trump, which he did.

I’m just surprised that even smart people can sometimes be fooled by the GOP leader’s tough guy rhetoric, which is simply a veiled effort to legitimize xenophobia.

What is the best answer?

Dialogue. Education. Information.

Last year, I interviewed Parvez Sharma, the director of a much heralded documentary, “A Sinner in Mecca.” It depicts Sharma, a gay Muslim American who lives in New York, making his spiritual journey to Mecca, despite Islam’s stance against homosexuality. In particular, the film exposed Saudi Arabia’s rigid Wahhabi ideology.

I called Sharma this week to ask him about Orlando. He said he was horrified by the news, but put off by the platitudes of liberals and Muslim pundits, whom he called apologists for Islam.

 

“As I fast this month of Ramadan, I am ready to have the courage to say this,” Sharma told me. “As far as I am concerned, and I say this as a devout Muslim, I will never say ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ That’s reductive and specious. We as Muslims need to start looking inward so we can have the strength to challenge this kind of violence that lives amongst us.”

He seems to be saying that the religion may have violence. But people don’t have to resort to violence. They can choose peace and work toward that.

Sharma says he isn’t looking for a theological way out of explaining or “apologizing” for Islam.

 

He is, however, keying in on individuals. And being on alert.

“We need to call out Islamophobes, but we need to call out our own,” Sharma said. “Muslims have been living with non-Muslims peacefully throughout the world for over 14 centuries. So that’s not even a question. It’s what we’ve always done.”

That’s at least an honest answer from one gay Muslim.

So what’s higher education’s role?

Anyone teaching a course on Islam on your campus?

A course on comparative religion?

Or is that one of those classes no one can fit in because of other so-called requirements?

It may just be the best answer to what ails our society: More education.

At Harvard, a friend of mine, Dr. Ali Asani, taught a popular course on Islam.

He was compelled to do it when he was asked by a student, “How can anyone who is rational and intelligent believe in and practice a religion that promotes violence, terror, [and] suicide bombings and is blatantly against fundamental human rights and freedom?”

Asani was stunned to see such “widespread illiteracy on the nature of religion.” He started teaching an undergraduate course in 2012.

Asani said such illiteracy “leads to the assumption that everything that happens in a predominantly Muslim country can be attributed to religion. Thus many people commonly assume that Islam is the principal cause of a variety of ills that plague some Muslim majority countries, such as the lack of democracy, economic underdevelopment, unjust treatment and marginalization of women.’

“To many Muslims, such explanations are as absurd as the claim that Christianity is responsible for the United States, a predominantly Christian nation, having one of the highest crime rates in the world. Illiteracy about religion and culture hinders the ability to look for complex and more plausible explanations rooted in political, economic, and sociological conditions. It also hampers people from realizing that, while religion may be invoked as a legitimizer for certain human actions, the primary motivating forces are often rooted elsewhere.”

You want to solve the problems of diversity? Homophobia, Islamophobia, et al. Well, don’t look to our political leaders.

Battling ignorance with knowledge has always worked. There’s a much better chance at coming to some understanding right on your campus, especially if there’s a good class on comparative religions.

In today’s world, for now and the future, it may be as important as STEM—understanding Islam.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He blogs at http://www.aaldef.org/blog