Which Religious Right? A New Islamic College for America

Whom do we think of when we think of religious conservatives in the United States?  Folks who want to censor and ban books?  Who want to get kids out of public schools and into religious one?  Who question the authority of mainstream science?

Most important for today’s post, who do we think of when we think of religious folks who start their own schools and colleges in order to pass along their religious traditions?

The obvious suspects, of course, are conservative Protestants, especially those from the evangelical tradition.  As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have worked hard throughout the twentieth century to save young people from pernicious ideas such as materialism and evolution.  They have founded influential schools and colleges in order to do so.

But in this century, we need to consider a new type of conservative religious school, the Islamic academy.

Recently, Religion & Politics featured an excerpt from Scott Korb’s new book about Zaytuna College, “the Nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college.”

As Korb notes in this excerpt, Zaytuna College has big plans.  Its founders hope to make Zaytuna “a place where . . . the text of the Koran could meet the context of American culture.”  Korb also argues that Zaytuna’s famous co-founder, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, is best understood as “conservative.”

In some ways, Sheikh Hamza’s educational ideology seems to echo that of his Christian co-conservatives.  For instance, Korb points out that Yusuf works with his siblings to promote religious homeschooling.  He has warned fellow Muslims, “We absolutely must remove our children from state schools.”

Though Korb’s excerpt did not include this, Sheikh Hamza has also worked together with other religious-conservatives intellectuals to discourage the availability of pornography in hotels.  Sheikh Hamza has publicly critiqued arrogant mainstream science, science that purports to know more than it can reasonably justify.

In all these ways, Sheikh Hamza and his new college seem to parallel the thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  However, there are some important differences.  Look, for example, at the books he recommends.  Some are classics from the conservative canon.  Michael Behe’s intelligent-design polemic Darwin’s Black Box made the list, as did William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America and John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down.  Nothing most conservative evangelicals might not endorse.  But Sheikh Hamza’s reading list includes progressive favorites, including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of America and Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More important, history matters.  Korb points out that many journalists have been too quick to call Sheikh Hamza a “‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’ Muslim” due to Sheikh Hamza’s stern anti-terrorism.   Yet even a profoundly conservative Muslim educator in 2013 faces a very different educational landscape than that faced by conservative evangelicals in 2013, or 1973, or 1913.  Unlike conservative evangelical Protestants, conservatives of other traditions don’t have the common feeling of having “lost” public education in America.  For conservative Muslims, like conservative Catholics and other sorts of conservative religious folks, the public schools in the United States have historically been hostile institutions.  Not so for many conservative evangelical Protestants.  Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, anyone paying attention can hear a lingering desire among conservative evangelicals to “Reclaim YOUR School.”

What will it mean to have a new conservative college in the United States?  One from a very different faith tradition?  Perhaps this will continue the broadening of “conservatism” in America.  As James Davison Hunter predicted so many years ago, perhaps our culture wars will continue to change into broad, diverse coalitions of the “orthodox” against those on the other side.


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