What the Textbooks Say: Part 4

June 16, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Islamist Textbooks | Leave a comment
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May 15, 2008

Islam in the Classroom: What the Textbooks Tell Us: Part Four of Five

Part Four of Five

Click here for Part One, here for Part Two and here for Part Three.

Islam, Terrorism and Global Security


The labels “terrorism” and “terrorist” are vague but pejorative. They are terms that are affixed to violence aimed at civilians or civil security and directed against a regime. Whether a nation can fight a “war against terrorism” is an open question, but politically the United States is stuck with the phrase. Terrorist groups do not describe themselves as terrorists. They see themselves as freedom fighters, guerrillas, paramilitaries, or as “martyrs” carrying out God’s will. Organized terrorism requires cover, arms, and money. Terrorists operate without a military force.

These would seem to be essential starting points for any textbook discussion of what terrorism is. But the central point that high school world history textbooks try to make is that terrorism comes in many forms. Worldwide, in Ireland, Japan, Italy, among the Basques, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, and Shining Path of Peru, students learn from “The Modern World”, terrorists threaten different societies. This is not helpful for students trying to grasp the geopolitical design of the twenty-first century, since intranational and often nonreligious forms of terrorism differ from – they do not correspond to – Islamic jihad, something that is transnational in scope and that occurs on a global scale. History textbooks would do better to explain how Shining Path or the Irish Republican Army is different from jihad.

In a section titled “Modern Terrorism,” “Modern Times” features a short, none-too-illustrative quotation from an eyewitness of carnage at the 2002 bombings of tourists in Bali, Indonesia, providing the entire contextual backup with the following text:

In the deadly Bali bombings, 200 people died. Similar events have filled news reports in recent years. What is it that terrorists of recent decades want? Some are militant nationalists who want to create their own state or expand national territory. The goal of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), for example, is to unite Northern Ireland, which is now governed by Great Britain, with the Irish Republic. Since the 1970s, thousands of people have died at the hands of IRA terrorists.

Other terrorists work for one nation to undermine the government of another. This kind of terrorism is called state-sponsored terrorism. Militant governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea have sponsored terrorist acts. There are also states that secretly finance, train, or hide terrorists.

Modern Times fails to identify what complaints gave rise to this incidence of Islamic terrorism. If Modern Times is going to focus on Balinese terrorism, it needs to explain that a relatively small number of Indonesian Islamists want to overthrow the current Muslim regime, turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, and terrify Australia. As it stands, this passage adds up to nothing. It is a poor choice for a defining example of Islamic terrorism. The 1997 massacre of tourists in Egypt or 2004 massacre of Beslan schoolchildren by jihadi are better study examples of Islamic terrorism directed at innocent civilians.

Having made a valuable point about state-sponsored terrorism, Glencoe’s “Modern Times” broadens the subject, switching to a new section entitled “Islamic Militants: A Clash of Cultures.” “Terrorist acts became more frequent in the later twentieth century,” the text begins, abandoning the stated subject from the start. “Acts of terror have become a regular aspect of modern society around the globe.” Then the book continues:

Terrorism has been practiced since ancient times. In the modern period, one example occurred in Russia in the late 1800s, when radical reformers bombed trains or assassinated officials to fight the czar’s repression.

The causes of recent world terrorism are complex. Some analysts say this terrorism is rooted in the clash of modern and Islamic cultures. They argue that because many states in the former Ottoman Empire did not modernize along Western lines, Muslims have not accommodated their religious beliefs to the modern world. Other analysts note that the Christians and Muslims have viewed each other with hostility since at least the time of the Crusades. Others suggest that poverty and ignorance lie at the root of the problem-extremists find it easy to stir up resentment against wealthy Western societies. Finally, some say terrorism would be rare if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be solved.

The reference to “recent world terrorism” – editors do not want to label it “Islamic terrorism” – lists views outsourced to unnamed “analysts,” letting “Modern Times’s” editors off the hook. The text never clarifies what it means when it says, “Muslims have not accommodated their religious beliefs to the modern world.” The idea that “poverty and ignorance lie at the root of the problem” sounds plausible but is not true. Terrorists are rarely poor or ignorant. Who really believes that terrorism would go away if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved? Who pretends that this resolution is an immediate possibility?

