World history and cultures textbooks aimed at 7th to 9th grade:
World history textbooks aimed at 10th to 12th grade:
Three main factors—the terrorism of September 11, 2001, the expanded military and political role of the United States in Muslim lands, and the growth of America's Muslim population—have focused attention on how Islamic history and religion are taught in America's public schools. There are 45 million public school students in the United States; textbook sales for elementary and secondary schools are a $4 billion industry. While young Americans may encounter Islam informally in television news, magazines, and movies, material in school textbooks has special authority as students are expected to learn and repeat it.
What the young reader encounters is the outcome of a competition among intellectual, political, and commercial forces. It is inevitably a compromise. But in the case of Islam, the distance between that compromise and observable reality has become dangerously wide. This is the argument of Gilbert T. Sewall, in a report on Islam in American textbooks done for the American Textbook Council (ATC).
The ATC is an independent New York-based research organization, which reviews history textbooks and other educational materials with the aim of improving civic education. Sewall, who directs the ATC and authored its report, was a history instructor at Phillips Academy and an education editor at Newsweek. He has written widely on educational renewal and is the coauthor of an American history textbook.
The ATC review swims against the tide of nearly thirty years of textbook advocacy in favor of sympathetic representations of Islam. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the professional association for college- and university-level Middle East area studies, has published three editions of its textbook review since 1975. MESA has sought to bring textbooks into conformity with the prevailing prejudices of university specialists, whose own biases run strongly to apologetics for Islamism and identification with Arab and Palestinian political causes. The latest review (1994) endorsed some textbooks for their sensitivity to Islamic themes and criticized others for their "Euro-American" perspectives. Textbook publishers take such criticism seriously, coming as it does from the leading organization of Middle East area specialists.
Muslim and Islamist activists, purporting to speak for the Muslim community, have added their weight to the academics. Foremost among them is the Council on Islamic Education (CIE), a Muslim-American organization that monitors the treatment of Islam in public education. The CIE and other Islamist groups have a vested interest in the representation of Islam in a homogenized way, shorn of critical references. Their influence has grown; for example, some textbooks list the CIE as a reviewer of their contents.
The results of this textbook advocacy have been unfortunate. In the 1990s, some of the most popular contemporary textbooks substituted superficial treatment of Islam with apologetics and denial. The report by the ATC demonstrates how some of the most basic facts about Islam—those available to any adult reader in the standard works of Bernard Lewis—have been completely obscured from view in widely-used textbooks.
The following document excerpts the most significant passages from the ATC's report. Numbers given in parentheses are the page numbers for quotes from the cited textbooks. For the full report, visit its website at http://www.historytextbooks.org/islam.
Starting in the summer of 2001, the American Textbook Council undertook a comprehensive textbook review in world history. World history is a controversial social studies mandate that is rapidly expanding at the state level. Islam and the Textbooks grows out of this larger work, still in progress, surveying many aspects of world history textbook content. How widely-adopted world history textbooks cover Islam and the history of the Middle East is a timely and important subject. The Council's findings and conclusions rely on respected historians and standard sources, prominent articles and essays, and diverse bulletins.
The Council compared the content of these sources to lessons and textual passages in seven widely-adopted world history textbooks used between the seventh and twelfth grades. It also conducted an extensive web search of Islam-related source material intended for classroom use. What the comparison revealed were content distortions and inaccuracies that have not occurred by accident. These lessons and the process by which they are put into America's classrooms raise serious concerns about the integrity of world history as a subject.
What the Textbooks Say
[Over the last decade], the coverage of Islam in world history textbooks has expanded and in some respects improved, offering students a detailed look at the Muslim world through the centuries, one that explains its origins and tenets, including the difference between the Sunni and Shi'ite sects, and one that dwells on the splendors of Islamic art and architecture, learning and science, medicine and knowledge through the ages. But on significant Islam-related subjects, textbooks omit, flatter, embellish, and resort to happy talk, suspending criticism or harsh judgments that would raise provocative or even alarming questions.
