Talking about Religion in the United States in Class X

In teaching in Class X, I decided to revisit the concept of religion in the United States. I wanted to talk about religion because many interesting notions and misconceptions exist in Bangladesh about what is religious freedom in the U.S., especially for Muslims. Before I began the class, I handed everyone a piece of paper and asked the students to write down their thoughts, opinions, or questions as lectured. I gave them the option of writing anonymously if they so desired. I required everyone’s participating in writing as it was a way not only for them to practice writing and expressing opinions, but to also force them to think about topic on their own.

First I started to talk about the “separation of church and state”- one of the most important pillars in the first amendment of the American constitution. I discussed how religious freedom has always been an essential part of the American society. I discussed the fact that there was no official state religion, no religious holidays, and how religion in particular was not welcome in public institutions. I used public schools as my main example to convey how religious could not be placed in public institutions.  I used the example of Rajuk where religious comments and customs related to Islam are often expressed whereas that would not be the case or accepted in American public schools.

Further, I wrote down the pledge of allegiance on the board and asked the students to respond to its words. They were immediate to see that the sentence “one nation under God” could be potentially contradictory to the ideals of “separation of church and state”.  Some students argued that it did not matter if God was mentioned or not because the pledge was a long standing cultural component. Others thought that the contradiction should be taken care of and changed. One student wrote in response, “Everyone believes in God, but in a different way. So there is no problem in saying God. If you think it gets mixed with your government or state, then be it. Take that as a culture. If you don’t, forget it”.

I also talked about Islam in the United States, using 9/11, as well as the mosque building controversy last summer in Ground Zero. Mentioning how Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the country, especially among women raised some eyebrows. I talked about my personal experience of not ever getting discriminated as a Muslim woman in America, about my parents who have indeed faced discrimination, to other anecdotes. Students listened with much attention at this moment but many were still not convinced that various opinions exist in the United States.

I asked the students if they thought that the government had some responsibility in bettering the image of Muslims in the United States, or do American Muslims have the responsibility? One student said that it had to be both, or none. Many said that the government did have a responsibility as there would never be an understanding otherwise, and the government existed to serve the people which included Muslims. One student wrote, “I mean, if the Muslims are downtrodden and discriminated only because they are Muslim, the government should do something; even if the “separation of church and state” is followed. I mean, every individual has the right to religion, and these rights cannot be violated. If these rights are violates, shouldn’t the U/S/ government do something?”

I asked the students then to discuss if this idea of “separation of church and state” would be possible in Bangladesh? Is separating religion from the government important? One student wrote in their response that there was no use of separating church and state when “there is hardly any fighting among the people of different religions staying in Bangladesh”. Another student wrote, “Bangladesh is better off being a Muslim state. People of all religions are welcome here and nobody is offending them. Nobody is putting a stop to anyone in observing their religious rituals”. Some students vocalized that it would be ideal to have religion separated from the government but that would only be possible in a democratic country.

As the class was winding down, I could sense that there was some tension in the class. The word “controversy” and “taboo” were used often in the responses to talk about the class in general. Many students were uncomfortable with the idea of religious freedom in America as they were convinced that all Muslims are treated unfairly in the country. I tried to emphasize that making generalizations about a diverse country like America is dangerous.

In turn, I also faced many questions. One student asked if I actually knew anything about Islam, which I was taken aback by as a fellow Muslim. One student asked, “If someone kills another because of religious reasons, would the American law not be able to say anything because it was done on religious bounds and there is religious freedom?” I thought that this was a fascinating question in looking at the separation of church and state. I responded that no matter what, murder took precedence in this case as a punishable crime. I asked if he had agreed and how he would feel if the same scenario took place in Bangladesh and he agreed with my answer.

Another student asked, “if let’s say Afghani refugees went to America and for jihad they started killing people. Would that again be not punishable because it is for religious purposes?” I responded by asking what he meant by Jihad in his question, and he responded that it meant defending the religion. I then asked, if I was defending Islam in front of the class, am I not performing jihad according to his definition? He responded that supposedly, and I told him that such things do not need to be violent, and any violence should be taken note of in a civil society.

As the class winded down, many students were reacting to the different ideas of religion as raised. Few students told me that it was not right that people did not believe in God. One student said that people in Bangladesh sincerely believed in God and so it was not possible to separate Islam from governance. Many also could not separate the political from the religious for Bangladesh. One student wrote that it is “impossible” to separate religion from the state in Bangladesh “because the opposition party would protest, and take all measures against the decision or even they would bring up the no-confidence vote and the whole country will be in support”. Students seem to be very aware that the state is too connected to Islam in their country that imposing different ideas could potentially be precarious.

Some students stayed after the class to talk to me. They came to apologize of they had offended me which was a bit surprising as the thought never occurred to me. As they walked with me outside of the class they said that religion is a taboo topic to discuss in school but were glad that I had brought it up because they have never had a venue to discuss such issues. I continued to receive apologies for some of the tension. I was not sure how to react to everything that had happened but I think that I may have gained some success if the forty minutes talking about religion in America instigated conversations outside of the classroom.






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