Neither Prentice Hall’s The Modern World nor Glencoe’s “Modern Times” explains that Islamic terrorism is a worldwide event or that jihad is vivid reality in Africa (Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt), the Middle East (Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Caucasus), and Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Indonesia), with terrorism a fact of life in the Balkans and Europe and in the United States: it’s quite a list, and global. It would help if textbooks explained that Islamic fundamentalists see jihad as a sacred struggle against occupiers (Russia, the United States, India, Israel) and apostates (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). It would be correct for textbooks to emphasize that plenty of jihadi exist worldwide, that their zeal is religion based, and that religious fundamentalism is mainstream, not peripheral, to the Muslim faith.

In the section entitled “Modern Terrorism,” “Modern Times” insists, “Most Muslims around the world do not share this vision nor do they agree with the use of terrorism.” The Modern World says, “The Islamist movement appeals to many Muslims. Some have used violence to pursue their goals. However, many Muslims oppose the extremism of the Islamists.” U.S. histories may say, as, for example, does Glencoe’s American Vision, “Although the vast majority of Muslims believe terrorism is contrary to their faith, militants began using terrorism to achieve their goals.” Such statements demand qualification, given the many strands of Islamic revivalism, some of them highly toxic. For students and teachers to be told otherwise is dangerous wishful thinking. Although some Muslims-mostly Western-educated Muslim elites-vocally oppose violence, in many Muslim countries-including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan – wide and vocal support for extremist groups is unremitting. The fact is, remarkable silence and qualified condemnation of Islamic illiberalities prevail throughout the Muslim world, on account of fear or assent.

Modern Times asserts, “TV has encouraged global terrorism to some extent because terrorists know that newscasts create instant publicity.” The text leaves to the imagination the identity of the terrorists. “TV images of American jetliners flying into the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001, for example, created immediate awareness of the goals of Islamic fundamentalist militants,” it adds. This is also incorrect and misleading. This explanation points away from, not toward, the root causes of radical Islam. Television does not encourage violence. What encourages Islamic terrorism is something different: religion-fueled zeal to sow fear and insecurity among infidels, destabilize non-Islamic governments, and expand control of non-Muslim territories.

In a unit called “Terrorism Threatens Global Security,” The Modern World ascribes Middle East terrorism to Western colonial domination and the creation of Israel, giving no hint of the role of Islamic fundamentalism itself as a leading edge of contemporary events:

The use of violence, especially against civilians, by groups of extremists – sometimes sponsored by governments that protect and fund them – to achieve political goals is called terrorism. . . . Increasingly, the Middle East has become a training ground and source for terrorism. One historical reason for this has been Western colonial domination in the region. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 helped focus anti-Western resentment among many Arabs.

This too-fast, facile explanation of “colonial domination” and Israel does not convey that religion is a driving force of almost all Middle Eastern violence or try to explain why this is so. The Modern World does acknowledge the uneasy relationship between Islamic fundamentalists and their governments:

Many governments have been heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both of these nations have provided financial support for terrorist organizations. In other nations, such as Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey, Islamic fundamentalist groups have used violence in an attempt to gain power and take over the government.

In fact, the politics of each of these countries could provide an illustrative case study in the textbooks. The ongoing tension between secular government and Islamic religious factions throughout the Muslim world demands amplification.

Islamic Fundamentalism

What do world history textbooks say about terrorism and its connections to Islamic faith? Prentice Hall’s The Modern World mentions the Wahhabi sect of Islam, describing Wahhabi as “strict” but otherwise failing to explain what it is, what it wants, or how it has become a global force inside and outside the Arab world. “Islamic fundamentalism” is mentioned but in many different places and passages; because the concept is never explained, it is hard to discern any core idea or threat. “The Modern World” says:

Islamic fundamentalism refers to the religious belief that society should be governed by Islamic law. A historical precedent for it was the Arab nationalism that helped nations in the Middle East come together after a history of European colonialism. This nationalism was strengthened by the creation of Israel as well as by a backlash against the presence of foreign powers in the oil-rich region. Socially, Islamic fundamentalism was encouraged by a lack of basic resources in many Arab nations. Islamic fundamentalists found it easy to make Israel or Western nations scapegoats for their problems. In the past few decades, terrorist attacks have increased against these scapegoats.

