Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbooks Tell Us: Part Five of Five

by GILBERT T. SEWALL May 16, 2008

Although some bright spots can be found among textbook lessons, serious omissions and misrepresentations in Islam-related chapters are apparent, and not in just one or two textbooks. To understand how this happened, it is important to take into account the system that oversees the textbook adoption process. State departments of education are usually eager to quiet the unquiet. Boards of education may take sides on content for political reasons. The system encourages pressure groups to do what they do. For simple economic reasons, not on account of ideology, publishers allow partisan participation in editing and writing. Editors make changes in response to detailed lists and objections submitted by recognized religious and nonreligious lobbies. Local panels want to minimize friction. Whether the subject is abstinence or Islam, religion-based groups are easily upset when textbooks don't go their way.

Flexibility of taste and, on matters of content, an element of nihilism are essentials for textbook publishing executives and editors. Top editors - who in the case of social studies publishing are indistinguishable from marketing executives - make a business of appeasing pressure groups. Islamic activists, some with no academic credentials or background, are listed as academic reviewers in major textbooks from several companies and imprints. The Council on Islamic Education and other Islamic education organizations are secretive and easily agitated. Their links and consulting activities with publishers raise unanswered questions and merit further scrutiny.

The contest over textbook content increasingly pits evidence-based scholarship against political partisanship, and the victory of scholarship is far from assured. One stratum of U.S. thought - one that is influential in school publishing today - resists ugly facts about Islam that involve violations of liberal ideals and dangers to international security. To worry about Islamic revivalism or to object to a controlling Islamic "voice" in the nation's history textbooks, no matter the reason or argument, violates multicultural convention and is thus politically risky. Epithets such as "Islamophobia" deaden the debate.

Ready-made political movements, especially those on campus, allow Islamist organizations and allied scholars to game textbook content. Islamists use the rhetoric of diversity, rights, tolerance, and democracy to conduct a cultural struggle over history textbook content to their advantage. The Council on Islamic Education, trading on its influence with textbook publishers, opened a spectral 2008 Web site called the Institute for Religion and Civic Values. It offered "consulting, training and resources pertaining to issues of religion, identity, freedom, and pluralism to policymakers, educators, the media, organizations and communities, in order to strengthen civil society." In the case of Islamic activism, theological aims are often concealed in familiar, appealing civic language.

Few publishers or editors understand history textbooks for what they are: instruments of civic education that have among their responsibilities the obligation to alert the young to threats to American ideals and security. Editors mistakenly depend on highly biased sources for trustworthy, impartial information about Islam, a subject about which they probably know little or nothing. Admittedly, the gulf of opinion in today's Islamic and Middle East studies is hard to bridge.

Islam-related content has expanded in world history textbooks. This in itself is not a problem and, in fact, could have been a gain. But it is not. Reverential treatment of Islamic history is accompanied by lost reverence for - or even interest in - Western achievement and influence. Europeans and Americans respond to religion-based cultural differences with "what is variously known as multiculturalism and political correctness," Bernard Lewis observed in 2007. "In the Muslim world there are no such inhibitions. They are very conscious of their identity. They know who they are and what they are and what they want, a quality which we seem to have lost to a very large extent. This is a source of strength in the one, of weakness in the other."

This review finds:

  • Many political and religious groups try to use the textbook process to their advantage, but the deficiencies in Islam-related lessons are uniquely disturbing. History textbooks present an incomplete and confected view of Islam that misrepresents its foundations and challenges to international security.
  • Misinformation and bias about Islam are more pronounced in junior high school textbooks than high school textbooks.
  • Outright errors are not the main problem in textbooks, although in certain subject areas they are plentiful. The more serious failure is the presence of disputed definitions and tenuous claims that are presented as established facts. Careful wording hides more than it explains. Euphemisms and artful phrases abound. When textbooks write of the "vision of a pure Islamic society" or Islamic "tradition," what do they mean?
  • Deficiencies about Islam in textbooks copyrighted before 2001 persist and in some cases have grown worse. Textbook coverage of jihad and sharia are cases in point. Instead of making corrections or acknowledging contested facts, publishers and their editors defend misinformation and content evasions against the record. Bias persists. Silences are profound and intentional. These omissions exist in volumes that have been written from scratch and introduced into classrooms since 2005.
  • Islamic activists use multiculturalism and ready-made American political movements, especially those on campus, to advance and justify the makeover of Islam-related content in history textbooks.
  • Particular fault rests with the publishing corporations, the boards of directors, and executives who decide what editorial policies their companies will pursue.