In understanding the history and nature of Islam, the concept of jihad is uniquely important. The term embodies an element of friction that exists between many Muslims and nonbelievers—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist—enmity grounded in Islamic desire for political and territorial power. Jihad in its historical usage refers almost exclusively to armed warfare by Muslims against non-Muslims. Most editorial boards have no difficulty digesting this idea, nor do the nation's political and military elites. On the other hand, many prominent academics deny any martial aspect of the Muslim faith, ignoring or dismissing violent Islamic jihads from Algeria to Indonesia and locating the problem in Western colonialism.
What is jihad? Bernard Lewis, writing in The Middle East, states:
Lewis concludes this passage, saying: "The object of jihad is to bring the whole world under Islamic law."
World history textbooks fail to make this simple but ultra-important point. According to a Council on Islamic Education subject guide intended for publishers, jihad means "'struggle' or 'exertion' and refers to any spiritual, moral or physical struggle," and "struggle in the cause of God, which can take many forms. In the personal sphere, efforts such as obtaining an education, trying to quit smoking, or controlling one's temper are forms of jihad." The term "holy war," the Council says, is a misrepresentation. Jihad is transformed into an esoteric form of Muslim self-improvement.
A widely adopted seventh-grade Houghton Mifflin world history, Across the Centuries, says that jihad is merely a struggle "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil." This interpretation has on its face an element of accuracy; anyone or anything not under Muslim rule and control may be characterized as evil. But this textbook is not in any way exceptional. One high-profile high school textbook, Houghton Mifflin's Patterns of Interaction, a world history textbook for high school students adopted in Texas in November 2002, does not even mention jihad, a lapse as noteworthy as any imaginable on the entire subject of Islam.
Prentice Hall's Connections to Today, which names the Council on Islamic Education as an editorial reviewer, is the nation's most widely used world history textbook, also adopted by Texas in 2002. The textbook says: "Some Muslims took on jihad, or effort in God's service, as another duty. Jihad has often been mistakenly translated simply as 'holy war.' In fact, it may include acts of charity or an inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace, as well as any battle in defense of Islam" (254). Its glossary says: "jihad: in Islam, an effort in God's service" (1017). It is inconceivable that a textbook writer would formulate this definition without external prompting from an Islamic source, given the peculiar and vague choice of words and language.
Not all textbook content is this misinformative. Yet other explanations remain opaque and puzzling. Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Continuity and Change, a third high school textbook, contains two definitions in one: "One important requirement [of faith] was jihad. Europeans, threatened by Muslim armies, later translated this term as 'holy war,' but a more accurate translation would be 'struggle for the faith.' In the early years of Muslim expansion, however, jihad did mean primarily fighting and dying for the faith. Muslims believed that a warrior who died in battle for the faith would immediately be admitted to paradise. The term also means the constant inner struggle people experience in their effort to obey God's will or any effort in the cause of faith" (256).
Glencoe's The Human Experience comes closer to the reality of jihad and its ambitions. "The Arab armies were successful for several reasons. First, they were united in the belief that they had a religious duty to spread Islam. The Islamic state, therefore, saw the conquests as a jihad, or holy struggle to bring Islam to other lands" (278). The glossary says: "jihad: Muslim struggle to introduce Islam to other lands" (1035). Since this textbook also lists the Council on Islamic Education as an editorial reviewer, it may be concluded that some social studies editors take the Council on Islamic Education's instructions more seriously than others.
Islamic organizations indignantly insist that Islam is a religion of peace. Historical evidence often points to a different conclusion. Much is made of the Qur'anic injunction against attacks on innocent, unarmed people. Less is made of the fact that "enemies" and infidels do not fall under the protective umbrella. The annihilation of Israel and the U.S. may be the just vision and dream. For Muslims who are devoted to victory over the satanic West, this definition of jihad fits quite well.