This is a difficult passage to unpack. While it makes some solid points, it is headed in different directions, makes questionable claims, and traffics in puzzling generalities such as “Islamic fundamentalists found it easy to make Israel or Western nations scapegoats for their problems. In the past few decades, terrorist attacks have increased against these scapegoats.” Scapegoat is a problem word to begin with. The declaration that “a historical precedent for [Islamic terrorism] was the Arab nationalism that helped nations in the Middle East come together after a history of European colonialism” is simplistic.

Textbooks present Western economic interest in Middle Eastern oil as a central cause of militant Islamic fundamentalism. In the passage that follows, The Modern World tries to convey an immense amount of information in a few words. The one-paragraph overview is so vague that it is meaningless. The statement that “Muslim Middle Easterners have disagreed over the role of Islam in a modern economy” simply fails to convey the reality of the matter. The passage moves so quickly and is so mixed that the book cannot claim that it has done anything more than mention a few key facts. Some of them, focused on the 1970s, seem out of date, providing striking examples of poorly integrated background material:

Parts of the Middle East sit atop the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. Oil-rich nations have prospered, but other Middle Eastern nations have struggled economically. Meanwhile, Muslim Middle Easterners have disagreed over the role of Islam in a modern economy.

Supplying the World with Oil Because the Middle East commands vital oil resources, it has strategic importance to the United States and other powers. Nations with large oil reserves are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the Arab Emirates (UAE). These nations are all members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) [sic], founded in 1960. In 1973, OPEC’s Arab members blocked oil shipments to the United States to protest U.S. support for Israel. This oil embargo contributed to a worldwide recession. Since the 1970s, OPEC has focused on regulating the price of oil rather than on taking political stands.

Modern Times links oil to Islamic fundamentalism, then fails to explain what a “vision of what a pure Islamic society should be.”

The oil business soon increased Middle Eastern contact with the West. Some Muslims began to fear that this contact would weaken their religion and their way of life. Some Muslims began organizing movements to overthrow their pro-Western governments. Muslims who support these movements are called fundamentalist militants. They promote their own vision of what a pure Islamic society should be.

“Modern Times” also suggests the United States is paying a price for past alliances with Middle Eastern potentates and financial elites:

Many terrorist attacks since World War II have been carried out by Middle Eastern groups against Western countries. One reason Middle Eastern terrorists have targeted Americans can be traced to developments in the 1900s. As oil became important to the American economy in the 1920s, the United States invested heavily in the Middle East oil industry. This industry brought great wealth to the ruling families in some Middle Eastern kingdoms, but most ordinary citizens remained poor. Some became angry at the United States for supporting the wealthy kingdoms and families.

Both Prentice Hall’s “The Modern World” and Glencoe’s “Modern Times” try to address the tension between Islam and modernity, a topic essential to understanding a clash of values and cultures going on worldwide. In a section called “Islam Confronts Modernization,” The Modern World states:

Some Middle Eastern nations adopted Western forms of secular, or nonreligious, government and law, keeping religion and government separate. Many Middle Eastern leaders also adopted Western economic models in a quest for progress. In the growing cities, people wore Western-style clothing, watched American television programs, and bought foreign products. Yet life improved very little for many people.

The notice of television programs in this passage contradicts the final statement, at least from the perspective that popular access to electrical power – televisions, refrigerators, lighting, computers – reflects a revolutionary break with Middle Eastern economic history and the past. The text identifies an Islamic “return to Sharia” but frames the issue so vaguely that it is instructionally meaningless:

By the 1970s, some Muslim leaders were calling for a return to Sharia, or Islamic law. These conservative reformers, often called Islamists, blame social and economic ills on the following of Western models. Islamists argue that a renewed commitment to Islamic doctrine is the only way to solve the region’s problems.

