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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2003/ 18 Adar I, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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The jihad against the textbooks | One man's jihad can be another man's mission of distortion. The Islamist terrorists who attacked America on September 11 cited their murderous rampage as a "jihad." The suicide bombers who set out to terrorize Israeli schools, restaurants and malls call their mission their "jihad." But American school kids might never know anything about that.

A lot has gone missing in our textbooks. "Patterns of History," for example, published by Houghton Mifflin and adopted as a world history textbook in high-school classes in Texas and other states, never even mentions the word. A seventh-grade world history book by Houghton Mifflin, titled "Across the Centuries," defines "jihad" merely as a struggle for a Muslim "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil." There's no mention of the fact that millions of Muslims - not all, but many millions - are taught to regard everything not under Muslim rule or control as "evil."

"Islam and the Textbooks," a 35-page report compiled by the American Textbook Council in New York, analyzes seven history textbooks widely used between the seventh and 12th grades and finds that millions of American schoolchildren are being cheated of accurate history. Politically correct advocacy groups have thoroughly intimidated teachers, administrators and school boards - and in a way that the most fundamentalist of Christians or the most orthodox of Jews never could.

Textbooks are big money. Publishers cower at the prospect of offending anyone with a megaphone, and the advocacy groups are skilled at manipulating the timid and the cowardly with easy accusations of "bigot" and "racist." Uninformed and uncritical teachers pass on their own ignorance with appeals to mushy sentiment disguised as tolerance. Parents who think textbooks are written by fair but tough-minded scholars are unaware of how political process, not scholarship, produces their children's textbooks. There is neither understanding nor recognition of the abuse of Islam by radical Muslims and how they use this distortion to make war on America - and indeed on the millions of peaceful Muslims who do not share their distorted theology.

On significant Islam-related subjects, textbooks omit, flatter, embellish and resort to happy talk, suspending criticism or harsh judgments that would raise provocative or even alarming questions, says Gilbert Sewall, a former professor who heads the American Textbook Council ( You wouldn't even learn how Islamists frequently describe jihad in military terms, using passages from the Koran. Bernard Lewis, the author and scholar, says that "the object of jihad is to bring the whole world under Islamic law." You won't find this view, widely shared by scholars, even acknowledged in the politically correct texts.

There's no acknowledgment that religious dogma is dictated by certain Islamic states, how freedom of religion and speech are alien concepts in most Islamic countries. Double standards are the norm in these textbooks; Judaism and Christianity get short shrift, as do Western secular institutions. Slavery is often presented as a peculiarly European and American institution. One text does not even mention that Islamic civilizations engaged in the slave trade. In another, where slavery is acknowledged, it's treated as a "benign institution" offering slaves the opportunity for "social mobility."

Textbooks that robustly discuss the benighted condition of women that once prevailed in the West present severe contemporary restrictions on Islamic women as benign. "For some women," one textbook states, "the [hijab, or veil] symbolized resistance to unpopular governments." A "bridal fair" of the Berbers in Morocco is portrayed as a quaint ritual of happy natives enjoying the party, without noting that fathers sell their daughters to their prospective husbands through negotiations over dowries. Upper-class women may be secluded in the home, but "in rural areas, peasant women continued to contribute to the economy in many ways." (Aren't they the lucky ones?)

The exceptional women in Islamic society who achieved great knowledge and power, such as Shajar, a 13th-century freed slave who is said to have become a ruler of Egypt, are presented as typical. Maisuna, a Bedouin poetess, is portrayed in one text as a proto-feminist (sort of like Gloria Steinem in a burqa).

The Council on Islamic Education in Orange County, Calif., is particularly intimidating to publishers. It has warned scholars and public officials that those who do not see eye-to-eye with its positions will be cited as racists, reactionaries and enemies of Islam. High-profile (and easily frightened) publishers and editors eagerly seek the council's imprimatur.

The American Textbook Council says the distortions, inaccuracies and omissions in the study of Islam are the result of complacency, not anti-Americanism. But its report suggests something worse than complacency is at work. It's the cheating of our children - and the rest of us, too.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS