Ignoring Islam: U.S. Education in Need of Intervention
The United States’ education system is unprepared to discuss Islam, despite the pertinence of religious education in the modern world. With the events of September 11, 2001, the words “Muslim” and “Islam” have become parts of the American vernacular; however, the biased media coverage of 9/11 connoted the religion of Islam with villainy and extremism. An investigation of textbooks before and after 9/11—finding that most textbooks either abridge or neglect Islam—demonstrates the lack of religious education in secondary education. This education is necessary for young people who will need a multicultural education in order to thrive in the modern social climate of an increasingly connected world. By ignoring Islam, textbooks and the education system fail to provide students with the knowledge that they will need in order to combat religious prejudice and extend peace to the warring Middle East.
In his infamous political campaign advertisement, former Republican candidate Rick Perry pontificates that Christianity has “made America strong… [and] can make her strong again” (2011). With nearly eighty percent of Americans identifying as Christians, Rick Perry’s appeal to religion seems reasonable, but it also highlights the nation’s partial stance towards religion (Pew Research Center, 2007). Despite the Bill of Rights’ promise to prevent the establishment of a national religion, the United States offers Christianity the most attention of the three major world religions, almost stifling Judaism and Islam. With the events and fallout of 9/11, Islam has received more media attention; however, this attention has not increased awareness of the religion. Instead, it has created a strong prejudice towards its practitioners. As a religion that encompasses nearly one-fourth of the world’s population, Islam demands at least rudimentary knowledge among the public, but today, many understand Muslims as a whole as villains for the actions of a few extremists on September 11, 2001. Education is the best means of reform, yet the separation between church and state in public schools discourages religious conversation in the classroom. Modern textbooks distance religion from the events of 9/11, perhaps in hopes of protecting Muslims, and thereby snub an opportunity to educate students about the Islamic religion and its crucial role in the modern world. By ignoring Islam, history textbooks and the education system blind students to an important culture and tacitly encourage misinformed prejudice against one of the largest sects of the human race.
In the classroom, textbooks provide the foundation of education: students study them, and teachers teach from them. Seldom do textbooks published before 2001 contain any information about Islam. The Gulf War, while a major event in the Middle East, had few religious motivations, so it did not require a comprehensive examination of religion. A rarity, World History: Traditions and New Directions, provides a historical narrative beginning with the Muslims involved in the slave trade and delineates the role of Islam in the struggles in the Middle East up until the book’s 1991 publication date (Stearns). American history textbooks from this time, History of the United States for example, ignore Islam as a cultural aspect of the Middle East, even though the United States became embroiled in the affairs of the Middle East during the Gulf War (DiBacco, 1992). Islam education is perhaps unnecessary when discussing the Gulf War; however, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have rendered this information imperative. Immediately following 9/11, “Islam” and “Muslim” became household words, each spoken with acid. Education should have provided unbiased information about Islam and the extremists who tarnished the public’s perception of the religion, but, instead, it did nothing. This permitted widespread fear to foster false cultural stereotypes resulting in the persecution of many Muslims.
Following the events of 9/11, immediate bigotry towards Muslims manifested. President Bush tried to allay the spreading of this prejudice by vindicating the majority of Muslims, saying that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends” but the “traitors to their faith” (qtd. in Jackson, 2010). Bush’s attempt to calm the panicked American public contradicted his deployment of troops to the Middle East and his later referral to several Middle Eastern countries as the “axis of evil” (qtd. in Smidt, 2005). Biased media coverage replaced the words of the country’s leader and hearkened to the resolve of the public to identify an antagonist. Anti-Islamic sentiments already brewed with the conspiracy theories wrongly accusing Muslims of executing the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and the events of 9/11 exacerbated the prejudice (Moore, 2009). Shortly after 9/11, political cartoons, television shows, and jokes propagated the idea that all Muslims were terrorists (Jackson, 2010). By using fallacious inductive reasoning, the public determined that the few extremists behind 9/11 represented Muslims in general. In a 2002 Gallup poll, 39.3 percent of responders believed that Islam “encourages more violence than other religions” (Smidt, 2005). Osama bin Laden, now a symbol of anti-American sentiment and slaughter, became the face of Islam, juxtaposed against the gentle, grandfatherly image of Pope John Paul II, the face of Roman Catholicism and Christianity as a whole.