What are these “Western models”? What is “renewed commitment to Islamic doctrine”? The language is constructed so broadly that any genuine insight for students or instructors is impossible; once again, the textbooks sidestep the reality of the matter. At the bottom of the same page, in a confusing graphic called Islam and the Modern World” that the editors label an “infograph,” “The Modern World” adds:

Like other religions, Islam faces the challenge of adapting its traditions to a changing modern world. While religious traditions remain important to Muslims, Western culture has gained influence. Traditionally, in Islamic countries women are not expected to read or write. Today, Muslim women are pursuing educations and new career opportunities. While Islamists call for a return to tradition, many Muslims embrace a mixture of traditional and modern ways.

At the very least, textbooks owe it to their users to then specify which Islamic countries allow women to pursue literacy, vote in elections, drive a car, go to college, or have a “career” – and which do not. The tinny phrase “career opportunities” aside, it is revealing that this passage uses the word tradition or a variation of it five times but never gives readers the slightest idea of what these “traditions” are or what “return to tradition” actually means. “Modern Times” first declares awkwardly that few Muslims are extremists, then segues incoherently into the status of women in modern Islamic societies:

Because militants have received so much media attention, some believed that most Muslims were extremists. They are in a minority, however, especially in their view toward women. In the early 1900s, many Middle Eastern women had few rights. This situation had existed for centuries, but it was not seen in the earliest Islamic societies. In Muhammad’s time, Muslim women had extensive political and social rights. Restrictions on women came later.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim scholars began debating women’s roles. Many argued that Muslims needed to rethink outdated interpretations that narrowed the lives of women. In nations like Turkey and Iran, these debates led to an expansion of women’s rights and freedoms.

This trend continued, especially in urban areas of many Islamic societies, until the 1970s. Since that time, however, there has been a shift toward more traditional roles for women. This trend was especially noticeable in Iran.

Once again, a textbook seems obliged to remind student readers that few Muslims are extremists and that Islamic militancy is a fringe element in the religion, a declaration that is open to question and at the least requires qualification.

September 11

September 11, 2001, is a landmark moment in contemporary U.S. history and in the history of contemporary geopolitics. Here is the entire discussion in Prentice Hall’s “The Modern World”:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, teams of terrorists hijacked four airplanes on the East Coast. Passengers challenged the hijackers on one flight, which they crashed on the way to its target. But one plane plunged into the Pentagon in Virginia, and two others slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. More than 2,500 people were killed in the attacks.

The flatness and brevity of this passage are dismaying. In terms of content, so much is left unanswered. Who were the teams of terrorists and what did they want to do? What were their political ends? Since The Modern World avoids any hint of the connection between this unnamed terrorism and jihad, why September 11 happened is hard to understand. Glencoe’s “Modern Times” summarizes September 11 with more detail and insight. But here too terrorism goes unlabeled and unexplained:

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of terrorism. Terrorism is the use of violence by nongovernmental groups against civilians to achieve a political goal. Terrorist acts are intended to instill fear in people and to frighten their governments into changing their policies. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, killed all 266 passengers and crewmembers on the four hijacked planes. Another 125 people died in the Pentagon. In New York City, nearly 3,000 people died. More Americans were killed in the attacks than died at Pearl Harbor or on D-Day in World War II.

The context of Islamic terrorism is likewise hard to discern in U.S. history textbooks, even though the September 11 narratives are fuller and the examination of U.S. foreign policy less superficial than in world history textbooks. McDougal Littell’s The Americans says:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, two airlines crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third smashed into a section of the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. A fourth airliner crashed in a field in the Pennsylvania countryside. Nineteen Arab terrorists had hijacked the four planes and then used them as missiles in an attempt to destroy predetermined targets. The first three planes hit their targets. In the fourth plane, passengers fought the hijackers and the plane went down short of its target.

Explosions and raging fire severely weakened the twin towers. Within two hours of the attacks, both skyscrapers had tumbled to the ground. One wing of the Pentagon was extensively damaged. About 3,000 people were killed in the attacks. They included all the passengers on the four planes, workers and visitors in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and about 300 firefighters and 40 police officers who rushed into the twin towers to rescue people. The attacks of September 11 were the most destructive acts of terrorism in modern history.

