Review of Islam In Texts Causes Furor

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 19, 2003 7 min read
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A recent review of world history textbooks offers a scathing critique of the job that publishers are doing in providing a framework for teaching about Islam.

The report “Islam and the Textbooks,” by Gilbert T. Sewall, is available from the American Textbook Council.

The Council on Islamic Education has posted a rebuttal to the American Textbook Council report.

The report, by the American Textbook Council, has struck a nerve as the nation braces for a possible war with Iraq and weighs warnings of new al-Qaida attacks. It has generated a flurry of media attention, as well as a backlash from advocacy groups and scholars of Islam.

“Islam and Textbooks,” released this month, charges that lessons in school textbooks too often provide a misleading, excessively benign portrait of the religion and its history, while presenting more critical views of Western culture.

“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,” concludes the report by Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the New York City-based organization that reviews content in history and social studies textbooks. “World history textbooks hold Islam and other non-Western civilizations to different standards than those that apply to the West.”

But some experts are crying foul, branding the report as an unfair attack on the religion and the groups that have sought to promote coverage of it in schools.

“With the limited opportunity for texts to address [Islam], it’s easy to criticize that they don’t do it in depth,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment Center who has studied how state and local academic standards treat religion.

Gilbert T. Sewall has come under fire for his analysis of how U.S. world history textbooks represent Islamic religion and culture.
—File photo by Benjamin Tice Smith/Education Week

“But all of the religious groups are presented in a fairly favorable light, given the time [textbooks] have to address religion and the age appropriateness of the material,” he said.

No Longer Ignored

Teaching about Islam has gained urgency in the past year and a half as teachers seek information in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States by Muslim extremists.

But presenting the religion’s rich heritage along with its sometimes violent and controversial past and present continues to challenge even the most seasoned teachers. The subject has also fueled heated debate among scholars and commentators.

The new report is among a series of textbook reviews conducted by Mr. Sewall and his organization over more than a decade. In that time, he has gained recognition from historians and K-12 educators for shedding light on the deficiencies in U.S. history textbooks, which he has characterized as colorful, fact-filled tomes that fail to provide historical context or compelling narrative.

The reports have also targeted multiculturalism that aims to expand the presentation of previously disenfranchised groups at the expense of the great events and historical figures that traditionally have dominated the study of American history.

Mr. Sewall started the textbook council after a lengthy career as a history and journalism teacher, researcher, and writer. The council, launched in 1989, receives financial support from several private foundations.

Mr. Sewall’s latest project is a review of world history textbooks. The report on how Islam is represented in seven of the most widely used texts for grades 7-12 is the first of several analyses he expects from the study.

Textbook coverage of Islam—a topic once all but ignored in American schools—has improved, offering students an outline of the origins and tenets of the religion as well as Islamic contributions to art, science, and medicine, the report says.

But “on significant Islam-related subjects,” it says, “textbooks omit, flatter, embellish, and resort to happy talk, suspending criticism or harsh judgments that would raise provocative or even alarming questions.”

The report focuses on several key themes that it says characterize much of the coverage of Islam in the texts, including jihad, the treatment of women, and slavery.

Some textbooks, the report says, describe “jihad"—a term that has become commonly translated as “holy war"—solely in terms of a spiritual or nonviolent physical struggle over evil.

On women’s issues, it says, textbooks describe the increased status of women under Islam without addressing current issues surrounding oppression of females in some Muslim countries.

And the texts, according to Mr. Sewall, present slavery as a predominantly Western institution, failing to describe adequately the slave trade throughout Muslim society over several centuries.

Influences on Texts

Some experts who have praised Mr. Sewall’s previous work were surprised by the harshness of the latest analysis, and they questioned its fairness.

“He uses this moment in history, when attacking Muslims has become common sport, ... to say Islam is inherently evil,” said Mr. Haynes, who has worked closely with the Council on Islamic Education, an organization of scholars that seeks to improve coverage of religion, particularly Islam, in schools.

“In this kind of climate to suggest there is a conspiracy to present Islam in a falsely positive light is irresponsible,” Mr. Haynes charged.

Overall, he and others say, teaching about any religion in public schools is rife with problems. Deciding what to teach, how to teach it, and when can be daunting. And questions about how to teach sensitive subjects—from the caste system in Hindu India to the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church—complicate the issue even more.

But Mr. Sewall argues that because of the current political climate and the threats levied by groups aligned with Islam, presenting the history of the religion in what he describes as a largely benign fashion can be dangerous.

“These lessons and the process by which they are put into America’s classrooms raise serious concerns about the integrity of world history as a subject,” Mr. Sewall writes.

While teachers are urged to teach the flaws in U.S. history, they tend to rely on “themes of tolerance and apology” when addressing issues related to non-Western cultures, he adds. “Such sentiment may be a commendable aim in itself, but in the case of Islam, perhaps more so than other areas of social studies, these are lessons that skirt the reality of international affairs and threats to world peace.”

His supporters say the report tackles an important problem in textbooks.

“Mr. Sewall has been an incisive and responsible critic of textbooks,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

“The benign version of this is that Muslims in the U.S., like every other racial and ethnic group, have decided to work on textbooks ... as one of the ways of making themselves look good,” said Mr. Finn. “But this one I worry about. ... If you can persuade Americans that everything about Islam is hunky-dory and admirable, then Americans will let their guard down.”

The American Textbook Council report attributes much of the content that has made its way into textbooks to the influence of the Council on Islamic Education, located in Fountain Valley, Calif.

The organization has written guidelines for publishers for presenting the history of Islam, and regularly reviews textbook content before publication. The group also provides research on Islamic history, publishes pamphlets and lesson plans for teachers, and lines up Muslim guest speakers for K-12 and university classrooms.

Mr. Sewall criticizes publishers for accommodating what he says are the organization’s demands.

Publishers acknowledge that interest groups push hard for positive coverage of their respective constituencies. But they say such lobbying does not affect the balance or accuracy of such portrayals in the final product.

“All of Mr. Sewall’s concerns we address head-on in our textbooks,” said Collin Earnst, the director of media relations for Houghton Mifflin, whose Across the Centuries text is among the most popular nationwide and is a target of the report’s criticism.

“All interest groups would like to see their group depicted in a positive light in the textbooks,” said Mr. Earnst. “They will be very vocal, and we will listen to their feedback, but we will not necessarily react to it.”

The Houghton Mifflin text was approved by the Texas state school board last fall. In a state known for its heated public hearings over the details and tone of textbooks—including perceived anti-Christian bias—no complaints were lodged about the text’s coverage of Islam, Mr. Earnst said.

Shabbir Mansuri, the founder and director of the Islamic education council, said Mr. Sewall’s report reflects little understanding of his group’s efforts to encourage more thoughtful discussion of all religions in the curriculum.

One scholar of Islam suggested that the report was based on questionable scholarship.

“It’s quite clear that there’s a historical attitude that identifies Islam with extremist fundamentalism, which then convicts Islam of guilt under a series of blatant, stereotype charges,” said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is a very destructive approach to take.”

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