Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance


Islam has entered the consciousness of most Americans…principally if not exclusively because it has been connected to newsworthy issues like oil, Iran and Afghanistan, or terrorism.

— Edward Said, Covering Islam, 1981

The Islamophobia industry is a growing enterprise, one that is knowledgeable about the devastating effects of fear on society and willing to produce and exploit it.

— Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry, 2012

In high school textbooks on world history, US history and US government, the world of Islam continues to be interpreted to American high school students in ways consistent with Edward Said’s thesis. In these textbooks, Islam is explored narrowly in its significance to US foreign policy. It is a “problematic” – that is, a serious subject of learning in so far as it represents a challenge to US foreign policy typically framed in terms of oil dependency or energy needs, and terrorism. In world history books, we find additionally to such treatment, a standard, generally fair-minded, exposition of the basic tenets of Islam (the Five, and sometimes Six, Pillars of Islam), and of the rise and fall over time of various Islamic civilizations and societies across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

In Covering Islam, Edward Said explored the body of mainstream media’s and academia’s presentation of Islam criticizing it for overplaying “confrontation” with the West. In The Islamophobia Industry, Nathan Lean exposes some of the more evolved weaponry of the Islamophobia industry formed by a “three-way alliance [where] conservative Christian groups have linked with pro-Israeli camps and factions of the Tea Party.” According to Lean, the alliance operates in “the dark world of monster-making” using right wing media and Hollywood films to “unleash great fury” and produce “a cathartic response”.

In my examination of commonly used high school social studies textbooks, I hope to expose parts of the subtler underbelly of the beast. The treatment of Islam in US government, US history, and world history texts is softer in tone, yet often the product of selectivity, and occasional one-sidedness.

I focused my study on large education markets of California, New York, Illinois, Texas, and Florida. In these and the rest of the states, high school students are typically required to take two or three courses in US history or world history, and in Civics (or US government). Unlike the Common Core Standards in science, math, English and so on, there are no required national standards for social studies. The National Council for Social Studies does develop social studies standards but they are only recommended to states. State Departments of Education do develop their own standards, and in many states textbook publishers meet significant content requirements. States also generate book lists for adoption variously recommending them to or requiring them of local school districts. Most of the states I studied also require students to pass some sort of certifying or competency examination relating to the state standards.

Social Studies Standards (the TEKS in Texas, C-PALMS in Florida, History-Social Studies Content Standards in California, Learning Standards for Social Studies in New York, and the State Goals in Illinois) are articulated in broad terms, and State Boards of Education often develop lengthy teaching frameworks to be used as guidelines to teaching at the local district level. For the sake of brevity, and sharpening the contrasts, the discussion below centers on differences between curriculum standards in California, Florida, and Texas.

As mentioned above, exposure to Islamic culture and history in US government, US history, and world history textbooks is generally framed in terms of its significance for US external relations. For example, the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for Social Studies requires that “The student understands the impact of political, economic, and social factors on the US role in the world”, and should be able to “compare the impact of energy on the American way of life over time” and “describe US involvement in the Middle East.” The student must also understand “emerging” issues including the “global war on terrorism.” In addition, students are expected to “describe the dynamic relationship between US international trade policies and the US free enterprise system such as the …OPEC oil embargo….” Further, in the context of understanding events associated with the Cold War and independence movements, students are expected to “explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.” Students also must be able to understand the “development of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents…[including] Palestinian terrorism and the growth of al Qaeda.”

I would note that on the face of it, references to ideas like “the US role in the world”, the “American way of life”, and the “US free enterprise system” seem to be taken as unexamined givens or points of departure, along with the apparent assumption that the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel” is the primary mover of “ongoing conflict.”

The Florida C-PALMS emphasize similar concerns. In the context of US history curriculum goals, students should “understand the rise and continuing international influence of the US as a world leader and the impact of contemporary social and political movements on American life.” Related to this, students will “analyze the effects of foreign and domestic terrorism on the American people.” Examples include those connected with “wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” In the context of the world history curriculum, students must “explain the impact of religious fundamentalism in the last half of the 20th c, and identify related events and forces in the Middle East over the last several decades.” Students are also required to “explain the 20th c background of the modern state of Israel and the ongoing military and political conflicts between Israel and the Arab Muslim world.”

