Outside View: Tunisia's tolerant Islam

Herzliya, Israel - A Saudi mother, who also happens to be a college professor, recently wrote about a remarkable experience. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, her son came home from 5th grade and sang the praises of Osama bin Laden, repeating what his teacher had told the class. Three years later, that same teacher was one of the Islamist terrorists who attacked the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Usually the linkage is not so direct, but it is quite clear that terrorists in the Arab world are often the direct product of what they were taught in school about Islam. And even if the graduates make good, pro-regime citizens, they are also inoculated against supporting political reform, democracy, or a moderate version of Islam.

That is why a recent article by Latif Lakhdar in the March issue of MERIA Journal (meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2005/issue1/jv9no1a3.html) -- and in an earlier version published in Arabic in Middle East Transparent Web site (metransparent.com)-- is so important. For Lakhdar does nothing less than show how this vicious circle can be broken - and, in fact, already is being done so in one Arab country.

Lakhdar, a Tunisian liberal who lives in Paris, simply contrasts how Islam is taught in his native country compared to the kinds of things done in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In those places, Lakhdar explains, the way students are educated about Islam "instills in the younger generation a religious fanaticism which entails a phobia toward dissimilarity and a rejection of the other, even to the extent of killing." They are taught that any change or even debate about religious precepts is an unacceptable deviation from righteousness that must be punished.

In contrast, there is a way of teaching religious rationally, a manner that does not bar science or logic. Such an approach includes the comparative study of religions, which shows that there has been a historical development. This demonstrates not only the lack of a monopoly on piety but also the fact that change is a natural part of religion. The sociology and psychology of religion shows its social function and how this can be a tremendous benefit or be manipulated to serve the interests of unscrupulous people. Linguistics encourages the careful study of texts to show that they have always been interpreted.

Lakhdar shows that this is in fact what has been introduced into the Tunisian school system, even at Zaitouna University, the highest institution of religious teaching in the country. Many moderate teachings and traditions exist in Islam that can be used for this purpose but which are ignored by the far stronger forces of radicalism that pick the theologians and passages they want in order to claim that their version is the only legitimate one. Students can be taught to think for themselves rather than merely worship their ancestors.

For example, Lakhdar points to 13 different verses from Islam's founder that show his intention was to be a preacher and influence rather than a politician or dictator. One states that if people ignore the message, nevertheless, "unto thee belongeth preaching only." Another says, "Wherefore warn the people; for thou art a warner only."

At Zaitouna University, Lakhdar explains, there are three central concepts in religious studies which are vital to reforming the prevailing conception of Islam, and thus required to change society for the better. These are: "The promotion of ijtihad"--the interpretation of texts -- "without any restriction on rational thinking; the reliance upon rationalist thought and the humanities ... as part of learning about religious texts; and realization that Islamic consciousness must reinstate the other, particularly the Jew and the Christian."

To prove this point, he presents the curriculum of the university's Higher Institute of Religious Fundamentals. Among the courses required, students must "understand the historical and scientific difficulties" of turning religious texts into legislation. On each subject, the classes stress that Islamic scholars had different opinions, as in one case saying, "Each doctrine has its own perception, closely related to the society" in which it was formulated, "with respect to time and place."

Another course, "Introduction to Scriptural Religions," is defined as teaching about "Judaism and Christianity ... in a manner which respects the words of their founders." This is, of course, far different from the hostile image inculcated into students in virtually every other Arab country. Aside from a thorough grounding in Islamic sources, there are also courses on the Judeo-Christian Bible, comparing Western and Muslim concepts of freedom, human rights in Islam, both liberal and conservative Islamic theology in the past, and the varying interpretations of different Muslim sects.

To top this all off, there is an example of a final exam at Zaitouna University in which students are asked to discuss the important Koranic saying, "Let there be no violence in religion." It specifically speaks of how no one should be forcibly converted to Islam.

Students are then asked, "To elaborate on the Koran's stance on the freedom of belief, and the question of accepting the other who is different in religion." They are told to discuss these issues, "In accordance with modern requirements to found the civil society, which prerequisites tolerance and coexistence in order to guarantee progress and security, and in accordance with the aspirations by global community to build interactions on a base of the exchange of interests, regardless of color, sex or religion."

The Tunisian experience shows that moderate Islam is possible but only if Arab states and societies teach their children that it is legitimate and give them the tools needed to live and believe that way.