Religious Illiteracy, Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions
At the first annual meeting of the European Academy of Religion (EuARe) organized this March by John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies (FSCIRE) in Bologna, one of the most important issues discussed was the problem of widespread religious illiteracy and the need for a better understanding of religions in order to foster greater mutual understanding in a culturally and religiously diverse society. FSCIRE’s director Prof. Alberto Melloni and Dr. Francesca Cadeddu, Secretary General of EuARe, have currently been undertaking a major project of integrating religious literacy into the Italian curriculum and help students thrive in a pluralistic, culturally and religiously diverse society. This project brings the topic of religion out of religious instruction setting and integrates religious literacy into a variety of courses at secondary educational institutions.
In the last few years, religious illiteracy is perhaps affecting Muslims much more than any other religious group in the world. Every time an act of terror or shooting occurs in the U.S. or Europe, Muslims closely watch the news and hope that the suspect is not a “Muslim”. We have been witnessing news outlets fueling the fire with headlines pointing out the convict’s religion while non-Muslim acts of brutality are received with reticence by politicians and the media. Historically, we have witnessed how far religious illiteracy can go when anti-Semitism have promoted countless atrocities, including the Holocaust, against the Jewish people. Diane L. Moore, the founder and director of Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School defines religious literacy as: “The ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social / political / cultural life through multiple lenses.” Moore notes that “another example in countries where Muslims are in the minority is the widespread association of Islam with terrorism and the consequent justification of individual hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslim as well as overt (or barely veiled) political rhetoric that lends justification for State sponsored acts of aggression, including war.”1 On January 8, Professor Moore has launched a new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through HarvardX entitled “Religion, Conflict, and Peace in Contemporary Global Affairs”.2 Stephen Prothero’s NY Times best selling book, Religious Literacy, contends that the United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy. Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
In 2016, All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education published a report entitled “Improving Religious Literacy: A Contribution to the Debate”. The report points out the need for an improved public understanding of religion as “religious illiteracy can lead to media stories which perpetuate stereotypes, are inaccurate, or foster suspicion and government policies which damage relations between particular religious groups and the wider society.”3
The negative portrayal of Muslims in the media is not new; a number of prominent figures among the early Muslim community in the U.S. also defended Islam against various stereotypes among the public and in the media.
In 1893, Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in conjunction with the Chicago Exposition, was the first global seminar on religion. The parliament included not only traditional Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—but also featured new religious movements of the time, like Christian Science, Spiritualism, and the Baha’i Faith. In his welcome remarks Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902), an American clergyman of First Presbyterian Church and Chairman of the 1893 General Committee on the Congress of Religions, said: “Believing that nations and faiths are separated in part by ignorance and prejudice, why shall not this parliament help to remove the one and soften the other?”
Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, the earliest prominent American convert to Islam, was the only representative of Islam at the Parliament. A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb by Umar F. Abd-Allah, is a biography of Alexander Russell Webb which reveals his journey as a central figure of American Islam during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Raised as a Presbyterian, Webb began to cultivate an interest in other religions. During his post as the US consul to the Philippines in 1887, he took a greater interest in Islam and converted in 1888. Webb also founded the first Islamic institution in the United States: the American Mission. He wrote numerous books intended to introduce his religion to Americans, started the first Islamic press in the United States, and published a journal entitled The Moslem World. In 1901, he was appointed as the Honorary Turkish Consul General in New York and travelled to Istanbul, where he was awarded two Ottoman medals of merits (Liyakat Madalyası) by Sultan Albdulhamid II.4
Alexander Russell Webb delivered two lectures at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In his “The Influence of Social Condition” lecture, Webb noted:
“If a Mohammedan, Turk, Egyptian, Syrian or African commits a crime, the newspaper reports do not tell us that it was committed by a Turk, an Egyptian, a Syrian or an African, but by a Mohammedan. If an Irishman, an Italian, a Spaniard, or a German commits a crime in the United States, we do not say that it was committed by a Methodist or a Baptist, nor even a Christian; we designate the man by his nationality. But, just as soon as a membership of the East is arrested for a crime or misdemeanor, he is registered as a representative of the religion his parents followed or he has adopted.”
Webb’s address in fact revolved around the topic of religious illiteracy that was obscuring common sense and fueling stereotyping, prejudice and antagonism. He noted: “We should only judge the inherent tendencies of a religious system by observing carefully and without its general effects upon the character and habits of those who are intelligent enough to understand its basic principles, and who publicly profess to teach or follow it…. In forming our estimate of a religion we should also calmly analyze its fundamentals and consider the racial and climactic influences that surround its followers as well as their national habits and customs.”
Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s experiences in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can perhaps shed better light on the controversies around Islam in the West today. And a variety of initiatives aimed at improving religious literacy among students, teachers, policy-makers, and media professionals that have emerged in the last few years will certainly help not to repeat the mistakes of the past.