There is an important contrast to note between how the Texas and Florida standards frame the issue of Israel. In the Texas case, causal blame seems pre-assigned to the Arab world, and in the Florida case it is not introduced in such terms.

California State Standards require students to “analyze international developments” in the context of the Cold War including “how the forces of nationalism developed in the Middle East, how the Holocaust affected world opinion regarding the need for a Jewish state, and the significance and effects of the location and establishment of Israel on world affairs.” Students also must “Describe US Middle East policy and its strategic, political, and economic interests, including those related to the Gulf War.”

In comparing the standards between Texas, Florida, and California it is interesting to note that the California standards do not emphasize the idea of “ongoing conflict” between Arabs and Israel, rather the focus is on understanding background conditions leading to the creation of Israel. I also note that in identifying the concerns of “US foreign policy since WWII”, current standards (adopted in 1998) do not identify terrorism as a discrete subject of analysis or understanding. Revision of the standards has been held up by legislative inefficiencies, so this could change in the future. But in my review of the newest History and Social Science Framework (Sept. 2014), I found the issue of terrorism is discussed not in terms of the challenge of the “war on terrorism”, but in the context of the tensions between global “integrative” and “disintegrative” forces, and the “revival of religiosity” in relation to “globalization.”

I reviewed eleven social studies texts[1], all of which are in use, or have recently been so. The texts divide about evenly across the major markets (California, Florida, and Texas) and the curricular areas of world history, US history, and US government. I focused on two issues: The treatment of terrorism (the War on Terror), and the conflict between the State of Israel, and Arab States and the Palestinian people. Most presentations were relatively brief (totaling about three to four pages for each topic), and cursory (sometimes omitting key events and often not going into much depth of analysis in terms of causation or evaluation of significance). Since these are introductory texts, covering wide swaths of historical time, perhaps brevity and occasional superficiality should not be damned, unless of course resting on deliberate or egregious selectivity, a sin of omission, or bias. In the following discussion, I am going to identify general patterns, as well as bolder contrasts in the treatment of these issues.

First, I do think a general pattern emerges, that might constitute a sort of “official” history in explaining the problem of terrorism. In the texts I reviewed there is repetition in the way terrorism is presented. The common features of this pattern include: Terrorism is defined as violence used against civilians, perpetrated by groups attempting to advance political aims; Terrorism is something that the US responds to or combats. It does not participate in or support state-sponsored terrorism; The justificatory pretext of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq is set out in relation to the War on Terror, and the Bush Administration’s argument that the Iraqi government supported terrorism. While the texts typically observe that no WMD were found post-invasion, they do not question the integrity of the Administration’s motives or argument. Most cases of modern terrorism are attributed to independence movements or nationalist claims, rejection of Western or American values and influence (including US support of Israel), or tension between modern and traditional values or ways of life. With the exception of extensive treatment of nationalism in the world history texts, these determinants of violence are not evaluated; Finally, even though the US is placed vaguely in the causal chain of events leading to some acts of terrorism (as when terrorism is related to rejection of US economic, political, or military influence in the Middle East), there is not any specific analysis of this possibility pertaining to discrete events.

Since the US is deeply involved in the economic, political, and military affairs of countries across the Middle East and North Africa, failure to mention such details (or at least to provide a single example of a detailed case of US involvement, say, the US and Saudi support of bin Laden’s forces in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation that helped later to give impetus to the formation of al Qaeda), strikes me as irresponsible omission.

Second, I found some interesting variance in the accounts of the Arab and Palestinian conflict with Israel, but also similarities. With a couple of exceptions, most texts frame the conflict in terms of “Arab rejection” of Israel. Typically, Israel is characterized as being in a position of always responding to Arab or Palestinian aggression. This pattern is problematic because it glosses over the complexity of the mechanics and morality of blame.