Aggravating the problem, modern textbooks continue to ignore Islam despite its relevance to America after 9/11. American Anthem simplifies the entire Islam faith to “one of the world’s religions… based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad” when mentioning al-Qaeda and 9/11 (Ayers et al, 2007). Lamentably, a textbook of over one-thousand pages condenses a religion with more than one billion followers into less than twenty words. Another modern textbook, World History Human Legacy, mentions Islam briefly in colonial America but chooses to refer to al-Qaeda as “terrorists” during 9/11 without any reference to Islam (Wineburg, 2008). These laconic descriptions fail to describe the foundations of Islam and neglect acknowledgement of the different sects of the religion. By this concise reasoning, Roman Catholics comprise the totality of Christianity, a religion that has many scions. In the same manner that such an understanding of Christianity and Catholicism fails to explain the motivations behind the Reformation, a basic understanding of Islam cannot begin to relate the motivations behind the turmoil in the Middle East. Students cannot understand modern problems without understanding the socio-religious climate of this region. By ignoring Islam, textbooks hope to relinquish Islam of its connection to the extremists behind 9/11, thereby eliminating the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists. However, for the American public, 9/11 and Islam remain inextricably bound, and by not addressing it, textbooks allow ignorance and bigotry to flourish.
Outside of formal education, young persons, those with established faith in particular, will find it difficult to learn of other religions. Most people gain religious education through their parents and church (Moore, 2009). Churches and parents preach one faith, leaving a void where young persons need to learn of other faiths in order to understand the struggles of the modern world. Parents do not want to introduce their children to other religions when they have already determined a “true” religion, making it vital that an impartial venue for religious education exists. This knowledge should manifest in the education system, yet the failings of modern textbooks prevent such discourse from occurring within the realm of secondary education. Moreover, the separation between church and state prevents or at least worries some teachers when providing information about religion. The fear of infringing on this partition may dissuade teachers from speaking of religion altogether. Furthermore, some teachers foster the same prejudice that religious education tries to eliminate, thereby preventing these teachers from providing impartial, factual information about religion without condemning it in favor of their personal beliefs (Moore, 2009).
In order to redress the prejudice against Muslims in the United States, teachers must reevaluate the treatment of Islam in the classroom. Often, history classes are the only social science classes that a student will take, but history classes, as evident in their textbooks, are ill equipped to provide thorough information about controversial subjects (Moore, 2009). History textbooks fail to recognize that history is a “furious debate informed by evidence and reason” (Loewen, 2012). As such, students need textbooks that will guide them through arguments—not around them. Because technology is causing the world to shrink, young people must receive a multicultural education to understand the current issues affecting the global community. Currently, multicultural education focuses on ethnic and racial identities even though religious identities perhaps contribute the greatest to an individual or group’s cultural identity (Jackson, 2010). By neglecting the religious aspect of a multicultural education, students cannot prepare themselves for jobs requiring liberal studies education. Moreover, religion affects and pervades many facets of the educated world—like politics, economics, business, and marketing—thus demanding students to have competency in world religions (Moore, 2009). In particular, students seeking to affect foreign policy and international affairs need an understanding of religion. At present, the Middle East is in a state of tension, and this new generation of students will become the ones who have to mediate international politics. Soon, these students will assume the positions of ambassadors, peacekeepers, and lawmakers, and they will have to consider religious groups when creating and maintaining policy. Students must have a cultural awareness and acceptance before they can preach peace.
Furthermore, the relationship between 9/11 and Islam must receive attention. Currently, the American public blames Islam for the attacks on 9/11 while textbooks remain uninvolved, neither refuting nor supporting this claim. The media has reinforced the image of all Muslims as terrorists, and textbooks do not emphasize that the terrorists who masterminded 9/11 were members of an extremist minority of Islam. While textbooks should seek to highlight this idea, they fail to acknowledge Islam completely. Americans believe that they were the sole victims in 9/11, but 9/11 was also an attack on the Muslim community by both al-Qaeda and the American public. A survey by Muslim Mothers Against Bullying found that eighty percent of school-age Muslims in American schools have been called a “terrorist” (Sacirbey, 2011). This statistic confirms that students do not understand the relationship between al-Qaeda and Islam. If the education system would distinguish the two, then anti-Islamic sentiments would diminish.
While the present situation between the American public and Islam requires delicate reformation, the mindset of this country prevents reconciliation. The wound of 9/11 will never heal, but education can assuage the pain. Although it is the main religion of the United States, Christianity is only one religion practiced in this country. Those who neglect other religions in the salad bowl that is the United States refuse the special mixture of cultural traits that inspires this country’s uniqueness. The United States tolerates all religions, but this guarantee depends on the willingness of the people to act without bias. At present, the education system, as apparent in the textbooks used in schools, is unprepared to discuss controversial issues, like religion, however pertinent they are outside the classroom. Education should seek to relinquish the bonds of prejudice—not maintain them. With the help of education, bigotry can be eliminated, and thought can be reformed.
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