As in the case of jihad, Islamic holy law—shari'a—is tailored and cut, making an appearance as an alternative legal system or perhaps as a lifestyle. Holy law is explained in abstract, sketchy, and cryptic language that fails to convey the truth of the matter. Of shari'a, historically, Bernard Lewis says, "In an Islamic state, there is in principle no law other than the shari'a, the Holy Law of Islam." Elsewhere, he states, "There is, for example, no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history. There is only a single law, the shari'a, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters more specifically concerned with religion in the limited, Christian sense of that word." Lewis adds: "The principal function of the Islamic state and society was to maintain and enforce these rules" and that "the idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, or any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought."
The Council on Islamic Education ignores all of this. Its construction of shari'a is at once cryptic and lyrical: "Literally 'the path,'" says one Council definition, "this term refers to guidance from God to be used by Muslims to regulate their societal and personal affairs. The Shari'ah is based upon the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Muhammad, and is interpreted by scholars in deliberating and deciding upon questions and issues of a legal nature." At best, this is an incomplete explanation.
How do world history textbooks define shari'a? McDougal Littell's Patterns of Interaction contains an absurdly abstract explanation: "This system of law regulates the family life, moral conduct, and business and community life of Muslims. It does not separate religious matters from criminal or civil matters, but brings all aspects of life together. Because shari'a applies to all who follow the teachings of the Prophet, it brings a sense of unity to all Muslims" (237).
Prentice Hall's Connections to Today states as vaguely: "Islam has been a shaping force in the Middle East for more than 1,300 years. As in the past, the Qur'an and Shari'a provide guidance on all aspects of life—from religious faith, law, and government to family and business relationships" (892). Unlike some other textbooks, it offers a clear view of shari'a's reach and at least distinguishes it from Western legal traditions:
These passages are similar in tone and content to Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Continuity and Change: "The shari'a guided the personal conduct of all Muslims, including religious observances, marriage, divorce, business affairs, and inheritance. It also outlined the appropriate practices of Islamic government. Adherence to the shari'a soon became one of the most important elements of the Muslims' sense of identity" (257).
Of shari'a, The Human Experience says merely: "Law cannot be separated from religion in Islamic society. Islam has no ranked order of clergy. Instead, generations of legal scholars have organized Islamic moral principles into a body of law known as the shari'a. Based on the Qur'an and the Hadith, or sayings of Muhammad, the shari'a covers all aspects of Muslim private and public life" (275).
Such textbook explanations are almost meaningless chatter. What aspects of shari'a do most world history textbooks fail to convey? That the Islamic state is an agent of religion. Civil society, separation of church and state, limited government, an independent judiciary, and the underlying notions of personal liberty and individual freedom, notably freedom of religion, are alien concepts. So are such items as due process, trial by jury, and chartered protection.
Holy law is not a variant of jurisprudence as it is known in the U.S. and Western democracies. Shari'a bears no resemblance to American law based on the Roman and British constitutions, a tradition that stretches from the second century B.C.E. and Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights and Fourteenth Amendment. It is not a legal system as Americans understand it. It is instead an accreted medley of precepts, proscriptions, and religious devotions tied to the Qur'an, interpreted as dicta by an authoritarian, priestly caste. Shari'a can be a system of religion-based behavioral control in which certain crimes are punishable by stoning, flogging, amputation, and beheading, punishments intended to inspire subjection and fear.
Status of Women
On the one hand, world history textbooks contort themselves to include women in history and amplify their accomplishments, never failing to mention or invent obstacles to their progress and achievements. On the other, textbooks try to explain away or recast any inconvenient detail concerning the treatment of women in the Islamic world that would be considered backward, unacceptable, or even revolting in the West. Human Heritage, a world history textbook designed for seventh and eighth grade use, covers the subject in insipid, florid language:
But such patter is not confined to elementary and middle schools. Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Continuity and Change, a high school textbook, states:
The points made in Glencoe's The Human Experience conform to Islamist prescriptions, mixed with vague propositions and false claims:
Prentice Hall's Connections to Today provides another example of the treatment of women in the Islamic world:
Not in one textbook but in many, teachers and students read about obscure figures such as Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya, a Sufi poetess of the eighth century (Continuity and Change, 258; Connections to Today, 263); Shajar (Human Heritage, 341), a thirteenth-century freed slave who is said to have become ruler of Egypt; Maisuna (The Human Experience, 283), a Bedouin poetess who is presented as a proto-feminist; and Tansu Çiller (The Human Experience, 965), the first female prime minister of Turkey. Textbook editors' relentless search to find such historical figures deforms and cheapens world history. But such gender conventions are embedded in the history textbook editorial and design process across all civilizations and centuries.