In some cases the reporting is very imbalanced. For example, McGruder’s American Government 2013 Florida Ed. observes: “The Israelis won that first [1948] war, decisively. Over the years since then, Israel has successfully defended itself against various Arab states and against numerous terrorist attacks (p. 503) (my emphasis).” Word choice is important here. Israel is described as continually defending itself since 1948. In ignoring the most obvious case – that is, Israeli, British, and French aggression against Egypt in 1956 – this text skips over the boundary of selectivity into the territory of bias. In World History 2013 Florida Ed., the authors first note the Jewish proclamation of the State of Israel, then they observe “Arab states launched the first of several wars against Israel but were defeated (p. 847) (my emphasis).” Again it seems selective and misleading to generalize in this way about all the Arab-Israeli wars. On p. 868 the same text illustrates a very common, and critically significant shortcoming of the vast majority of the texts I reviewed. In describing the creation of the State of Israel the text notes: “Modern Israel was established in 1948 in accordance with the UN Partition Plan (my emphasis).” This over-generalized statement constitutes a genuine sin of omission by ignoring the fact that the UN Plan also included a specific formula for dividing historical Palestine between Jews and Arab Palestinians, a formula that Israel violated in 1948 with its original land grab. A more truthful and responsible approach to this issue would be to include a map of the region that clearly distinguishes the land formula of the 1947 UN Plan from the facts on the ground after 1948. Some texts (Modern World History 2006 Calif. Ed. McDougal Littell and World History and Geography 2013 Florida Ed. McGraw Hill) do take the high road.

Arguably, the initial land grab injected immediate illegitimacy to future claims of the new State of Israel and, and in many eyes colored it as an aggressive state, compounded a little later by events of 1956. Because of this, it’s simply inaccurate to say or suggest that Israel is always in a position of having to react to Arab aggressions.

I do not want to overstate the significance of the examples or generalizations I have identified here for the political socialization of American high school students. The fact is that sometimes students just aren’t paying much attention. But sometimes this just may be a response to what seems like a generalized onslaught of bad news about the economy, the environment, and certainly, the War on Terror. It is also the case that there are many working vehicles for the transmission of what passes for “knowledge” about the Middle East and Islamic culture. These include major media, movies, government’s narratives about the terrorist threat, the experiences of military families and communities, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of individual teachers (such as selectivity of content, and their own concerns and biases, and levels of expertise), the emphasis placed on some subject matter over others due to the phenomenon of teaching to (State-certifying or other) examinations, and so on.

But it is fairly clear – even if you do not think there is institutionalized or official bias in the system(s) of public education – that the presentation of Islam in social studies textbooks (especially in the curriculums of US history and US government) is narrow. Across the board, in the context of modern history, Islam is presented as a threat (or an abstract urgent something that can only be reacted to by Americans given America’s “role in the world”, or its “way of life”, or its “national interests”). Of course, the givens generally go unexamined.

But in reality, Islam, like Christianity or Hinduism etc., is complicated! Albert Hourani (quoted in Edward Said Covering Islam) cautioned “Islam and the terms derived from it are ‘ideal types’, to be used subtly, with infinite reservation and adjustments of meaning.” Perhaps learning about complicated, conflict-pregnant subjects should be approached as one (ideally) approaches a yellow light at a busy intersection. It’s safer to slow down or stop altogether, and reorient (so to speak), instead of accelerating perilously through the traffic.

As one reorients, it may be seen that the beliefs and practices of Islam – the religion – are strongly influenced by particular geographies, localized economies, the ambitions and interests and intellects of individual leaders, marriages with diverse cultures, not to mention external threats of its own. Unfortunately, most Americans, including high school students, learn about Islam under pressure. We experience sometimes exorbitant, always uncertain energy prices linked to foreign control of oil, and threats to block strategic trade routes. Government and right-wing media manufacture and mediate the war on terror with taunts like “either you are with us or against us”, with all the consequences for ignorance and murder of innocents that attend coercive narratives and ultimatums.

The downside is clear. Intensification of sectarian and economic conflict in the Middle East is partly fueled by the ignorance, apathy, resignation, fear, and unquestioning worship of military service that are the results of the ways in which we learn about the world of Islam.

What are the chances that Islam can be genuinely learned about, or first, cared to be learned about, when constantly cast as an opposition? At a minimum the selectivity and psychology of treating Islam in this way will have a tendency to discourage any better approaches to the subject matter. But what is “better”? Edward Said made the point this way:

Working through national feelings like patriotism or chauvinism to private emotions like fear and despair, the interpreter must seek in a disciplined way to employ reason and the information  he or she has gained…so that understanding may be achieved…

It is precisely this conscious willed effort of overcoming distances and cultural barriers that makes knowledge of other cultures possible…this can occur only as the result of self awareness animating an awareness of what is distant and alien but human nonetheless (my emphasis).

— Edward Said, Covering Islam

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Michael P. Bradley teach political science and philosophy at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.

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