History textbooks should stress that:

  • The Islamic conquest of the Mediterranean defined the Middle Ages and Europe. Arabic conquests and expansion occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Turks who conquered the Balkans and Asia Minor, the Mongols in Central Asia, and the Delhi Sultanate in South Asia were Islamic expansionists who were not Arabic, and their conquests occurred centuries after the Arabs took control of what today is called the Middle East.
  • Containment of Islam was European policy from Tours to Vienna. Landmark encounters occurred between Europe and Islam from the early Middle Ages to modern times: Battle of Tours (732), First Crusade (1095), fall of Constantinople (1453), and Battle of Vienna (1683). In each case textbooks should explain how and why the West was threatened. Likewise, textbooks should explain that the so-called age of discovery and the voyages of Columbus to the New World in fact were a European search for maritime trade routes to Asia designed to circumvent Muslim territories.
  • Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 began the push of "the West" into Islamic lands, for strategic and, later, economic reasons. In the nineteenth century European imperial powers took sovereign control of Islamic territories and introduced laws, political values, and educational systems into colonies with varying responses. From the 1920s economic imperialism prevailed. The presence of oil in Islamic lands has uniquely affected geopolitics and global transportation ever since. Additionally, the influence of Western entertainment carries an aspect of cultural imperialism.

When textbooks cover Islam as a geopolitical and cultural force in the world today, they should explain:

  • Islam is aggressive in a postcolonial world. The Arabic union against Israel since 1948 and the creation of Pakistan after World War II provide vivid historical illustrations. In today's world Islam has several power centers: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia. The idea of Islamic unity is constrained by the vicious division and power struggles of Sunni and Shia sects, as contemporary Iraq makes clear. Muslims include the Taliban of Afghanistan and the bankers of Abu Dhabi.

Yet Islam sees a world split into dar al-harb and dar al-islam. Dar al-harb (territory of war or chaos) is its term for the regions where Islam does not dominate, where divine will is not observed, and therefore where continuing strife is the norm. By contrast, dar al-islam (territory of peace) is Islam's term for those territories where Islam does dominate, where submission to God is observed, and where peace and tranquility reign. This ideation constitutes-to what extent, experts disagree-a rivalry of alternative worldviews, metaphysical ideas, and conceptions of evil. But these ideas, if acted upon by the Islamic revivalists who are rapidly growing in number, might constitute a clear and present danger to global security, particularly in the West. Al Qaeda is the orchestrated global effort to re-establish Islam's historical and mythic supremacy worldwide through jihad. The international community has immense collective self-interest and incentive to avoid nuclear terrorism as a holy struggle.

  • Islam's ability to embrace modernity and secular society remains an open question. Many leaders in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan - and many more than in the recent past - are ambivalent about or reacting to twentieth-century secularism. Almost a century ago the eminent medieval historian Ferdinand Lot concluded that Islam's legal and political outlook made a modus vivendi with the West unlikely. Specialists today point out that Islam has no real institutional or theological mechanism to facilitate religious liberty. It has no element that allows the individual or society to explore, criticize or deny doctrine without fear of punishment or reprisal. At its extremes, it raises the prospect of thought control.

