x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Know the culture before you try to teach the children

Before you aspire to teach my children, you should acquire a sophisticated understanding of my culture and religion.

I recently worked with a group of parents to arrange additional Arabic lessons for our kids, as the international school they attend did not provide enough.

As I discussed a potential curriculum with other parents, a school supervisor asked - with discernible concern - if verses from the Quran featured in these extra lessons.

"Well why not?" I asked. "It is one of the best ways to learn the language."

As I offered my opinion I could sense this person's dark distrust of the Quran swell into her eyes. The Quran, to her must be filled with belligerence, calls to arms, jihad and all of the regrettable and incorrect impressions that some people have about Islam.

A word like "jihad" has seen better days and had far greater respect in earlier times.

When I was in school, we were told that one can be in jihad through learning, hard work, professionalism, caring for family, and standing for God and country - all of which receive ample levels of admiration and recognition. I once even had a teacher called Jihad.

Linguistically, in Arabic at least, the word has a nice ring to it, and we all sensed its nobility.

Although schools in my country did not teach political dogma through Quran lessons, some historians will tell you that political jihad started after the Prophet's death with successive caliphs developing and fine-tuning the art of politicising religion for their expansionary ambitions - not unlike leaders of other faiths have sometimes done.

Interpretations of the Quran vary, have done so for a long time, and I suspect they will unfortunately continue to do so; witness their divergence when opinions are carried to their extremes among Shiite and Sunnis - two of many Muslim sects.

Independent or impartial interpretations assume high levels of knowledge and responsibility. They also assume freedom from political guile or monetary favour, a rare condition these days.

As a result, not all interpretations are born equal, and some are used to unite the many races and religious sects in a country, while others are used to weaken or even dismantle another country.

And when there is a particularly bad story to tell, you can be sure the global media will be on hand to take part in telling it.

Hired religious opinion-makers are also prevalent in at least one other high-profile field: Islamic banking depends on fatwas rendering an alternate form of charging clients acceptable, without openly opposing conventional banking (note that some Islamic banks are also sister companies to conventional ones).

In this domain, individuals who possess seemingly disparate expertise in religion and finance bless the rules. They are also handsomely paid by Islamic banks. Yet they must draw their fatwas from the same Quran, for there is only one.

Another tricky cultural perception lies in the phrase "western-educated," which can be a double-edged sword. If you are from the Middle East, you are generally deemed to be "western-educated" if you have earned a university degree in Europe or the United States.

People in this category answer to a number of expectations. To people from the West, you have spent a number of years there and therefore are seen as being attuned to its sensitivities.

In the media, "western-educated" most often means you are a friend to the West, which can create its challenges for you.

To yourself, if you have been educated in the West you may well be acutely aware of, and sometimes caught between, your eastern heart and your western friends.

But what of westerners who live in the East? Would they become "eastern-educated" if they lived in the East for as many years as it takes to earn a degree, or for longer? Can they too be western-educated with eastern sensitivities?

This would mean gaining an understanding of the role religion plays in our lives, and seeing it for what it is for the common man: a set of values that permeates all aspects of life, peaceful in origin as its name suggests, and therefore not unlike most other religions.

People who tell you otherwise are either ignorant or politicians.

I am saying you should invest in some local education if you are living in the East, especially if you are in the business of influencing schoolchildren.


Anees Sultan is a businessman based in Oman