The American Textbook Council review, "Islam and the Textbooks," drew abundant praise and also criticism that included vicious ad hominem attacks. Since some critics misunderstood the report's conclusions, let me try to clarify the findings and why they matter for civic education.
Misrepresentation of Islam is a major problem in today's world history textbooks. Much of it is deliberate, I believe. Sound scholarship is being ignored, and open review – the only way to reverse this process –- meets adamant resistance. This situation is the consequence of the interplay of determined Islamic political activists, textbook editors, and multiculturally minded social studies curriculum planners. Organized Islamists have gained control of the curriculum by gaining control of textbook content. This longstanding process of cooperation and accommodation needs to be corrected, but how to do so remains a puzzle, since educational publishers and educational organizations have bought into claims propounded by Islamists – and have themselves become agents of misinformation.
"Islam and the Textbooks" surveyed seven widely adopted world history textbooks used in grades seven through twelve. In particular it reviewed textbook coverage of Jihad, Sharia, slavery, and the status of women in Islamic countries, comparing textbook content to what has been written by leading historians and Middle East scholars. To restate what was said and what was not said in the review:
The review faulted world history textbooks on what it called one of the most complicated and important subjects that teachers face in social studies classrooms today. "What may seem on the surface to be a minor curriculum controversy has far-reaching implications for civic education and the promotion of American constitutional values," it asserted. "Islam and the Textbooks" concluded that (1) world history textbooks hold Islam and other non-Western civilizations to different standards than those that apply to the West, (2) domestic educational activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, insist at once on harsh perspectives for the West while gilding the record of non-Western civilizations, (3) Islamic pressure groups and their allies seek to suppress the critical analysis of Islam inside and outside classrooms, and distorted textbook content is one symptom of this phenomenon, and (4) publishers respond to pressure groups on account of political expediency and sales. As a result, they are giving American children and their teachers a misshapen view of the past and a false view of the future.
"Islam and the Textbooks" found repeated discrepancies between world history textbooks and exacting scholarship in the field. It explained how pressure groups, both Muslims and allied multiculturalists, manipulate nervous publishers who obey educational fashion and rely more heavily on diversity experts than on trustworthy scholarship. These are points that have been made many times before and have been reiterated since the publication of "Islam and the Textbooks" in Diane Ravitch's "The Language Police."
Textbook editors seem not to recognize that a school-related Islamist agenda in the U.S. uses multiculturalism as a device to guarantee a purely favorable and uncritical view of all things Muslim. At extremes, the report suggested, multiculturalism contributes to a form of peaceable cultural Jihad meant to discredit or "problematize" European civilization in favor of non-Western cultures.
Older history textbooks did not so much misrepresent, caricature, or disparage Islam and Islamic history as neglect and ignore it; this obviously needed to be corrected. No doubt stereotypes from Delacroix to Lawrence of Arabia did exist, including tales of fierce warriors and brave steeds, the 1001 nights, sheiks, and exotic harems. But these were probably more the rule in literature and art and cinema than in history courses. During the last two decades, world history textbooks and the editors who oversee their development have moved from the neglect of Islamic history to self-censorship.
To be sure, much textbook coverage of Islam is unobjectionable and sometimes elegant, notably on the achievements of Islamic civilization, for example, in medieval Andalusia. Unlike some other textbooks, the 2003 edition of Houghton Mifflin's "Patterns of Interaction" recently adopted by Texas successfully included September 11th and terrorism in its conclusion. But in considering Islam's past and present, its geopolitics, and its structural challenges to the West, the report did not discount the writings of Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, James Kurth, Daniel Pipes, and Roger Scruton, each of whom has raised troubling questions about the ability of current Islamic regimes to coexist with other religions and to progress into a system of belief compatible with the modern world.
English political philosopher Roger Scruton, for example, wonders whether Muslims are willing to surrender to Western political loyalties rooted in "common territory and a secular rule of law." A witness to defiant anti-Western antagonism on the European continent, he concludes: "Public anxiety concerning the ability of Muslims to assimilate is therefore not entirely ill founded." Swarthmore historian James Kurth raises the possibility of structural incompatibility between Islam and the American polity, observing resistance to assimilation and patriotism among American Muslims on account of the demands of religious faith. These scholars should at least obtain a fair hearing. They do not. When historians or Middle East experts express concerns about militant Islam's geopolitical aims, they incur wrath. Vituperation, character assassination, and insults are all standard practice among domestic Islamists and their allies, just as "Islam and the Textbooks" pointed out. Their vitriol and extreme language aim to silence criticism.