This description of September 11 is sharply drawn, on its face more informative than the texts of competing textbooks, but the book goes on to say:

The reasons for terrorist attacks vary. Traditional motives include gaining independence, expelling foreigners, or changing society. These reasons often give rise to domestic terrorism – violence used by people to change the policies of their own government or to overthrow their government.

In the late 20th century, another type of terrorism began to emerge. Terrorists who carried out this type of terrorism wanted to achieve political ends or destroy what they considered to be the forces of evil. They attacked targets not just in their own country, but anywhere in the world. These terrorists were willing to use any type of weapon to kill their enemy. They were even willing to die to ensure the success of their attacks.

While the language and explanations in The Americans are more illuminating than those in high school world histories, what the textbook says is also artful in what it avoids. A student will be hard pressed to identify religion and, more specifically, radical Islam as the enemy and source of the terrorist attacks. Is the textbook losing sight of that fact? Where does the finger point? Who and what are “the forces of evil”? Why do these vaguely described terrorists consider them so? In this case what does “changing society” mean? No student can possibly deduce from this passage the nature of the Islamic complaints, who the new terrorists might actually be, or what they want to do.

Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present, a well-regarded high school history textbook, says:

On September 11, 2001, Americans reacted with horror when terrorists struck at targets in New York City and just outside Washington, D.C. Using hijacked commercial airlines as their weapons, the terrorists crashed into both towers of New York’s World Trade Center and plowed into part of the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A total of 266 passengers and crew on the four planes lost their lives.

The attack on the Pentagon took place less than an hour after the first plane hit New York. Damage was contained to a newly renovated section of the building, but fires raged for hours, preventing emergency workers from entering the wreckage. More than 180 people in the Pentagon were killed.

Pathways to the Present continues, giving additional detail and introducing Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as “Muslim extremists”:

In New York, the impact of the fully fueled jets caused both towers to burst into flames. Debris rained down on employees evacuating the buildings and on emergency workers rushing to respond to the scene. The fires led to the catastrophic collapse of both 110-story buildings as well as other buildings in the World Trade Center complex. Emergency workers battled fires and began a search-and-rescue operation. Tragically, the speedy response to the disaster led to the deaths of hundreds of firefighters and police officers who were in and around the buildings when they collapsed. The number of people missing and presumed dead after the assault was estimated to be 2,800.

Law-enforcement agencies immediately began an intensive investigation. Countries around the world pledged to support efforts to hunt down the criminals responsible for the attacks. Within days, government officials named Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi dissident, as “a prime suspect” for masterminding the plot. Bin Laden, the head of a terrorist network of Muslim extremists known as Al Qaeda, was believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

Glencoe’s standard high school U.S. history textbook, American Vision, adds a passage titled “Middle East Terrorism” that explains conflict between Islam and the United States and West as a function of oil, Western ideas, and Israel. It begins, “Although there have been many acts of terrorism in American history, most terrorist attacks on Americans since World War II have been carried out by Middle Eastern groups. The reason Middle Eastern terrorists have targeted Americans can be traced back to events early in the twentieth century.” American Vision, as do other textbooks, points to poverty and cultural imperialism as root causes of Islamic terrorism. To reiterate, it concludes with the standard textbook disclaimer, highlighting the word contrary:

The rise of the oil industry increased the Middle East’s contact with Western society. As Western ideas spread through the region, many Muslims – followers of the region’s dominant religion – feared that their traditional values and beliefs were being weakened. New movements arose calling for a strict interpretation of the Quran – the Muslim holy book – and a return to traditional Muslim religious laws.

These Muslim movements wanted to overthrow pro-Western governments in the Middle East and create a pure Islamic society. Muslims who support these movements are referred to as fundamentalist militants. Although the vast majority of Muslims believe terrorism is contrary to their faith, militants began using terrorism to achieve their goals.

What are these “traditional values and beliefs”? What does “calling for a strict interpretation of the Quran” mean? What is a “pure Islamic society”?

