“I used to think that violence and war in the Middle East were caused by Muslims and what is written in the Quran. Now I think that’s not true; I believe Islam promotes peace, but individuals interpret the word of God in different ways.”
The above quotation is from a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to the anonymous student’s teacher, this pearl of adolescent wisdom was the product of a unit of study in “a semester-long course about global history with a focus on the modern Middle East.”
The teacher is very proud of this outcome. In fact, she wrote about it in an article posted online in the “PBS Teachers’ Lounge” under the title “Teaching Islam: Deconstructing Myths and Clarifying Truths.”
The title is ironic, in that the student’s writing contains a popular myth about Islam, namely that it is a religion that promotes peace.
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Across the nation, parents register concern when their children are confronted with Islam at school. It is a delicate issue. Given widespread ignorance of Islam in the United States, a compelling case can be made that to be well-informed about world events, one must know something about the Islamic faith and the goals of those who practice it. On the other hand, many parents reasonably fear that information will become indoctrination.
The Modern Myths of Islam
The idea that Islam is a religion of peace is one that flies in the face of both the historical record and modern experience. From its inception, Islam was a religion of conquest. The Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Spain, the Balkans—all were at one time conquered by armies carrying the banners of Islam. The Muslim participation in the slave trade was vastly more far-ranging than the African slave trade, that is so well known.
Anyone who believes that this is all in the past, and that Islam has matured in a peaceful direction should try being a Christian in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Even the notoriously left-wing CNN admits that ISIS has participated in or inspired 129 attacks in 29 countries, with a total death toll of 2,043. Of course, that number leaves out all of the activities of other Islamic organizations. The Catholic organization Aid to the Church in Need strives to assist Christians suffering persecution. The record is truly harrowing.
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Another persistent myth is that Christians and Muslims should be able to live in peace since they are different ways of worshiping the same God. This assertion is false. The only thing that gives this idea any credibility is that biblical characters, notably Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary appear in the Koran. There the similarity ends. The role that they play in the Koran is as a kind of backdrop to show the superiority of Muhammad over them. For instance, in the Koranic account, Jesus forbids the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity, disclaims divinity, and predicts the coming of Muhammad.
A Tale of Two Parents
Parents are understandably concerned when their children have to do assignments that expose them to these myths or go into any depth about the beliefs of Muslims. “If teachers can’t teach about basic Christian beliefs,” the question goes, “why are they being asked to memorize the Five Pillars of Islam?”
Consider the case of Libby Hilsenrath and Nancy Gayer, two mothers in Chatham, New Jersey, who believed that their children were being indoctrinated in Islam. They objected. They went to the school board. The board did not take action. They went on Fox News. The other media paid scant attention, but WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, gave the story a couple of minutes, including this paragraph illustrating a small part of the pro-Islamic agenda.
Just a few weeks ago in South Carolina, parents complained to the local news about sixth graders who learned about Islam in school—even though like New Jersey, teaching Islam is actually a mandated part of the South Carolina curriculum. In Florida, the anti-Islam group ACT for America is petitioning a school district to include the alleged “horrific” acts of the prophet Mohammed in the curriculum. And in Texas, the state attorney general has raised questions about a room at the school that Muslim students use to pray.1
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The statement dismisses these parents’ complaint together with those parents from South Carolina. The phrase “even though like New Jersey, teaching Islam is actually a mandated part….” Obviously, the people at WNYC cannot imagine why these parents would not accept the state mandate as the last word on the issue—totally missing the point that the mandate itself was part of the parents’ complaint.
The case has not been resolved, but as of this writing, a federal judge has recently denied the school district’s motion to have the case thrown out of court.
The Materials That Your Children Could Be Using
Interestingly, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has its own oar in these particular waters. PBS has produced a video, Islam: Empire of Faith.2 The video is beautifully produced and affects an aura of neutrality, but there is little that says anything negative about the rapid expansion of Islam during its early history. The film’s web site has an abundance of information that could easily turn the 160-minute film into the centerpiece of a study unit that could take a couple of weeks if all of the resources are used.