There are contradictions. There are the Afghani Taliban on one hand, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai on the other. It would be correct to call Islamic nations worldwide - not only Saudi Arabia - the oil and banking partners of the United States. Much Islamic migration to the West is for economic improvement and individual freedom. Islamists worldwide do not reject Western medicine or sanitation. They accept the global financial system. They accept the Internet and air transport. Yet can Islam reconcile itself to modernity with its emphasis on the individual and freedom, equality and materialism, entertainment, and limited authority for religion? The economist Stefan Voigt concludes from extensive comparative research: "Most Muslim countries do not fare well with regard to a number of indicators that serve as proxies for the three institutions at the core of free societies: the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and a market economy. Islamic values are not conducive to the establishment and maintenance of these institutions." The more hopeful views of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman cannot mask his recognition of retrograde forces within Islam and a resultant "war of ideas," one that can be resolved only by Muslims themselves and one that "politically correct" Americans refuse - or fear - to acknowledge.

From what they read in history textbooks, students and teachers are not likely to grasp why the United States and its allies consider militant Islam an enemy. Students will not learn that broadly based Islamist factions sanction violence in countries all over the world. They will not grasp the connection between jihad and September 11. Students may read of extremists, militants, and "anti-coalition forces." They will not realize that the "coalition" is in fact their nation, the United States, and its allies (notably the United Kingdom), and that "anti-coalition forces" are also known as Al Qaeda, insurgents, and suicide bombers. These labels make no connection to radical Islam. Even when textbooks link Islam directly to terrorism, the ways in which Islam is extreme or militant - and thereby of peril to the United States and West - remain unexplained and off the table.

Whether they are thirteen or eighteen, students studying the features of contemporary Islam should pause to consider why they might abhor living in a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia - and why theocracy would be at the root of their discomfort. They are old enough to recognize manifold differences between the United States and the Islamic world. They can realize that religion-based customs and laws proscribe personal choices and civil rights that Americans of all ages take for granted. Social studies textbooks have a civic obligation to emphasize why inhibitions and limitations on the political power of religion - separation of church and state - are central to the modern Western tradition. They should compare the political rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens to those of non-Western nations, Islamic and not. They don't. Far from it.

It is impossible today for American teachers and students not to be exposed to a belligerent dimension of Islam. On television and the news students see Muslims celebrate September 11th, cheer the London subway bombings, and burn effigies of Western political leaders. Some must wonder why what they hear about Islam inside classrooms and what they observe outside classrooms so clash. Isn't this state of affairs ironic when New York City and Washington, London and Amsterdam, Madrid and Tel Aviv, Moscow and New Delhi have been on the receiving end of Islamic terrorism? Even more so when this civic failure occurs in tax-purchased instructional materials that are used in tax-supported public institutions?

Well-conceived, informed guides and supplementary instructional materials do exist, such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's "Terrorists, Despots and Democracy: What Our Children Need to Know" (2003), or the Watson Institute for International Studies's "Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy" (2003). For high school classrooms, "Fighting for the Soul of Islam" (April 18, 2007), an analytical summary from U.S. News and World Report, provides a short, sharp-edged summary of Islam's variations and the contemporary global challenges posed by radical Islam.

For textbook content reform, a beginning would be using classic source books such as the Columbia History of the World as benchmarks and filters for reliable history content. Widely known texts, not partisan historians or activist groups, could provide a center of gravity for textbook writers and editors.

In the end the blame for textbook deficiencies rests with the publishers and their governing boards. School publishing is organized in such ways that its managers cannot think about anything other than wide penetration of the mass market, high unit sales, district enrollments, and major state adoptions. Houghton Mifflin and Teachers' Curriculum Institute are privately held corporations, complicating scrutiny and accountability. Editorial content strategies are designed to deflect protests and to please any number of prickly textbook pressure groups. Reform requires more than the adjustment of a few textbook passages. It requires that school boards, educational administrators, state departments of education, and elected officials at all levels of government take notice of content problems and serve notice to publishers of public objections. Textbook production involves a certain public trust. Therefore, textbook lapses such as these should stir public disrespect and outrage. Parents and civic groups can only complain. Change requires the action of the corporations, boards of directors, and executives who decide what editorial policies these companies will pursue.

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