High school world history textbooks, which focus on world history since 1945, cannot ignore terrorism or the Middle East. “The Modern World” explains the rise of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in lucid prose. “Bin Laden had helped the warlords of Afghanistan drive the Soviets out of their country in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he mobilized al Qaeda to expel American business interests from his own country, Saudi Arabia,” the textbook says in clear language. “By the new millennium, he was providing aid, training, or money to scattered terrorist groups from Morocco to Indonesia.” “Modern Times” describes bin Laden as believing that “Western ideas had contaminated Muslim societies.” What ideas? What does contaminated mean? Bin Laden “dedicated himself to driving Westerners out of countries with a largely Muslim population.” What countries? Saudi Arabia? The textbook does not mention bin Laden’s agenda to destroy the United States and Israel, nor does it explain his essential complaint against Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the infidel. It says: “Bin Laden called on Muslims to kill Americans.” Such a declaration requires real amplification. Why did bin Laden call on Muslims to kill Americans?

Israel and the Middle East

In covering the Middle East since World War II, history textbooks cannot ignore Israel. Its past and future are intertwined regionally with Islam, a religion with elements that are resolutely hostile to its existence and people. Religious tensions in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1947 are unresolved. They are at the center of the most significant and intractable geopolitical confrontation in the world today. Editors try to be evenhanded, with mixed results.

In The Modern World a chapter called “The Modern Middle East” is badly organized. It tries to cover an immense amount of information, starting with a weakly titled section called “Diversity Brings Challenges.” The text begins inexplicably, almost deceptively, with a section called “Kurds Seek Freedom” before it switches topics, without any logic or bridge, to the foundation of Israel – covered in three paragraphs. The chapter then moves on to equally brief coverage of Middle Eastern oil, Islam and modernization, and the status of women in Islamic nations today.

Some reviewers for this report believed that “The Modern World”showed bias against Israel, when the textbook said, “However, the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948 forced 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in Israeli territory. The UN set up camps in neighboring areas to house Palestinian refugees. Generations of Palestinians grew up bitter about the loss of their homes. The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians continues today.” An equivalent number of Jews were expelled from Arab countries during the same period, they point out. Textbooks do not explain that Israelis did not expel Palestinians in 1947 or that refugees remained refugees on account of Israel’s Arab neighbors. The Modern World states in a later passage, “Israel’s government took land from Palestinians and helped Jewish settlers build homes in the occupied territories, displacing more Palestinians.” Some reviewers objected to repeated use of the word “occupied” in The Modern World and in “Modern Times” as well as to loaded words such as “forced” and “displaced.” Textbooks talk about “fighting” in a neutral way rather than emphasizing decades of repeated Arab attacks on Israel. They fail to note that the Palestine Liberation Organization does not simply want a Palestinian state. Its intent is to destroy Israel.

The Modern World features a detailed two-page review of “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” with more impressive results. Modern Times provides a two-page set of sources and document-based questions, using three well-chosen extracts that are long enough to make sense. The first comes from the Jewish claim to Palestine from the May 1948 proclamation of the state; the second from an Arab claim to Israel from the 1968 charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization; and the third comes from 2002 commentary by Ariel Sharon, then prime minister of Israel, in the New York Times. Together they add up to an instructionally effective, document-based exercise the level of which is rarely seen in standard high school textbooks.

Some reviewers thought “The Modern World” and”Modern Times” contain a pro-Arab subtext and place blame on Israel for Middle East conflict. Other reviewers suggested that textbook editors deliberately avoid criticism of Israel and avoid widely circulated counterviews about U.S. foreign policy, quoting Robert Kagan’s observation that “critics from World War I onward warned that American support for a Jewish state would produce unending war, severely damage America’s otherwise amicable relations with the Muslim world, and after the discovery of massive deposits of Middle Eastern oil in the 1930s, endanger access to this vital commodity.”

