American Kids are Learning Islamophobia from Their Textbooks
BY: MELISSA LEVINSON
Donald Trump’s travel ban, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, is wreaking havoc on Muslim families, forcing some Americans to leave the United States for countries in the midst of devastating wars in order to reunite with loved ones. The resilience ― and, among some Americans, popularity ― of the travel ban is emblematic of how enshrined Islamophobia has become in American culture. Even our highest court of justice has endorsed a discriminatory law rooted in misconceptions about the instability, oppression and violence of the Middle East and Islamic faith.
While many people blame these persistent misconceptions on mass-media depictions of Arabs and Muslims, that’s not where they begin. We need to examine the pervasiveness of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim information in the American education system ― and, in particular, in textbooks.
Most Americans’ exposure to the Middle East and Islam starts with what they learn in high school history class. World history textbooks in the United States only allocate around 3 percent of space to discussions of these topics. And the story those textbooks tell in that limited space is a disturbing one. My research on world history textbooks used across the country finds that sections about Islam and the Middle East advance a “rise and fall” narrative. That story goes like this: In the medieval period, the Middle East was a flourishing and advanced civilization, but due to an inability to modernize, the region has subsequently declined into chaos, oppression and violence. This sensationalized version of history reduces the region to a bygone society and fails to account for the vibrant and dynamic contemporary reality of the Middle East.
American history textbooks similarly tend to degrade Arabs and Muslims by situating them as foreign and antithetical to the American national narrative. While Arabs and Muslims have been integral members of the United States since before the country’s inception, American history textbooks strip U.S. history of its Arab and Muslim influences. These textbooks fail to acknowledge the significant contributions of Arab and Muslim Americans to all aspects of American life, from sports to technology to government. Students don’t learn that there would be no Apple iPhones or Macbooks without the genius and innovation of an Arab American, Steve Jobs. Students aren’t taught that Muhammad Ali was motivated by his Muslim faith to dedicate his life to social justice and civil rights.
In failing to tell this part of the American story, these educational materials construct a national identity that alienates Arab and Muslim Americans. Instead, both world history and U.S. history textbooks portray Arabs and Muslims as the undemocratic and tyrannical people that the United States strives to defeat in order to secure democracy and peace throughout the world. They tell stories about “[t]he ever-volatile Middle Eastern pot” that “continued to boil ominously,” describing Iranian hostage takers as “a howling mob of rabidly anti-American Muslim militants.” This framing leads students to view the Middle East as a tempestuous, threatening and mysterious region in a constant state of turbulence.