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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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.