Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
Issue No.561
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din In the West efforts are being undertaken to improve understanding of Islam, demystifying what remains for many an unknown terrain. The International Education Week, which ended last Saturday, is one example of this. An American initiative, the event has taken place for several years now. This year, though, it acquired a unique significance in the light of the 11 September events and their ramifications.

Leafing through the event's principal file, produced by the US State Department, and paying special attention to a fact sheet issued by the White House on 25 October, I came across the projects Friendship through Education and Broadening Understanding between Americans and Muslims." The initiative, I realised, involves a consortium of NGOs and private groups whose aim is to promote cross-cultural understanding through teacher-student exchanges, e-mail correspondence and other projects.

The initiative was launched with a commitment to expanding and strengthening links between US educational institutions and their counterparts in Islamic countries, including Egypt, Indonesia, Qatar, Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain and taking in even Afghan refugee camps. As a first step three schools have been selected to implement programmes: Al-Raja Elementary School (Manama, Bahrain), Dawoud Public School (Karachi, Pakistan) and the Abbas Al-Akkad Experimental School in Cairo.

The goal of Friendship Through Education is to link an American school in every state to a school with a Muslim population in the Middle, Near or Far East.

The consortium, according to the fact sheet, will encourage two types of project: e- mail pen pals, which allows students to exchange e-mails with their counterparts in an effort to improve their understanding of each other's countries and cultures; and Laws of Life, which invites young people to submit essays describing the rules, ideals and principles by which they live, referring to the sources of their laws of life (literature, life experience, religion, culture and role models).

In addition to the fact sheet, the State Department file includes sample essays about Islam. One is by Owies Balti, a finance student and the president of Georgetown University's Muslim Students Association. In his essay he explains the role of the Association in "self development and spiritual growth, as well as good fellowship." He adds that "there is now an opportunity for us Muslims to help people learn more about Islam. But at the same time we also have a higher duty to educate Muslims to know more about their faith so that they will not follow fanatics. My Muslim religion teaches me to stand up for the universal principles of peace and justice."

There is also a report about a seminar held at Georgetown University's Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The participants are experts on Islamic history, law and foreign affairs. Since 11 September there has been a spate of requests from schools for material on Islam. There are many sources that supply such material, America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc., presided over by Bill Rugh, a personal friend and lover of Egypt coming top of the list. Among other activities, this organisation has published a book, Islam: A Primer which, according to Rugh, has aroused much interest.

What I find even more interesting is a Web site devoted to Islam, founded and maintained by Alan Godlas, an associate professor of religion at the University of Georgia. A comprehensive collection of links and resources documenting Islamic history, principles and sacred texts, the site also provides information on the place of Islam in the modern world, its stance on women's rights and its traditions of mysticism. The site has existed since 1997, but since the 11 September attacks it has gained significantly in popularity.

This is but part of what America is doing to improve understanding of Islam in the West, and I know that many European countries are undertaking similar efforts.

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