Islam for kids: Required course
By David Kiefer
Of The Examiner Staff
Publication date: 02/25/2002
In California, school subjects can be divided into the four Rs: Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic -- and Religion.
A textbook used in public schools, including in San Francisco's schools, is creating a divide over its method of presenting Islam to children. Is it education or indoctrination, many wonder.
The question centers on a middle school curriculum, one mandated by the California Department of Education, that asks seventh-graders to build mosques, to pretend they are going on a pilgrimage to Mecca and to memorize Islam's Five Pillars of Faith.
While a spokesman for the San Francisco Unified School District says he had not heard of any problems, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national nonprofit multicultural watchdog organization, claims all middle schools have gone too far.
The teachings prompted one Christian legal organization to prepare a lawsuit and angered activist Bob Simonds, a former Orange Coast College professor, enough to call for a national Christian boycott of public schools.
But Muslims say everyone is just overreacting.
" The intention is to learn, " said Helal Omeira, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. " It's not about conversion. "
Written by Christians?
The textbook in question is called " Across the Centuries " -- it is published by Houghton Mifflin, a company that began its life as a Christian-book publisher -- which offers a historical overview spanning from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Enlightenment.
The book has been a mandatory portion of the state's social studies curriculum since 1991.
When coupled with another textbook, " Islam: A Simulation of Islamic History and Culture, 610-1100 " -- the book is published by Interaction Publishers of Lakeside -- the situation becomes even more volatile. Handouts introduce the lessons by proclaiming, " You and your classmates will become Muslims " accompany the book. The student assumes a Muslim name, wears Muslim clothes and even memorizes a prayer that includes the line, " Praise be to Allah, Lord of Creation. "
It is a problem for those who fear impressionable young kids will become converted.
" Public schools are required by law to maintain strict neutrality on religious matters, " said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United. " This project appears to have fallen well short of neutrality. "
The Islamic text is not offered by SFUSD, but is available to teachers in San Mateo County through its office of education.
" I don't have a problem with teaching Islam in schools, " said the Rev. Austin Miles, who lives in Contra Costa County. It was his January story on Byron's Excelsior School for the Assist news service, a Christian Web site, that lifted the issue into the public's view. " But I do have a problem with practicing Islam in schools. "
Among the gripes: " Across the Centuries " offers a slanted view toward Islam and paints the religion in an unrealistic positive light, while simultaneously offering a negative view toward Christianity. Plus, it often treats spiritual events as truth, such as this line from page 63: " In fact, the very first word the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad was ... " without first using qualifiers such as " Muslims believe. "
Study of the study
The unit was reviewed and edited by, among others, the Council on Islamic Education, which was created in 1988 by Shabbir Mansuri in an effort to correct false representations of Islam in school textbooks. Some argue it failed in this case.
Included in the unit are numerous references to Christians persecuting Jews, but none describing Muslim and Jewish conflicts.
It also defines the word " infidel " as a term Christians call non-Christians. Webster's, however, defines the term as what Christians and Muslims call nonbelievers.
" There's talk that Islamic groups are pressuring textbook publishers. And textbook publishers are notorious for bowing to pressure groups, " said Robert Boston of Americans United. " It's worth a look. "
San Luis Obispo parent Jen Schroeder was alarmed enough to try to pull her son out of the class. The principal denied the request, and Schroeder filed a complaint with the district.
Her cause was picked up by the Pacific Justice Institute, which calls itself a nonprofit legal-defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom. It determined the textbook offered a " distinct bias toward Islam. "
" Normally, when we take on a matter, we do a quick investigation, " said the institute's Brad Dacus. " But we really took our time on this one. The allegations were such that we had to confirm it ourselves. We found that it clearly crossed the line. Children are not getting a balanced instruction.
" The issue is not whether or not children should be able to learn about religions of the world. That can be a tool for understanding other people. But this is about giving seventh-graders in this state a diluted and distorted view resembling something from an Islamic Council publication rather than a statement of history. "
Mansuri responded to Boston's and Dacus's accusations with, " Let's see the evidence. Come up with evidence and let it speak for itself. "
Reactions go too far
When Miles's article was printed, it was met with concern and fanaticism. Excelsior's principal, Nancy Castro, even received death threats.
" People wanted to think that this school had turned into an Islamic school, " Boston said. " That idea is completely detached from reality. Unfortunately, that sort of rhetoric has polarized the situation. "
The topic evokes a passionate debate in conservative and mainstream circles. A Feb. 11 New York Post editorial, titled " Thinking like a Muslim " by Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes, criticized " Across the Centuries " and triggered a cascade of negative calls and e-mails from Christians toward Houghton Mifflin, countered by empathy from the Muslim community.
" He's definitely pushing an agenda of hatred, " Omeira said of Pipes. " Ask any Muslim. "
Houghton Mifflin, which has no immediate plans to revise the book, issued a statement stressing the need to view " Across the Centuries " in tandem with the sixth-grade text called " A Message of Ancient Days. "
" A Message of Ancient Days, " includes lessons on Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity, although none can match the volume of Islam's 67-page unit in " Across the Centuries. "
Even so, " A Message of Ancient Days " is not required in San Francisco.
Schools here have a choice between that and Harcourt Brace's " Ancient Civilizations, " which doesn't include lessons on other faiths.
Regardless of the textbook, said Avi Black, history and social studies content specialist for SFUSD, " There's no question that there is a weight toward the study of Christianity overall, because there is a weight toward Western Europe. "
But the coverage of those faiths does not match the intensity of Islam's in " Across the Centuries, " Dacus said.
" The textbook serves as a great recruiting tool for Islam in America, but that's not the purpose of public school instruction, nor should it be, " he said.
" Taken out of context, passages can be very inflammatory, " countered Tom Adams, social science coordinator for the California Department of Education.
Houghton Mifflin spokesman Collin Earnst agreed.
" There's a lot of misinterpretation, " said Earnst, who also responded to the questions of:
Building your own mosque?
" It's a building. We're not asking them to take part in a faith. "
Pretending you're on a pilgrimage?
" This allows children to understand other people's perspectives. It's a critical-thinking exercise. "
Said Mansuri: " Role-playing is a methodology of teaching. To say that's indoctrination is a pretty weak case. "
Not for Americans United, which claims the methods crossed the line and warranted a letter of reprimand to Excelsior School and Byron superintendent Peggy Green.
The perception is in the approach, said Ari Caprow, a 14-year teacher at Francisco Middle School in North Beach.
" I make it clear to the kids beforehand that we're going to learn about religion, but not participate in it, " Caprow said. " We're not going to practice it, but it's important to know what religion teaches.
" My 12-year-olds understand it. I'm not sure why adults have a problem with it. "
If the textbook, which was written according to California's guidelines, wasn't balanced, " It wouldn't even get past the school board, " Omeira said.
" It's a wonderful book, " Caprow said. " If you don't think so, you should see what the state was ramming down our throats 50 years ago. "
As for the lack of a negative view of Islam in the text, " Unless you want to paint Islam as an evil religion, that's not the place to bring it up, " Omeira said. " You're talking about seventh grade. When you go further in education, you learn more complexities about society. And with mental maturity, you make your own decisions.
" Religion doesn't do bad. People do bad. Let's separate the message from the messenger. "
E-mail David Kiefer at email@example.com