New Rainbow of Islamic Knowledge and Religious Diversity: Zaytuna College

There are more than 500 colleges and universities in the United States that pledge an affiliation to the Christian churches. There are at least nine Buddhist colleges and universities, and three Jewish institutions of higher education. There is at least one Hindu institution, Hindu University of America in Orlando.

Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., founded by three prominent Islamic scholars, became the nation’s first fully accredited Muslim institution of higher learning, welcoming its first cohort of students this fall. With five faculty members and 15 students in its inaugural class, Zaytuna opened its doors in the midst of a whirlwind of vicious and searing ethnocentric criticism sweeping America concerning Islam.

The uproar over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York, the chaos and polarization that came from the burning of the Quran in Florida earlier this month, the controversy I recently wrote about at Brooklyn College stemming from requiring incoming freshmen to read a supposedly biased text about the experience of Arab Americans—Zaytuna College is being born in an anti-Islamic storm. 

There shall be many rainbows of knowledge that beautify our country after this current storm of ignorance passes. One, I think, could be Zaytuna, which means “olive tree” in Arabic. 

“I think Zaytuna College over time can help contribute to a healthier understanding of Islam by removing ignorance,” said co-founder Zaid Shakir, according to the Associated Press. The college is set to “prepare morally committed human beings that can go out and make a difference in the world as Muslims.”

Any institution of higher learning that snatches ignorance out of our minds—whether that ignorance is religious, economic, sexual, gendered, racial, or scientific—any institution that invigorates morally and intellectually excellent human beings is a rainbow of knowledge in my portrait of the world. It does not matter whether the school is affiliated with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Santeria, or Voodoo. Every religion has a body of knowledge and a moral compass that can direct us to higher moral and intellectual ground.

But of course here in the United States, the land of religious freedom, there are critics of Zaytuna College. Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank, says the school is seeking to indoctrinate students and spread Islam in America, according to the Associated Press.

“This is stealth jihad in the sense that it is about promoting in the United States incubators for sharia,” the religious law of Islam, said Gaffney, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

It is my educated guess that most of the 500 Christian colleges and universities proselytize to their students, and so do the Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu schools. So, if it is wrong for Zaytuna College to promote, teach, and seek to spread Islam, then it is wrong for those Christian schools as well.

In mainstream thought, the teaching of Christian ideas at a Christian school is called “education,” while the teaching of Islamic ideas at an Islamic institution is termed “indoctrination.”

This speaks not only to the normative ethnocentrism that pervades mainstream thought, but also to the total lack of religious diversity in the affiliations of our religious schools. Christian schools so overwhelm the college landscape that we forget they represent one religious perspective that billions of people do not agree with.

Hopefully, Zaytuna College will be the first of many Islamic schools. But it will not end there. Jewish scholars should start more schools, too. We need more Buddhist, Hindu, and other colleges and universities affiliated with Asian religions. And what about the traditional continental African, Caribbean, and Native American religions—where are their colleges in the United States?

If the figures I cited above are close to being correct—that there are roughly 15 non-Christian colleges in this country looking up at the mountain of more than 500 Christian schools—then we have a trek ahead of us to reach religious diversity. I know many religious demographers say that about 75 percent of Americans are Christian, 5 percent practice a non-Christian religion (i.e., Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism), and the rest are agnostic or atheistic. But I think the percentage of those practicing non-Christian religions is more like 10 percent, and it continues to go up rapidly.  

There are many elements of diversity and inclusion in higher education that some of us are wrestling with. We must add to that equation the religious association of colleges and universities, particularly as we sit in this storm of religious oppression toward Muslims in the land of religious freedom.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. He is on leave as an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta. Visit his personal blog “The Progressive Corner” at progressivecorner.wordpress.com.