The Shame of Houghton Mifflin
When "Islam and the Textbooks" was published, California-based Council on Islamic Education director Shabbir Mansuri dismissed the American Textbook Council, first as "conservative," then as "extremist," telephoning the president of Education Week to complain that "Islam and the Textbooks" was even reported. Education Week then made the decision to review not the content of "Islam and the Textbooks" but the "furor" surrounding its publication. A strange, some would say crackpot, 5,000-word diatribe denouncing "Islam and the Textbooks" appeared on the Council on Islamic Education website. (I urge educators, parents and voters one and all to take a look at this document, located at www.cie.org, and ask themselves whether they really want such zealots as gatekeepers of their children's textbook content.)
Among those who support Mansuri and his Council on Islamic Education is Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center. A long-standing patron of this organization and himself a Houghton Mifflin consultant, Haynes promotes the multiculturalist premise of "multiple perspectives" in the history of religion through his Freedom Forum. As a trustee of the National Council for History Education, the belligerent multiculturalist and a longtime Houghton Mifflin textbook writer-consultant, UCLA historian Gary B. Nash, made efforts to exact a formal denunciation and response.
All of the most vehement critics, Shabbir Mansuri, Charles Haynes, and Gary B. Nash – as well as Houghton Mifflin's chief publicist Collin Earnst of course – are or have been on the Houghton Mifflin payroll. Earnst stated in a letter to the Washington Times that "Islam and the Textbooks" "suggest[ed] that students should be taught that Jihad represents murder and war," "lead us to believe that all Muslim culture is inherently misogynistic," and "portray Islam as a murderous culture." Such "bias has misled the public into believing that Islam is a barbaric and murderous religion," Earnst concluded.
These remarks were simply dishonest. Earnst knew that "Islam and the Textbooks" drew no such conclusions. The publisher made these cynical claims to deflect attention from the source of the problem: the textbooks themselves. Earnst refused to give the review's complaints anything close to a fair reading, nor did his bosses and editors, although he and his colleagues owe it to millions of American teachers and students to do so.
The world history textbooks speak for themselves. Here is one passage from Houghton Mifflin's "Patterns of Interaction" that was not included in the original report:
In Islam, following the law is a religious obligation. Muslims do not separate their personal life from their religious life, and Islamic law regulates almost all areas of human life. Because of this, Islamic law helped to bring order to Muslim states. It provided the state with a set of values that shaped a common identity. In addition to unifying individual states, law helped to unify the Muslim world. Even though various Muslim states might have ethnic or cultural differences, they lived under a common law.
This text is at once florid, repetitious and abstract. It conveys nothing concrete about any particular Muslim society or legal system. Its most glaring weakness is the failure to explain the implications of the theocracy being described. It never explains what is meant by the words "order" and "common identity." At this level of abstraction, students and teachers will fail to comprehend the transnationalism and theocratic impulse that "unify the Muslim world."
American students never read or learn that Sharia bears no resemblance to U.S. law, which grew out of the British constitution and evolved into a regime intended to secure individual rights and liberties. Islamic law is not a variant of jurisprudence as it is known in the U.S. and Western democracies. What is America's relationship with the many Islamic countries where separation of church and state does not exist and where religion largely defines the culture and state?
U.S. students should have the opportunity to learn of the many Islamic countries where limited government does not exist and religion largely determines the culture. What students fail to learn is that under Islamic law, civil society, limited government, an independent judiciary, and the underlying notions of tolerance, personal liberty and freedom, notably freedom of religion, are alien concepts. They should be aware of what militant Islamic ambitions really mean for the international community and the outlook for world peace.
Part Two will discuss the implications of biased educational materials.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Gilbert T. Sewall is Director of the American Textbook Council, a former history instructor at Phillips Academy and an education editor at Newsweek. The American Textbook Council is an independent New York-based research organization established in 1989. The Council reviews history textbooks and other educational materials. It is dedicated to improving the social studies curriculum and civic education in the nation's elementary and high schools.