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If Islam: Empire of Faith is beyond the grasp of any particular teacher’s students, there is no reason to fear. PBS has them covered with the series Access Islam.3 This ten-lesson unit comes fully prepared for those in grades 4-8. Worked into those lessons are short films discussing aspects of Islam. However, these are far from impartial. Consider the fact that many Islamic nations have incredibly bad human rights records, especially regarding women. This series does not recognize this record. The primary treatment of women in this series is titled “American Muslim Women,” which says nothing about the plight of women in Islamic nations, but does include the following:
Muminah Ahmad was also born Muslim. Her parents converted to Islam in the 1970s. Like many other African-Americans, they were looking for a religion they felt stressed freedom from oppression and treated people of all races as equals. Unlike immigrant Muslims, whose religious practices are infused with their native culture, African-Americans build on American culture.
A well-informed teacher could counter the obvious bias of these materials. Unfortunately, many teachers, even highly experienced teachers, know very little about Islam. Teacher training programs focus on methods of teaching, not the content to be taught. However, several states have guidelines that require instruction about Islam. PBS has made it relatively easy for the teacher to comply with the requirement, but the result is going to be very one-sided.
Some Advice for Parents
In this setting, concerned parents will have a difficult time even finding out if their children are at risk of this sort of subtle indoctrination. The first step is to know whether your child is in a class in which this could happen. If your child is taking a course called World History, World Cultures, World Civilizations, Cultural Geography, or anything even close to these, there is probably a unit on Islam.
The next step is to look at the textbook. This will be of limited value, but it is a good place to start. Don’t wait until your son or daughter brings a book home. Many schools may economize by only buying a class set of books that can be used in school by all of a teacher’s classes. However, you are well within your rights to request to see a copy and to have a reasonable time to examine it. You should remember that teachers are not supposed to rely solely on textbooks. They will also be using materials from other sources. You have the right to see those materials.
The simplest step is to ask your children what they studied today in school. This is a good practice anyway, even if you do not suspect that anything is wrong. As they get older, they may be more resistant to answering with anything more than one or two words, but press them a little bit, and they will soon get the idea that it is just easier to tell you rather than to listen to your questions.
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If it occurs to you that the teacher is spending an undue amount of time on Islam, make an appointment to see the teacher or principal. Try to be positive, rather than accusatory. When you see them, ask them lots of questions and hear out their answers. Comfortable people are more likely to give you information than those who have the idea that you are out to get them.
Try not to mention Christianity in the first five minutes of the conversation—it makes it far more likely that you will not get a prepared answer. You are probably not the first person to express concern. Try to ask a question they do not expect. To justify teaching a lot about Islam, they will probably tell you that they are supposed to teach about all world religions. Rather than asking them to show you their materials about Christianity to compare with their Islam lessons, ask them to show you what they are teaching about Buddhism or Hinduism. It is perfectly reasonable to use their own words to get information that they would be unlikely to give you otherwise.
Of course, the best antidote for this situation is to make sure that your children have a good religious formation in the Christian Faith. The light and airy assurances they may hear about the goodness of Islam will be far less effective if your children have a solid knowledge of Church history, cultivate pious practices and frequent the Sacraments. All while increasing their love of God. The god of Islam is distant, static, and impersonal. Allah just cannot stand up next to a God who loves your children so much that He sent His Son to suffer and die for them.
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- //www.wnyc.org/story/allegations-islam-indoctrination-public-schools-spread-nj/ An audio link on the site allows the reader to hear the tone of the report, as well.
- As a matter of full disclosure, the author of this article used this film for many years in his World History classes at a public high school in Maryland.
- A more detailed look at Access Islam can be found at //noisyroom.net/blog/2018/07/24/pbs-the-un-american-classroom/