Politics & Policy

Classroom Jihad

What our children's textbooks say about Islam.

We’re losing the war on terrorism in America’s classrooms. That’s the sobering conclusion of the American Textbook Council, which Friday releases a report on how our schools’ most popular world-history books fail to grapple honestly with the problem of militant Islamism.

”History textbooks accommodate Islam on terms that Islamists demand,” writes Gilbert T. Sewall in his 35-page analysis. “On controversial subjects, world history textbooks make an effort to circumvent unsavory facts that might cast Islam past or present in anything but a positive light. Islamic achievements are reported with robust enthusiasm. When any dark side surfaces, textbooks run and hide.”

Textbook content is especially important because the Muslim world is so alien to many Americans. “Few teachers have at their disposal anything more than a faint knowledge of Islam,” writes Sewall. “But state mandates expect or require them to teach something about Islam.” Teachers need books they can trust; unfortunately, many of their textbooks are not trustworthy on the subject of Islam.

Take the concept of jihad, which Bernard Lewis, our most gifted interpreter of Arab culture, defines this way: “The object of jihad is to bring the whole world under Islamic law.” Throughout history, of course, many Muslims have sought to achieve this goal with swords, guns, and bombs. Students reading Across the Centuries, a seventh-grade textbook published by Houghton Mifflin, however, receive a sanitized version of this reality. Jihad, according to this book, is merely a struggle “to do one’s best to resist temptation and overcome evil.” There’s an element of truth in this definition, insofar as militant Islamists think anybody or anything not subscribing to their strict theology is “evil.” But the book gives students no way of appreciating this larger context. To them, jihad must seem like a useful tool to suppress their urges to pass notes in class, run in the hallways, and stick chewing gum under their desks.

One popular textbook, Prentice Hall’s Connections to Today, also whitewashes jihad: “Some Muslims took on jihad, or effort in God’s service, as another duty. Jihad has often been mistakenly translated simply as ‘holy war.’ In fact, it may include acts of charity or an inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace, as well as any battle in defense of Islam.” This is basically a dodge, and lays the onus for mistaken translations upon the presumed cultural insensitivities of Westerners — without acknowledging that the West, for perfectly understandable reasons, sometimes has difficulty understanding how the religion of peace distinguishes between “holy wars” and “any battle in defense of Islam.” Another favored textbook, Houghton Mifflin’s Patterns of Interaction, sidesteps this uncomfortable subject altogether; it doesn’t even mention the word jihad. Like Connections to Today, it was recently approved for use in Texas, whose statewide textbook-adoption policies influence the textbook market all over the country and drive much of its content.

The ATC’s report discusses similar problems with other concepts. The slave trade is an especially touchy subject for the modern multiculturalist, because it requires taking one of the great sins of the West and minimizing its role elsewhere. Patterns of Interaction, for instance, claims that the Muslim world exported fewer than 5 million slaves from Africa between 650 and 1600. This is much smaller than historian Raymond Mauvy’s estimate that 14 million blacks slaves have been sold to Muslims since the 7th century. (For comparison’s sake, 10 to 11 million Africans were shipped in chains to the New World between 1650 and 1900; the vast majority traveled to Latin America and the Caribbean, and only about half a million went to British North America and the United States.)

The status of women is also a tricky topic for multiculturalists, because nowhere are women more oppressed than in the societies they want to celebrate. Connections to Today engages is what can only be called a lie: “Conditions for women vary greatly from country to country in the modern Middle East. Since the 1950s, women in most countries have won voting rights.” That’s right: the freedom to vote for Saddam Hussein as president. Textbooks are dotted with references to obscure proto-feminists, who are held up as the fruits of Islamic culture. “Textbook editors’ relentless search to find such historical figures deforms and cheapens world history,” writes Sewall.

A chief culprit in all this is the Council on Islamic Education, a group that consults with publishing companies on how textbooks portray Islam. Anything that strays from the Islamist line is denounced as xenophobic, ethnocentric, and racist — labels which, if broadcast widely, are sure to depress book sales.

The ATC study concludes with positive suggestions on how to teach about Islam in ways that “take Muslims’ justified sensitivities into account, without capitulating to them and rewriting the historical record in a misguided attempt to compensate for past inaccuracies.”

It’s a dose of commonsense that won’t be found in many of the books our children are reading.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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