Scholar David Forte, who spoke to a group of teachers earlier this month at the American College in Bryn Mawr, diagnosed the process that transformed the generally tolerant religion of Islam into a tool of oppression in the hands of the Islamists.
"In the Koran, Christians and Jews are respected," said Forte, a professor of law at Cleveland State University and a former Reagan-administration official. There is nothing in Islam, he assured, insisting that someone be a Muslim above all else.
Forte's hourlong talk was part of a two-day Foreign Policy Research Institute event called "Islam, Islamicism and Democratic Values," where 42 high school and college educators from 13 different states heard about the religion from scholars and experts.
Forte went on to discuss how the Koran stresses human rights, something that the world community probably does not associate with fundamentalist Islam.
If one follows the argument of the Koran, he noted, then "Islam should be the first to abolish slavery, and the first to give equal rights to women."
But when absolute governmental rule came to dominate Mideastern countries throughout much of history, the Koran's teachings began to be interpreted differently, often to satisfy the will of an autocratic ruler, explained the professor.
As an example, he said, the Koran does not order enemies to death but rather to damnation. Death as punishment came later, he noted – and autocracy made it possible.
Forte said that through the imposition of oppressive rule, these dictatorial interpretations of the Koran were gradually adopted by Islamicists.
"When two statutes are in conflict, which is superior?" posed Forte. "The most recent. That led to the fundamentalist interpretation" of Islam.
After the various lectures, the teachers discussed relevant resources, like books and Web sites, to help one another learn more about effective ways to teach Islam.
Nicole Roper, a world-history teacher at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia and at Gwynedd-Mercy College, told the group that she had a Muslim girl in one of her classes, and so let her tell the others about Islam, as well as answer any questions from students.
"It gives it a personal touch," stated Roper. "It's not so far out there where kids would say, 'It's never going to affect me.' It's actually in the classroom."
After the event, Benn Prybutok, who teaches a counterterrorism course to first responders like police and emergency medical personnel at Montgomery County Community College, felt like the two days of talks showed him that Islamicists are not just in the Middle East.
"There were some new insights on the demographics," he said, "particularly about expatriate populations in Western Europe and in the United States that were of significance for me."
Allen Barker, who traveled all the way from Hillcrest High School in rural South Carolina, wants his students to think of more than what they see in the nightly news reports.
"I want to try to take the focus off the terror," said the world-history teacher. "That's what my kids understand. I want to give them a broader perspective."
With the lectures providing differing opinions on how the Middle East will progress, Edwin Marks, head of the history department at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, said he better understands the complexities now.
"If there's one thing that I'll take away, it's that the Islamic world is very complicated and confused," said Marks. "These people that we heard, they know their stuff, and yet they're all struggling for answers as to how we move the issue of the Middle East – and its place in the world – forward."