Published Online: June 4, 2008
Published in Print: June 11, 2008, as Review Criticizes Textbooks' Take on Middle East, Islam
Updated: April 7, 2012

Review Criticizes Textbooks' Take on Middle East, Islam

Middle and high school history textbooks generally paint a positive or benign picture of Islam that tends to clash with confrontational images students might see or read in the news, says a review by the American Textbook Council.Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Nearly seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, highlighted the need for Americans to learn more about the Middle East and Islam, there is more content on the subject, but publishers continue to fail in giving key topics careful and complete treatment, the review concludes. In some cases, they distort or censor information, according to the review of the 10 most commonly used texts that were adopted for use in California and available to schools nationwide.

“I’m still disturbed,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director and founder of the New York City-based council and the author of the report, who issued a similar review in 2003, just before the United States went to war with Iraq. The council was founded in 1989 to promote better-quality history texts.

The latest review covers new ground, such as the texts’ coverage of terrorism and contemporary issues in Islam. It was financed by the Searle Freedom Foundation, the Achelis Foundation, and the Stuart Family Foundation.

Students are still unlikely to get a full understanding of those issues as well as the historical context of the religion from the textbooks, the review finds.

“Deficiencies about Islam in textbooks copyrighted before 2001 persist [in newly published texts] and in some cases have grown worse,” the report says. “Instead of making corrections or adjusting contested facts, publishers and editors defend misinformation and content evasions against the record. Biases persist. Silences are profound and intentional.”

The review criticizes the texts, for example, for describing jihad, generally translated as holy war, as a sacred struggle for justice. Coverage of the Crusades, it says, paints Christians solely as “violent attackers” and Muslims as victims. Moreover, it says, students don’t learn about modern aggression among Muslim groups, such as between Sunni and Shia sects in Iraq.

Religious Sensitivities

The review compares content in the secondary school texts with accounts by scholars in what it terms “authoritative histories” of Islam.

The earlier review created an uproar among commentators and conservative groups for what they saw as its documentation of a turn toward politically correct curricula. A backlash also erupted among advocacy groups and scholars of Islam, who charged that Mr. Sewall had presented a view of the religion that emphasized fundamentalism over the peaceful observance they said most Muslims adhere to.

Some experts say the report has value, but may unfairly single out Islam as a problem in textbooks.

“I think the atc serves a very important function to highlight the deficiencies of our textbooks, ... and in a way, this report underscores how difficult it is to get [the teaching of religion] right in textbooks,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Washington-based Freedom Forum.

Mr. Haynes, who has written a guide to teaching about religion in public schools, agrees that textbooks generally “airbrush the negative” out of teaching about Islam, but they do so in their treatment of other religions as well, he said.

“Overall, public school curricula and textbooks are unfailingly kind and positive regarding religion,” he said. “Part of it is an age-appropriateness problem, part of it is a lack of time, and part of it is a bending over backwards not to offend any religious group, big or small.”

Mr. Haynes takes issue, however, with the tone of the report, which he says suggests Islam is an inherently violent religion. He has worked with groups, such as the Council on Islamic Education, that try to counter the image of Islam as an extremist religion.

The review suggests that such groups have exerted too much influence on the textbook-adoption process, pressuring state review committees to incorporate “doctored” versions of history.

“All religious groups try to use the textbook process to their advantage, and publishers and editors are in the business of quieting groups of all kinds,” Mr. Sewall said. “But I argue that Islam-related bias stands out, and that textbooks are scrubbing the subject, ... and students are getting a false picture of threats to the U.S. and the world.”

Vol. 27, Issue 41, Page 11

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