In one American history textbook the treatment of Israel and the Middle East since 1945 puts the situation into perspective as to U.S. world policy and interests. Glencoe’s American Vision states:

American support of Israel also angered many in the Middle East. In 1947 the UN divided British-controlled Palestine into two territories to provide a home for Jews. One part became Israel. The other part was to become a Palestinian state, but fighting between Israel and the Arab states in 1948 left this territory under the control of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

The Palestinians wanted their own nation. In the 1950s, they began staging guerrilla raids and terrorist attacks against Israel. Since the United States gave military and economic aid to Israel, it became the target of Muslim hostility. In the 1970s several Middle Eastern nations realized they could fight Israel and the United States by providing terrorist groups with money, weapons, and training. When a government secretly supports terrorism, this is called state-sponsored terrorism. The governments of Libya, Iraq, and Iran have all sponsored terrorism.

Textbooks are evasive about Islamic terrorism as an immediate threat to Israel. In its explanation of Hezbollah, Prentice Hall’s “The Modern World” does not explain that Hezbollah means Party of God or that it is a guerrilla army with Shiite roots, financed by Iran. The book does not say that Hezbollah seeks to destroy Israel. It fails to note that hostile Shiite forces from Iran and Syria are behind the “party.” Instead it says, “The Lebanese political party Hezbollah formed after Israel invaded Lebanon. Originally its goal was to oust Israel from Lebanon and assert Lebanese power. It remains a strong party today. In recent years, however, factions of Hezbollah have increasingly been suspected of using terrorist tactics to attain its goals.”

World and U.S. history textbooks need to summarize U.S. policy in the Middle East and outline the war against Iraq, delineating what elements of policy and war are related to Islamic fundamentalism and what elements are not. In a brief passage that telescopes the subject, Prentice Hall’s The Modern World says:

President Bush asked Congress to declare war on Iraq, arguing that Saddam was secretly producing WMDs. The war was bitterly debated among Americans and around the world, because no WMDs were found. However, most in the global community welcomed the holding of free democratic elections in Iraq in early 2005, hoping that a democratic Iraq might positively influence the largely authoritarian Middle East.

The text and lesson would have been clearer if the textbook had pointed out that the prospect of Iraqi WMDs alarmed international intelligence agencies and most members of Congress as much as the president. Mentioning the failure to find WMDs and the U.S. pursuit of war demands much more narrative and detail. Bringing up 2005 elections and hopes for a democratic Iraq makes the passage even more confusing.

Glencoe’s “Modern Times” gives a fuller picture of what WMDs are and the lead-up to the war, but the section loses coherence entirely when it folds events in 2003 and 2004 into copy from earlier editions, events on which the editors had no perspective and that seem entirely dated now, for example, the name Iyad Allawi featured in bold type, and a concluding paragraph that says with risible understatement:

Some Iraqi citizens seemed willing to support their new government, but a difficult road lay ahead. First the new government must succeed in keeping order and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. An even greater challenge was to create a national consensus among groups that disagreed about the role of religion in society and the kinds of government they would accept.

Textbooks that cover geopolitics today have an obligation to convey the life-and-death issue of nuclear terrorism and the destructive ambitions of Islamic militants. Fissile material is loosely or secretly held throughout Central Asia. Pakistan already has obtained the atomic bomb; radical Islamists in Pakistan want control of these weapons. Iran and other countries actively seek nuclear weaponry. The technology to build and explode an atomic bomb is widely known to radical Islamic scientists. Islamic militants worldwide are trying to obtain or construct a nuclear or radiological weapon. The advantage of a radiological bomb is the ability to explode it easily. Americans and Europeans are ambivalent about the use of nuclear weapons in the past and fearful of their use in the future. Islamic militants are not. Al Qaeda seeks to accomplish a nuclear attack on U.S. soil. “They are not in a hurry. Time is on their side,” the Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy warned in 2005.

U.S. history textbooks are considerably more detailed about what has happened in Iraq than are world histories, although they too hedge nuclear terrorism and underplay the significance of never-found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In a serious two-page account of U.S. intervention and war in Iraq, one that includes a clear timeline of Saddam Hussein’s regime, for example, The Americans repeatedly displays detail, detachment, and balance. In late 2004 weapons of mass destruction “had not been found,” the book says, reflecting its press date but adds that, despite this, George W. Bush was reelected president.

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