Sixteen scholars from predominantly Islamic countries are in the United States right now, studying American religion… thanks to a program funded by the U.S. State Department. It's one of many efforts launched since September 11 to change world opinion about the United States.
There are several myths circulating in the Islamic world about religion in America… among them, the myth that American Muslims are not allowed to practice their religion freely… and the myth that Jews are somehow dictating America's foreign policy. Officials at the U.S. State Department were concerned about these stories, and so shortly after September 11, they approached professors at Boston College for help. The result is a month-long seminar, now in it's second year, called the American Studies Institute on Religion in Contemporary America.
Peter Benda of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs says the Institute gives Muslim scholars from abroad a chance to explore several, key questions about America's religious climate.
"What is the role of religion in the United States? How do we manage problems of religious diversity? What impact or influence do different religious communities have on U.S. foreign policy? U.S. domestic policy? How are they organized to make their presence felt? And of course the peculiar American brand of separation of church and state, and how does that work out?" he explained.
The scholars come from all over. Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan are just three of the fourteen countries represented. This year, no one from the Middle East applied to the program, a development that Peter Benda says was disappointing, but not surprising, given that applications were due at the height of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The scholars represent a variety of disciplines. Several specialize in Islamic theology, but a few teach history, politics, and even psychology. All of them are teachers. Their work, in other words, is not confined to research. And Peter Benda says that's very important.
"The raison d'ętre of our particular shop is to try to improve and strengthen teaching about the United States overseas," he said. "So we look primarily to people who are actually in teaching positions. I mean, the long-term impact that we're actually looking for… we're wondering have new courses about the United States been introduced? Have existing courses been re-vamped and new material introduced? That would be for us the real touchstone and measure of success."
"I just want to talk a little bit about, I think some of what you've discussed regarding religious groups in America, their impact on foreign policy," said the instructor.
It's still too soon to tell if the month-long seminars are having any impact on the way America's religious climate is handled in classrooms throughout the Islamic world. But the scholars participating in the program are definitely making use of the opportunity to talk about religion with American political scientists.
Khaldun Malek: There are obviously some Jewish neo-conservatives working in the government right now, very closely tied. And how does the Christian Right within the Bush administration, how do they work together with these groups?
Instructor: Yeah, the Jewish neo-conservatives and the Evangelicals are working rather closely together on a number of issues right now.
This is his first visit to the United States for Khaldun Malek, who teaches political theory at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, but he says he's been interested in the role of religion in American politics for a while. Mr. Malek says most Muslims outside the United States do not view America as an especially religious nation. He says because there's no clear separation between church and state in many predominately Muslim countries, people in those countries often assume America's "secular" society must be "anti-religious". But Khaldun Malek also says that's not the only reason most Muslims fail to appreciate America's religious nature.
"I come from a country where we get Baywatch every day, morning and evening," he laughed. "So on one hand, people may not get that impression as clearly as they ought to. I think there is an association with capitalism and pop culture when you talk about America. The underlying religious institutions, and religious ideas, and religious forms that are so pervasive in the country are not spoken about so openly. And I think a lot of people perhaps don't realize how influential they are."
Khaldun Malek also says the sheer diversity of American religion is very difficult to appreciate, unless you've been to this country. His colleague in the program, Azize Ozguven agrees. Ms. Ozguven is chair of the American Studies department at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.
"From abroad, it is not easy to know," she said. "Because I visited America three times, this is the third time. But before this time, I never realized that in America, religion was so diverse. It's amazing for me, and for American people, I would say it must be very difficult to make a choice between so many options."
Azize Ozguven says she hopes to establish a Ph.D program in American religion at her university which is, of course, exactly the sort of thing the U.S. State Department would like to see. As of now, there are no plans to fund a seminar on American religion next year. But Peter Benda of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs says he's confident the money will be found and a third seminar will take place.