What is missing from world history textbooks? That Muslim women today are seen by many men to be not much more than chattel; that, for these men, women are fit to be servants and breeders; and that a wife's autonomy is interpreted as a sign of female disobedience and disrespect. Patterns of Interaction includes a two-page four-color folio of photographs with "educational" captions of "Wedding Rituals Around the World." (Remember the kind of light, pictorial subject matter that textbook editors incline toward in the first place.) A bridal fair among Berbers in Morocco is presented as a happy quirk of local custom in which courtship lasts three days. What goes unsaid is that such "bridal fairs" are essentially places where marriages are arranged and where fathers negotiate dowries (essentially selling their daughters). Grooms take home brides sheathed in burqas, henceforth to serve and obey and breed. Here is one more example of textbook unwillingness or inability to confront profound questions regarding the status of Muslim women, sidestepping the issues with the exotic and picturesque.
Why Textbooks Changed
During the last decade, for good reasons, world history textbooks have rapidly expanded their coverage of non-Western civilizations. European political history, educators agree, is not a sufficient curriculum. State frameworks from California to Massachusetts have acted as incentives to improved scope and sequence. But what constitutes the right balance between Western and non-Western lessons continues to vex curriculum experts. Multi-cultural activists, academic scholars, and textbook editors, in the words of historian Gary B. Nash, University of California, Los Angeles, are determined to "redistribute historical capital" and politicize historical content. As a result of revisionist demands made during the 1990s, students today are likely to obtain a rose-colored version of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian history. Textbook editors routinely adjust perspective and outlook to advance the illusion of cultural equivalency and demonstrate cross-cultural and global sensitivity.
The Council on Islamic Education, based in Orange County, California, rides the diversity movement in social studies. It presents itself as a mainstream Muslim organization, linking itself to established educational associations, and it claims to act as Islam's liaison to the nation's public schools. The Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service roster of recognized tax-exempt organizations (501c3) does not list the Council on Islamic Education. No form 990 is on record. The Council on Islamic Education is funded by domestic Islamic donors perhaps aided by foreign support. The self-declared "resource center" is in fact a political advocacy organization.
The Council on Islamic Education's board members make no bones about their view of United States history: "American children need to know that genocide was part of the birth of this nation," wrote board member Ali A. Mazrui of the State University of New York at Binghamton, commenting on the New York state social studies curriculum in the early 1990s. "The Holocaust began at home." Council on Islamic Education founder and director Shabbir Mansuri declared in a 2001 interview that he took calls for improved American history and civic education after 9/11 to be a personal attack. He boasted that he is waging a "bloodless" revolution, promoting world cultures and faiths in America's classrooms. The Council on Islamic Education has staged displays of Muslim prayer for television cameras at California textbook hearings. It has warned scholars and public officials who do not sympathize with its requests that they will be perceived as racists, reactionaries, and enemies of Islam.
The Council on Islamic Education is part of the textbook terrain today, a content gatekeeper with virtually unchecked power over publishers. It advises activists in schools to generate grassroots teacher support, to leave a paper trail, to affect cordiality, and to insist on meeting with educational officials. The Council similarly "works with" publishers to ensure they meet a certain standard of sensitivity—the Council on Islamic Education standard.
