The Magazine

What Johnny Needs to Learn about Islam

Texas, Florida, and California revise their textbook standards.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Eight years after the atrocities of 9/11, Americans need to know what public school textbooks are teaching about Islam, radical Islam, and terrorism. The big three textbook states--those that set standards for content because publishers aim to capture their large sales, California, Texas, and Florida--are currently preparing for new textbooks, to be introduced in 2010-13. These books are likely to shape the content of public instruction for several years to come. At this point in a complex process of drafting and adopting "standards," then "frameworks," and finally texts, with time for public comment and revision at each stage, the outlook in both Texas and Florida seems quite encouraging, while California's effort appears regrettably stuck in a pre-9/11 mindset.

In the past, American textbooks were prone to two great pitfalls: Either they dealt with Islam superficially or they presented it in the manner preferred and promoted by well-funded defenders of Islamic extremism. A hallmark of that latter view is an emphasis on the unity of Islam, which is portrayed as simple, monolithic, and benign. The wide range of belief and practice between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam, to name only the best-known variations, is downplayed, and the problems of Islam, especially violent jihad, are simply left out. Some of the current efforts at revising textbooks successfully avoid these mistakes.

The Texas Education Agency issued its proposed new standards for world history at the end of July. The deadline for public comment was October 9, and the approval process is now under way. The revised standards are posted in an 18-page document at Especially by comparison with the last Texas standards, issued in 1998, they mostly reflect a post-9/11 outlook.

For example, the old Texas standards called for students to be able to

identify changes that resulted from important turning points in world history such as the development of farming; the Mongol invasions; the development of cities; the European age of exploration and colonization; the scientific and industrial revolutions; the political revolutions of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries; and the world wars of the 20th century.

Islam went unmentioned. The new proposed standards, if adopted, will have pupils in Texas learn to

identify major causes and describe the major effects of the following important turning points in world history from 600-1450: The spread of Christianity, the decline of Rome and the formation of Medieval Europe; the development of Islamic Caliphates and their impact on Asia, Africa and Europe; the Mongol invasions and [their] impact on Europe, China, India and southwest Asia.

In addition, the proposed standards will require -students to

identify major causes and describe the major effects that resulted from the following important turning points in world history from 1450-1750: the rise of the Ottoman empire, the influence of the Ming dynasty on world trade, European exploration and the Columbian exchange, European expansion, the Renaissance and its impact on the arts, government and intellectual thought, the Reformation, the decline of the Roman Catholic church and the creation of the protestant faith.

The new specifications not only broaden the study of Western culture, but also turn attention to the Islamic caliphates and the effects on them of the Mongol invasions. Perhaps teachers will use the Mongol subjugation of Baghdad in 1258 to illustrate how Islam grew from a religious community focused on the core Arab lands to one in which new developments arose within Persian, Turkic, Indian, and other non-Arab cultures. Study of the Ottomans is even more useful for dispelling the erroneous idea that Islam is simply "the Arab religion."

Similarly, the old Texas standards prescribed that the student "understand how, as a result of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, new political, economic, and social systems evolved, creating a new civilization in Western Europe." The student was expected to: "(A) compare medieval Europe with previous civilizations; (B) describe the major characteristics of the political system of feudalism, the economic system of manorialism, and the authority exerted by the Roman Catholic Church." Again, Islam was missing.