At the beginning of the day, Audrey Parks Shabbas often tells her audience that she is both a Muslim and a Mayflower descendant who has lived nearly all her life in the United States. "I'm a living example of how off-base stereotypes can be," she says. "I always tell them: 'I want to let you step with me to the inside, to see what a Muslim worldview looks like and feels like, so you can bring it back to your students.'"
As founder and president of AWAIR (Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services), Shabbas's goal is the elimination of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. "Anything less would be unacceptable to our American ideals of equality and justice," she says. Her path to that goal is through education, by increasing teachers' awareness and knowledge of Islam and Middle Eastern cultures.
It was in the mid-1970s, when she was teaching seventh-grade social studies, that Shabbas became frustrated with both the inaccuracy and scarcity of teaching materials on Islam. Setting off on her own, in 1978 she published The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers, the foundation of today's Arab World Studies Notebook.
Soon afterward, she began to offer one-day workshops to other educators. She placed the Middle East in historical context by concentrating on the contributions of Muslims to world civilization. "I believe teachers - not politicians or the press - are the vanguard of change in our society," she says. "For example, in schools you find a much more inclusive sense of 'we' than you do in most media. In schools it's not so much 'us' and 'them,' it's more like 'look at how these people handle this; what can we learn from them?'"
Shabbas's schedule has been full for nearly two decades now. Although most of her workshops are in the United States, she's traveled as far as Geneva and Bahrain.
"She translates very difficult concepts into understandable language," says Linda Adams, director of the Outreach Program at University of Utah's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who attended a 1998 workshop. "Many teachers are astounded by how little they knew about this region and how much is ignored by Western textbooks." Thanks to the workshop training, Adams adds that "after Sept. 11, 2001, our teachers were prepared to handle the barrage of questions and racist remarks about Muslims. The impact this one person has had on changing people's perceptions of the Arab world is inspiring."
In 1992, the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a nonprofit educational organization, joined forces with Shabbas to develop and fully fund a workshop program, and over the past 10 years has sponsored 250 of her workshops in coordination with school districts, boards of education and academic organizations.
In her workshops, Shabbas covers a lot of ground, from Persia to Muslim Spain to Palestine and Indonesia. Drawing on an overhead transparency, she uses the acronym PATIO - Persians, Arabs, Turks, Israelis and 'others' - to describe the ethnic make-up of Middle Eastern people as they define themselves: by language. As she points out, "not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab," and only 18 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims reside in Arab countries. In one of her most memorable classroom exercises, Shabbas hands out a checklist of religious quotations and asks teachers to identify which are from the Torah, which from the Bible and which from the Koran. After the teachers assign each quotation to one holy book or another, Shabbas announces the unexpected fact: All the quotations are from the Koran.
Shabbas also points teachers toward tools that will help them go farther in their own classrooms. Topping the list is the Arab World Studies Notebook, a 540-page, loose-leaf compendium, edited and co-authored by Shabbas, and printed by MEPC. It features articles from diverse sources on culture, history, politics, food and religion. Over the years, the notebook has been distributed to over 10,000 teachers, most of whom share the resource with others. If each notebook teaches 250 students a year over 10 years, Shabbas points out, "then you've reached 25 million students."
"It's a treasure trove," says Beverly Mack, associate professor of African and Islamic studies at the University of Kansas. "Such education can help make the world a better place. It lays out Islam's profound influence on the progressive development of the world and replaces myths about Islam's constraints with truths about its support of equity and mercy for all."
Despite the years of rave reviews, Shabbas admits that, since Sept. 11, 2001, she is doing more explaining than ever: Her workshops are as much dialogue as lecture, she says, and it's clear she doesn't shy away from tough questions. The Sept. 11 perpetrators she refers to as "so-called Muslims." She stresses that Islam says you always choose life. According to Islam, the true heroes of Sept. 11 are the people who tried to save lives - firefighters, police officers and rescue workers.
"The beauty of Islam is all in the Koran," she says, drawing a clear distinction between what was revealed by God through the Prophet Mohammed and practices that are the result of cultural interpretation of the message. "It's important to separate culture and religion, and dig deeper. And what's exciting is that more and more, I find teachers doing that on their own, so my time with them is both deeper and broader."
For example, she says: "In the Koran, God has no gender, nor does the Koran consider women inferior or subservient to men. Indeed, Islam is deeply committed to social justice and knowledge for understanding."
"As the Prophet Mohammed said: 'It is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek education,'" she says, adding that the Koran helped liberate women by allowing them extensive legal and marital rights.
As a girl growing up in an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay area, Shabbas was raised mainly by her mother, who supported four children on her secretary's salary. Her favorite seventh-grade teacher, Smith, introduced her to the Middle East, and her interest found encouragement under Wilde, who taught a high-school class on the non-Western world. Shabbas participated in a Model UN, then a new program, where she represented Iraq. She excelled in debate and student government, and became president of the Future Teachers of America.
At the University of California at Berkeley, she majored in international relations and political science, with a concentration in Middle East studies and a minor in Near East languages. "It was in college I witnessed the discrimination my Arab friends suffered - and still face - because of their ethnicity and religion," Shabbas recalls. "My friends were often turned away from hotels because they looked Middle-Eastern."
In the 1970s Shabbas began teaching middle-school social studies, and found her curricula rife with negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, as well as factual errors. Frustrated in her efforts to find better materials, she produced The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers in 1978 and, in the same year, formed Arab World Consultants with two friends. As word of their services spread, so did demand, and they worked for more than a decade without pay, advising on curricula and helping teachers with lesson plans. Shabbas knew what the educators needed: interesting learning materials to capture students' attention. The Handbook evolved into The Arab World Notebook in 1982.
In 1990, she founded AWAIR; in 1991 the Gulf War sparked a wave of interest in the Middle East, and requests for the workshops came from all over the world. The following year, the MEPC took her programs under its wing.
It was in this time that she herself became a Muslim, through a deeper reading of the Koran. "When I read it with my heart and not just my head, I knew I was a Muslim," she says.
After Sept. 11, she says AWAIR received "numerous phone calls that only offered love and support. It was truly heartwarming to hear strangers expressing all those values America holds dear: respect for diversity and compassion for all God's people. I really think people are ready for a deeper understanding of Islam. Americans are a very spiritual culture, and a very experiential culture, so there is a hunger for meaning and for knowing from the inside. At the same time you have teachers asking, more than ever: "How do I make my class work for all of us?" - and that "us" increasingly includes Muslims and non-Muslims, together.
At 59, Shabbas is still full of optimism and confidence. She'll be a teacher's teacher, she says, "until my energy runs out."