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What are US students learning about Islam?

Politically correct textbooks are distorting key concepts and historical facts.

By Gary Bauer / April 22, 2009


"History is not history unless it is the truth." – Abraham Lincoln

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Most Americans understand history as an objective accounting of past events. In recent years, however, textbook publishers have come under increasing criticism for rewriting history. Claims are presented as facts while controversial material is whitewashed or omitted.

Today these trends are quite apparent in the way public school history books address Islam. In his 2008 study "Islam in the Classroom: what the textbooks tell us," Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council (ATC), reviewed 10 of the nation's most widely used junior and senior high school history textbooks. The results should disturb anyone interested in conveying to our children a truthful history of the religion whose extreme adherents drive so many of today's tragic headlines.

At a time when America is locked in a battle of ideas with Islamic extremists and other enemies of freedom, accurate knowledge is indispensable. Yet, Sewall's findings underscore how political correctness is distorting the next generation's understanding of this battle.

Let's be clear. Religion is by nature a sensitive topic to teach in the classroom. And in a world where stereotypes wrongly tar all Muslims as being prone to violence, it's understandable that schools would err on the side of caution. Indeed, they should affirm the piety and charity practiced by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, an acknowledgement that should be extended to Christians as well. At the same time, textbooks shouldn't cower from covering the violent periods of Muslim conquest or the Islamic beliefs that fundamentalists exploit for violent ends.

Sewall found that many textbooks gloss over or delete important facts. For example, in the 1990s, "jihad" – which has many meanings, among them "sacred" or "holy" struggle but also "holy war" – was defined in the Houghton Mifflin junior high school book only as a struggle "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil."

The many acts of violence committed on behalf of Islam in the past decade have made that definition incomplete, to say the least. Yet, as ATC notes, "by 2005, Houghton Mifflin apparently had removed jihad from its entire series of social studies textbooks."

In discussing sharia law, the Islamic code that can be used to subjugate women and deal death to wayward believers, many textbooks are intentionally vague. Holt Rinehart Winston's 2006 "Medieval to Early Modern Times" junior high textbook states simply, "[Sharia] sets rewards for good behavior and punishments for crimes." Another popular history textbook states, "Muslim law requires that Muslim leaders offer religious toleration."

Descriptions of Islam since 9/11 are particularly disturbing. Though Islamic extremism has become a fact of life throughout much of the world, most of the reviewed textbooks suggest instead that poverty, ignorance, and the existence of Israel are at the root of terrorism. The closest that any textbook gets to suggesting a faith-based component to terrorism is Glencoe's "Modern Times," which states broadly that "Muslims have not accommodated their religious beliefs to the modern world."