The Council on Islamic Education is an agent of contemporary censorship. It demands "ground rules upon which interaction with publishers can take place." It warns that it may "decline requests for reviewing published materials, unless a substantial and substantive revision is planned by the publisher." For more than a decade, history textbook editors have done the Council's bidding, and as a result, history textbooks accommodate Islam on terms that Islamists demand. This is all the more disturbing since the Council has a curious view of the nation and world whose history it wants to rewrite.
Since its creation in 1989, the Council has repeatedly allied itself with academics and journalists who take an antagonistic view of the U.S. and Western civilization. Empowered by them, it pushes to make changes in textbook content in the name of inclusion, diversity, restitution, expiation, and other public virtues unique to the non-Muslim world. In the spirit of cultural democracy, credulous First Amendment organizations likewise believe they should include Muslim representatives as "stakeholders."
School publishers' response to Islamic pressure—and domestic identity politics in general—is cooperative and acquiescent. According to one Prentice Hall editor who objected to policies on Islam-related content, opposition is "silenced" and Islam is given a "free pass." Publishers fear that the label of xenophobia, racism, nativism, or ethnocentricity may affix to their products and reputations. Almost without thinking, or thinking solely in venal terms of political expediency, sales and adoptions, social studies editors are giving American children and their teachers a misshapen view of the past and a false view of the future.
On controversial subjects, world history textbooks make an effort to circumvent unsavory facts that might cast Islam past or present in anything but a positive light. Islamic achievements are reported with robust enthusiasm. When any dark side surfaces, textbooks run and hide. Subjects such as jihad and the advocacy of violence among militant Islamists to attain worldly ends, the imposition of shari'a law, and the brutal subjection of women are glossed over. Textbooks use language and concepts so similar to Islamic content guides that it appears they are lifting content broadly and uncritically from them. Either they or ignorant staff writers are taking these guides to be authoritative and factually correct.
Domestic educational activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, who call themselves multi-culturalists, seek a revised world history curriculum. They insist on harsh perspectives for the West while gilding the record of non-Western civilizations. For Islamists, the kind of cultural criticism and analysis that enchants American academics is unimaginable: indeed, it seems to activate rage and loathing. These academics ignore the dire consequences for any Muslims living in Islamic states who speak critically of their government or religion. Their allies are academic historians, First Amendment organizations, educational associations and social studies experts that entertain romantic views of the Third World and skeptical views of the U.S.
But above all, their collaborators are a handful of textbook editors in social studies and world history who determine what basic instructional materials used in classrooms nationwide say about Islamic history and its significance for the twenty-first century. During the last two decades, world history textbooks and the social studies editors who oversee their development have moved from the neglect of Islamic history to self-censorship. Any textbook negatives about Islam have been erased, replaced by fulsome praise and generalities designed to quell complaints from Islamists and their allies.
In American classrooms, it is complacency, not anti-Americanism, that is ascendant. Students and teachers alike are sedated by textbook happy talk. They encounter and take as truth an incomplete, shallow or falsified version of Islamic society and law. In brief sections on terrorism, world history textbooks cite examples of Japan, Northern Ireland, Oklahoma City, blending militant Islam by nation and incident into a global stew. These evasions make it difficult or impossible for teachers and students to grasp the broad nature of global security and geopolitical conflict.
Until social studies educators and textbook editors open their eyes and minds, the distortions and evasions that infect the current generation of world history textbooks will continue and perhaps grow worse.
 Elizabeth Barrow, ed., Evaluation of Secondary-Level Textbooks for Coverage of the Middle East and North Africa, 3d ed. (Ann Arbor: Middle East Studies Association and the Middle East Outreach Council, June 1994). The project's coordinator gave the flavor of the enterprise when she wrote: "By characterizing 'them' as violent, we do not look at actions taken by the U.S. and the West which have in fact increased turmoil and violence in their regions." Elizabeth Barlow, "Middle East Facts and Fictions," The Journal of the International Institute, Winter 1995, at http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/vol2no2/v2n2_Middle_East_Facts_and_Fictions.html.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes