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 ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/social/WorldHistory073109.pdf. 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.

The proposed new standards include the following addition: "Trace the development of Islam as unifying political, economic, and social factors in Europe, Asia, and Northern and Eastern Africa." While the inclusion of Islam is welcome, this particular addition is problematic. Describing Islam as "unifying" typically reflects the ideal of a -single, indivisible Islamic global community or ummah, a concept consistently promoted by Muslim radicals. History, even as written by classical Muslim historians, shows that Islam cannot be described simply as "unifying," unless unification refers purely to territorial conquest. Islamic societies have remained deeply divided, within and without, over theological differences, language, customs, political rivalries, relations with non-Muslims, and other issues. It is crucial that American students learn that, like the other "universal" religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, Islam has no single, homogenous, unitary, or exclusively legitimate expression. The term "unifying" would be better deleted from the standards.

Another improvement in the Texas standards involves modern totalitarianism. The old standards required students to "understand the impact of totalitarianism in the 20th century" and mentioned "nazism-fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan; the rise of communism in the Soviet Union; and the Cold War." They called for analyzing "the nature of totalitarian regimes in China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union." The new standards include much more detail regarding the effects of World War I; the Russian revolutions; the Great Depression and German, Soviet, and American responses to it; the personalities of the main global leaders during World War II; the Holocaust, the Cold War, and decolonization.

But in addition, the new standards demand that students

understand the impact of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the second half of the twentieth century. The student is expected to: (A) explain the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the second half of the twentieth century; and (B) explain the origins and global consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and (C) explain the global response to terrorism from September 11, 2001 to the present.

Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are properly considered in the context of modern totalitarianism. But if this addition to the Texas standards is positive, it also elicits one caveat. The new language could suggest a causal link between the conflict over territory in Israel and the Palestinian lands and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism. Some Westerners have come to believe the Israeli-Palestinian wars are motivated by religious hostility and that actions by the West and Israel have brought about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. It is appropriate for American students to be exposed to the alternative view: that Islamic fundamentalism has been introduced into the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation by powerful radical interests, especially those financed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, aggravating the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

In yet another improvement, language that formerly called for comprehension of the cultures of East and West has been supplemented with the following: "Explain how Islam influences law and government in the Muslim world." This opens an opportunity to explore an important area of conflict between moderate and radical Islam that should be thoroughly understood by American students. Radical Muslims--whether in power in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan and in parts of Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, or competing for power in places like Egypt, North Africa, and the Palestinian territories--demand that law and government be guided exclusively by religious sources, typically of a rigid and retrograde nature. In other Muslim countries, however, Islam plays a major social but limited legal role and does not ordain a system of governance. These include Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Muslim states of the Balkans, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The 138 million Muslims of India--the third largest Muslim population in the world--have lived as citizens of an officially secular democracy for more than half a century. Appreciating these different approaches to law and government is critical to understanding the conflicts within present-day Islam.

These improvements in the Texas textbook standards may at first seem trivial, but their value is illuminated by comparison with the standards recently issued in Florida and California.

The Florida Department of Education released its new social studies standards in December 2008. They are accessible to the public through a complex series of prompts at www.floridastandards.org. At some points, Florida's new standards are more direct about the problems of Islam than those in Texas.

Florida's standards prescribe study of "the relationship between government and religion in Islam." In addition, they require students to "determine the causes, effects, and extent of Islamic military expansion through Central Asia, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula" and to "describe key economic, political, and social developments in Islamic history. .  .  . Examples are growth of the caliphate, division of Sunni and Shia, role of trade, dhimmitude, Islamic slave trade." Under these standards, students would be introduced to aspects of Islamic history that have generated critical literature. The concept of dhimmitude, for instance, as a description of the inferior social status of non-Muslims in an Islamic social system, is subject to considerable scholarly debate. But precisely such contested issues should be examined for an understanding of relations between Muslims and the rest of the world. The inclusion of Muslim involvement in slave trading is perhaps even more important, in that it has habitually been ignored in American schools.

California's Department of Education, by contrast, seems to have made no progress. One senses an effort in the wake of the terrorist attacks to present Islam as utterly harmless. The state's financial crisis has caused it to suspend the public review of its new textbook standards and frameworks, but a revised framework was released in July 2009, accessible at www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/cf/.

The proposed California framework includes clearly objectionable elements. Students would be instructed, for example, that "Islamic law .  .  . rejected the older Arabian view of women as 'family property,' declaring that all women and men are entitled to respect and moral self-governance." This statement ignores the oppressed condition of women in many Muslim societies, exemplified by Saudi Arabia.

At a later point, the new California framework states, "In Baghdad and other Muslim-ruled cities, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars collaborated to study ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian writings, forging and widely disseminating a more advanced synthesis of philosophical, scientific, mathematical, geographic, artistic, medical, and literary knowledge." This rosy panorama of high culture in Baghdad neglects significant conflicts between Muslim factions, which led at times to violence, and extends a wide but unreliable umbrella of intellectual achievement over all Muslim cities.

Other points in the California textbook framework clearly promote a blinkered view of Islam. They include the following:

3. Explain the significance of the Qur'an and the Sunnah as the primary sources of Islamic beliefs, practice, and law, and their influence in Muslims' daily life. 4. Discuss the expansion of Muslim rule through military conquests and treaties, emphasizing the cultural blending within Muslim civilization and the spread and acceptance of Islam and the Arabic language.

These conceptions are anything but neutral. They falsely imply that all Muslims, in their "daily life," follow identical religious rules. In addition, while many Muslim societies have included significant religious minorities and featured cultural exchanges between Islamic rulers and their non-Muslim subjects, "cultural blending within Muslim civilization" is an overly benevolent way of describing that history, to the point of being fictional except in isolated and obscure instances.

Finally, the advance of Islam did not imply the unqualified "spread" of Arabic--witness the vigorous development of Muslim cultures in the Persian, Turkish, Balkan, South Asian, and Southeast Asian languages. California schooling reaffirms what Texas instruction implicitly undermines: the false stereotype that Islam is simply the "Arab" religion. Further along in the California framework, a discussion of West Africa asks that instructional materials "trace the growth of the Arabic language in government, trade, and Islamic scholarship in West Africa" although in that region as well, Arabic has never replaced local languages as a primary means of communication.

Islam is treated as an entirely benign phenomenon in California guidelines, and may well remain so in textbooks reflecting the new framework. This was, to a degree, predictable. California has been the state most susceptible to Islamist interference in education. The 2005 History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, issued by the California Department of Education and re-posted by the state authorities on June 5, 2009, incorporates a 1995 statement of principles on "Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy" to which a questionable entity, the Council on Islamic Education (CIE), gave its endorsement. CIE was founded in 1990 by Shabbir Mansuri, an Indian-born Muslim, and was renamed the Institute on Religion and Civic Values (IRCV) in 2006. It is located in Fountain Valley, California.

The transformation of CIE into IRCV followed criticism of the organization by education expert Diane Ravitch in her 2003 volume The Language Police. Ravitch accused CIE of improperly influencing the textbook publishers Glencoe, Houghton Mifflin, and Prentice Hall by "review[ing] their Islamic content" in a manner that "may account for the similarity of their material on Islam as well as their omission of anything that would enable students to understand conflicts between Islamic fundamentalism and Western liberalism." The same 2005 California framework cites a 1988 document, "Religion in the Public School Curriculum, Questions and Answers," developed with the participation of the Islamic Society of North America, an organization that since 9/11 has come under considerable scrutiny for its association with Saudi fundamentalism.

Americans, especially young Americans, need accurate information about Islam, as well as other aspects of global affairs. The more critical attitudes introduced in Texas and Florida will doubtless elicit dissatisfaction from Islamists. But Texas and Florida are wise to teach students about crucial past and present interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims, including conflicts between them and even among Muslims. California treats Islam as just one more hue in the multicultural rainbow. The country's educators would do better to follow the new, sensible, and critical path blazed by the Lone Star State, which is intelligently tackling the issues of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, than to continue the habits still prevalent in an intellectually as well as fiscally weakened California.

Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor, is the author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.