Many texts offer students only sugar-coated view of Islam
In recent years, many states have begun to require students to take a social studies course in world history. That’s a good thing, right? To become informed citizens, our young people need a grasp of non-Western history and cultures — especially those of Islam and the Middle East.
But according to the New York-based American Textbook Council, many world history texts are more likely to mislead students than to inform them accurately about Islam. In a recent report entitled “Islam and the Textbooks,” council director Gilbert Sewall — a historian and former professor — reviewed seven widely adopted junior high and high school texts. His conclusion? In most texts, accuracy takes a back seat to political correctness and “cross-cultural sensitivity.” As a result, “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.”
Exhibit A is most textbooks’ sugar-coated depiction of the Muslim concept of jihad. Traditionally, jihad, or “struggle,” signified military conquest to spread Islam. According to Bernard Lewis, a distinguished scholar at Princeton University, though jihad is a nuanced concept, its primary historical meaning has been an “unlimited” religious obligation “to bring the whole world under Islamic law.”
American texts tend to obscure this unpleasant truth. For instance, Prentice Hall’s “Connections to Today” (the nation’s most widely used world history text) instructs students that jihad is an “effort in God’s service,” like an “inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace.” Islamic advocacy groups encourage the view that jihad is little more than a form of Muslim self-improvement. The Council on Islamic Education, for example, lists “obtaining an education” and “trying to quit smoking” as examples of jihad.
The Muslim concept of “sharia,” or traditional Islamic law, also gets kid-glove treatment in American textbooks. Sharia conceives of the state as an agent of the Muslim faith, and has no role for an independent, secular judiciary. Under sharia, religious law regulates every aspect of life, and often mandates seventh-century punishments like stoning for adultery. In the view of many experts, sharia has seriously impeded democratic and economic progress in nations where it has had significant influence.
Most American textbooks discuss sharia in abstract terms that obscure its authoritarian nature. For example, some texts state blandly that Islamic holy law “brings all aspects of life together” or gives “a sense of unity to all Muslims.” Such explanations prevent students from grasping the gulf that separates sharia from the American concept of law, which is founded on consent of the governed, separation of powers, and freedom of speech and religion.
Why do textbooks include so many half-truths and distortions about Islam? In part, because publishers wish to avoid being branded as racist or xenophobic by vocal Islamic advocacy groups.
A more important factor, however, is the multicultural philosophy that predominates in academic circles today. Multiculturalism holds that all cultures are “equal.” At the same time, it tends to view Western civilization as exploitative, discriminatory and largely responsible for world problems.
Multiculturalists generally judge Western and non-Western cultures by very different standards. They approach Western achievements, institutions and social practices with harsh skepticism, while holding positive — even romantic — views of the Third World. When today’s textbooks discuss the status of women in the West, for example, they tend to stress discrimination and obstacles to women’s progress. Though women have fared far worse under Islam, the same texts frequently gloss over their ill treatment in Muslim nations, or exaggerate the little success they have had.
Hostility to West
Are students in the Muslim world learning to approach Western culture and institutions with the same tolerance that American texts adopt toward Islam? Sadly, the answer is no.
In many parts of the Muslim world, both religious and state-sponsored schools teach hostility toward the West. Today, millions of students — even in countries like Egypt and Indonesia — are learning that all non-Muslims are in error, and that the first centuries of Muslim expansion after Mohammed’s death were a kind of heaven on earth.
In fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, contempt for Christians and Jews — and even for non-Sunni Muslims — is a cornerstone of state-sponsored education. According to a fifth-grade textbook, “the only true religion is the religion of Islam. . . . The whole world should convert to Islam and leave its false religions lest their fate will be hell.” An eighth-grade text explains that, according to the Koran, Allah cursed Jews and Christians because they are polytheists, and turned them into apes and pigs.
In coming decades, our nation’s greatest challenges are likely to come from the Muslim world. As part of their study of Islam, American students need to learn about the growth and ambitions of fundamentalist Islam, and about the reasons that Muslim nations have found it so difficult to come to grips with modernity. Without such knowledge, our young people will be ill-prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
— Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.