What are US students learning about Islam?
Politically correct textbooks are distorting key concepts and historical facts.
"History is not history unless it is the truth." – Abraham Lincoln
Most Americans understand history as an objective accounting of past events. In recent years, however, textbook publishers have come under increasing criticism for rewriting history. Claims are presented as facts while controversial material is whitewashed or omitted.
Today these trends are quite apparent in the way public school history books address Islam. In his 2008 study "Islam in the Classroom: what the textbooks tell us," Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council (ATC), reviewed 10 of the nation's most widely used junior and senior high school history textbooks. The results should disturb anyone interested in conveying to our children a truthful history of the religion whose extreme adherents drive so many of today's tragic headlines.
At a time when America is locked in a battle of ideas with Islamic extremists and other enemies of freedom, accurate knowledge is indispensable. Yet, Sewall's findings underscore how political correctness is distorting the next generation's understanding of this battle.
Let's be clear. Religion is by nature a sensitive topic to teach in the classroom. And in a world where stereotypes wrongly tar all Muslims as being prone to violence, it's understandable that schools would err on the side of caution. Indeed, they should affirm the piety and charity practiced by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, an acknowledgement that should be extended to Christians as well. At the same time, textbooks shouldn't cower from covering the violent periods of Muslim conquest or the Islamic beliefs that fundamentalists exploit for violent ends.
Sewall found that many textbooks gloss over or delete important facts. For example, in the 1990s, "jihad" – which has many meanings, among them "sacred" or "holy" struggle but also "holy war" – was defined in the Houghton Mifflin junior high school book only as a struggle "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil."
The many acts of violence committed on behalf of Islam in the past decade have made that definition incomplete, to say the least. Yet, as ATC notes, "by 2005, Houghton Mifflin apparently had removed jihad from its entire series of social studies textbooks."
In discussing sharia law, the Islamic code that can be used to subjugate women and deal death to wayward believers, many textbooks are intentionally vague. Holt Rinehart Winston's 2006 "Medieval to Early Modern Times" junior high textbook states simply, "[Sharia] sets rewards for good behavior and punishments for crimes." Another popular history textbook states, "Muslim law requires that Muslim leaders offer religious toleration."
Descriptions of Islam since 9/11 are particularly disturbing. Though Islamic extremism has become a fact of life throughout much of the world, most of the reviewed textbooks suggest instead that poverty, ignorance, and the existence of Israel are at the root of terrorism. The closest that any textbook gets to suggesting a faith-based component to terrorism is Glencoe's "Modern Times," which states broadly that "Muslims have not accommodated their religious beliefs to the modern world."
The whitewashing of Islam becomes even more noticeable when contrasted with how history textbooks treat Christianity. One book describes the Crusades as "religious wars launched against Muslims by European Christians." But when Muslims attacked Christians and took their land, the process is referred to as "building" an empire.
A McDougal Littell volume claims that non-Muslims in Muslim-ruled territories converted to Islam because "they were attracted by Islam's message of equality and hope for salvation." A good history class should teach students to ask critical questions. Are students asking how much of that "conversion" was coerced by the sword? Sadly, most texts gloss over Muslim leaders' history of enslavement of "infidels" and their brutal treatment of women, which continues today in some countries.
In an interview, Sewall summed up the reactions of textbook publishers to his report. "In a word," he said, "hostile."
Sewall says the pressure tactics used by some Muslim groups on publishers to portray Islam in a favorable light amount to a kind of "cultural jihad." This essentially is what the founder of the Council on Islamic Education, the main Islamic group for vetting textbooks in America, was saying when he described his work as a "bloodless revolution … inside American junior high and high school classrooms."
Sewall understands that historical inaccuracies sometimes take decades to be written out of textbooks. "Once lies are written into textbooks," he says, "they tend to be perpetuated in new editions." Which is one reason why Sewall will continue to make his case to publishers.
I hope Sewall has better success than I had. When I served as undersecretary of the Education Department under President Reagan, I discovered that a "values neutralism" was saturating school textbooks, seriously misleading our children about the nature of Soviet governance by, for instance, stating that women enjoyed the same rights as men and severely downplaying the suppression of basic human rights inherent in communist political systems.
In the same way, students today are being taught a distorted view of Islam. Having been on the front lines in the struggle to achieve the best education for our children, I understand that change will come only when teachers' and parents' voices are heard. Teachers need courage in overcoming political correctness by talking candidly about controversial topics like Islam. Parents must be engaged in their children's education by participating on curriculum committees and communicating with teachers. Parents also should communicate with their members of Congress to ensure that textbook publishers are not being pressured to present a false account of history. Feel-good distortions of history don't help our kids; they just help those who wish to do us harm.