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 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.