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Curriculum

Supplementary Text on Arab World Elicits Criticism

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 01, 2005 2 min read
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Education officials in Anchorage, Alaska, have prohibited teachers from using a guide to teaching about the Arab world—the same guide that a national Jewish advocacy organization is now urging districts across the country to ban.

While Anchorage officials cited inaccuracies in the materials, the American Jewish Committee claims the guide also contains anti-Semitic messages.

The “Arab World Studies Notebook” is produced by Arab World and Islamic Resources, a Berkeley, Calif.-based publisher of supplementary instructional materials. The 540-page ringed binder provides historical summaries, religious and cultural information, primary documents, lesson plans, and recommended readings that promote “the Arab’s point of view,” according to Audrey Shabbas, the editor of the guide.

Ms. Shabbas has led workshops around the country—including in Anchorage—to help teachers incorporate the information in their classes. She said the guide has a disclaimer stating that it represents one point of view, and an advisory to teachers to balance the information with perspectives from Jewish organizations and other history texts.

“In this notebook, they are only being given the Arab viewpoint,” said Ms. Shabbas. “The first thing students have to do is get all those [other] viewpoints.”

Whose Agenda?

The 50,000-student Anchorage district took action last month after a review committee found that while information on Arab art, music, and literature was of high quality, “a substantial amount of historical, political, and content-area information in the notebook was determined to be inaccurate,” according to district documents.

A recent review of the guide by the American Jewish Committee, a New York City-based organization that works “to safeguard the welfare and security of Jews” around the world, described the guide as “propaganda.”

“The ‘Arab World Studies Notebook,’ attempting to redress a perceived deficit in sympathetic views of the Arabs and Muslim religion in the American classroom, veers … toward historical distortion as well as uncritical praise, whitewashing, and practically proselytizing,” says the critique, “Propaganda, Proselytizing, and Public Education.”

The report argues that the text whitewashes the problems of Islamic extremism, presents religious beliefs as facts, and implies that Islam is superior to Judaism and Christianity.

Ms. Shabbas said the guide represents the diversity of the Arab world, including information on the various languages spoken, as well as the various forms of religion practiced in the region.

First published in 1990 and last revised in 1998, the guide is the primary reference for workshops sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council, a moderate Washington-based organization that works to promote discussion and understanding of U.S. policies in the Middle East. The workshops have been presented to more than 16,000 teachers in 43 states, according to the council.

A small section of the guide that outlined research showing Muslims’ pre-Columbian presence in North America was removed several years ago after the Algonquin tribe in Canada disputed the claim.

Critics, Ms. Shabbas said, simply have opposing viewpoints.

“I suspect the overarching thing is that this notebook and teacher workshops are dispelling the negative stereotypes about Arabs and of Muslims,” she said, “and that probably doesn’t fit [critics’] agenda.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Supplementary Text on Arab World Elicits Criticism

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