By: Jacqueline Gill
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. has shifted its main focus to the threats of radical Islam and global terrorism. While there have been many smaller terrorist attacks over the past two decades, al-Qaeda’s attack on U.S. soil in 2001 will forever be seared into the hearts and minds of Americans. September 11 shaped the world view of American millennials, many of whom were less than 10 years old at the time. They saw repetitive images of planes crashing into buildings and photos of bearded men, described as evil, on television. In a day, the apparently secure world became a chaotic mess. As the ash settled over Manhattan, Islamophobia spread across the U.S. Fear was in the air, and war was on the horizon. How could young non-Muslim American children formulate a rational understanding of Islam in the midst of the terror that now engulfed their world?
Fifteen years later, the children of 2001 have become adults who vote. Has the U.S educational system adequately prepared voters to make informed decisions regarding American foreign policy in the realm of extremist Islamic terrorism? The answer is no.
When it comes to Islam, politics dictate the information that textbook publishers include in their products. Many textbook publishers inscribe their own political leanings into the chapters of their history textbooks, or tailor information in textbooks to avoid complaints from biased parent groups and educators.
In May 2011, the Texas Board of Education approved a measure to limit information on Islam in the state’s world history textbooks to control what board members “describe as a creeping Middle Eastern influence in the nation's publishing industry.” One board member stated that “the resolution sends a ‘clear message to publishers that it should not happen in the future.’" Stigma regarding Islam in the classroom is not limited to Texas. Parents from the Lodi Unified School District in California began a petition against the district’s use of “History Alive!: The Medieval World and Beyond,” a widely used middle school history textbook, to protest that the book mentions Muhammad more frequently than Jesus. The book was also the source of criticism in Arizona’s Scottsdale Unified School District where parents claimed that “they felt the book contained Islamic propaganda.” Parents and government agencies carry political sway that textbook companies, eager to maintain sales, take into consideration. Instead of learning non-biased information about Islam in the classroom, most non-Muslim children in the United States gain the majority of information on Islam from for-profit news sources and hearsay.
In 2008, the American Textbook Council produced a study entitled “Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbook Tells Us.” The time period of the study corresponds with the high school years of many now voting-age millennials, and includes an analysis of the ten most widely used middle school and high school American and World History textbooks in the United States.
Information on Islam in these textbooks often excludes information on Islam that either Muslim or non-Muslim parents find unsavory such as violent interpretations of Islam. For example, there is little information on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, and far less on the theological origins of violent interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism or Salafism, that guide ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outlets. This results in an extremely limited explanation of the origins of Islam, and simplifies the many interpretations of Islam into one. In addition, American textbooks largely fail to define accurately such basic concepts as the differences between Sunni and Shite Muslims, or the meaning of “jihad.” When explanations of the faith do appear in these textbooks, they include emotional descriptions of important people and events as well as stereotypes that are unlikely to be found in the same textbooks to describe other historical groups and ideologies.
Without even a basic understanding of Islam, students cannot possibly analyze the origins of extremism. Nor can students analyze the major distinctions between non-violent Muslim beliefs held by millions of Americans and the Wahhabi beliefs of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. This must change.
Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States as of December 2015. This number will continue to rise in the coming years with the inflow of Syrian refugees into the county, in addition to the relatively high birthrate among Muslims in the U.S. compared to members of other faiths. World history curriculums in American schools can no longer afford to generalize or to exclude information on Islam. For a more peaceful future, American students must gain an accurate understanding of their fellow classmates as well as the nature of extremist terrorist organizations.
Today, al-Qaeda has taken a backseat to ISIS in the realm of U.S. foreign policy, as well as in the mindset of the American people. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut in November 2015 sent another shockwave of fear across the Western world. Yet again, American school children live in a world where safety is uncertain due to fear of Islamist terrorism.
As terrorist organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram continue to thrive today, the Middle East and Islamist terrorism will likely be on the forefront of American foreign policy concerns for decades to come. Now, more than ever, the American educational system must raise its standards to include an accurate portrayal of Islam in its classrooms. Future American voters must be guided by a strong understanding of Islam and the diversity that differentiates millions of Muslims throughout the world, rather than a blanket of misinformation and fear.
Jacqueline Gill is an Executive Office Intern at EastWest Institute. She is an undergraduate student at Fordham University, pursuing degrees in Middle East Studies and Political Science with a minor in Economics.