What your kids are learning about Israel, America and Islam
Often bypassing school boards and nudging aside approved curricula, teaching programs funded by Saudi Arabia make their way into elementary and secondary school classrooms.
These teachings enter school systems with the help of a federal program, Title VI of the Higher Education Act, that is now up for renewal.
Expert analyses of these materials have found them to be full of inaccuracies, bias and proselytizing. They also have found that many of the major history and social studies textbooks used in schools across the country are highly critical of democratic institutions and forgiving of repressive ones.
These materials praise and sometimes promote Islam, but criticize Judaism and Christianity and are filled with false assertions.
Most taxpayers don’t know they’re paying — at the federal, state and local levels — for the public schools to advance these materials.
Much has been written about the anti-Israel, anti-American bias found at many university Middle East studies departments, some of which receive Saudi funding. Critics have also probed the export of Saudi teachings to American mosques and Islamic schools.
A special yearlong investigation by JTA reveals for the first time how Saudi influence is penetrating the American classrooms of young children.
The investigation uncovers the complex path by which biased textbooks and supplementary teaching materials creep into U.S. public schools. It reveals who creates these materials and how some of America’s most prestigious universities — with the use of federal funds — become involved in disseminating them.
Saudi influence enters the classrooms in three different ways. The first is through teacher-training seminars that provide teachers with graduate or continuing-education credits.
The second is through the dissemination of supplementary teaching materials designed and distributed with Saudi support. Such materials flood the educational system and are available online.
The third is through school textbooks paid for by taxpayers, some of them vetted by activists with Saudi ties, who advise and influence major textbook companies about the books’ Islamic, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli and Middle Eastern content.
Ironically, what gives credibility to the dissemination of these distorted materials is Title VI of the Higher Education Act, a federal program enacted in 1958 in part to train international experts to meet the nation’s security needs.
Under Title VI, select universities get federal funding and prestigious designation as national resource centers for the study of places and languages the government deems vital for meeting global challenges.
Eighteen of these centers are for the study of the Middle East; each receives an average of about $500,000 per year. The taxpayer-supported grants are worth at least 10 times that amount in their ability to garner university support and attract outside funding, proponents of Title VI say.
As part of its federal mandate, each center assigns an outreach coordinator to extend its expertise to the community and to school-age children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Outreach usually includes workshops, guest speakers, books, pamphlets and whole syllabuses and curricula broken down into teaching modules, with instruction booklets for teachers, and sometimes visual aids such as films.
While some school district officials are completely unaware of the material reaching their teachers and classrooms, others welcome it: Believing they’re importing the wisdom of places like Harvard or Georgetown, they actually are inviting into their schools whole curricula and syllabuses developed with the support of Riyadh.
The “Arab World Studies Notebook” is one such example. Billed by its creators as an important tool to correct misperceptions about Islam and the Arab world, the manual for secondary schools has been blasted by critics for distorting history and propagating bias.
First published in 1990 as the “Arab World Notebook,” the manual was updated to its current form in 1998. The newer publication was created as the joint project of two organizations — both of which receive Saudi funding.
Some of the references are subtle, critics say, making them all the more harmful. For example, the manual:
• Denigrates the Jews’ historical connection to Jerusalem. One passage, describing the Old City, says: “the Jerusalem that most people envisage when they think of the ancient city, is Arab. Surrounding it are ubiquitous high-rises built for Israeli settlers to strengthen Israeli control over the holy city.”
• Suggests that Jews have undue influence on U.S. foreign policy. Referring to Harry Truman’s support of the 1947 United Nations resolution to partition Palestine, separating it into Jewish and Arab states, it says: “Truman’s decision to push the U.N. decision to partition Palestine ended in the creation of Israel. The questions of Jewish lobbying and its impact on Truman’s decision with regard to American recognition — and indeed, the whole question of defining American interests and concerns — is well worth exploring.”
• Suggests that the Koran “synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations,” meaning those ascribed to by Christians and Jews.
• Leaves out any facts and figures about the State of Israel in its country-by-country section, but refers instead only to Palestine.
One of the groups involved in the publication is the Berkeley, Calif.-based Arab World and Islamic Resources, or AWAIR, (www.awaironline.org) founded in 1990 with funding from organizations that include Saudi Aramco, a Saudi government-owned oil company.
The editor of the notebook is Audrey Shabbas, AWAIR’s founder. Saudi Aramco World, the publication of Saudi Aramco, features pieces praising Shabbas and her teacher-training materials.
The second organization involved in the manual is the Middle East Policy Council of Washington, which helps print and disseminate the 500-page manual of essays, lesson plans and primary sources.
The council lists the manual as the primary resource material for its teacher-training program. It employs Shabbas to conduct its training and seminars. According to the group’s Web site (www.mepc.org),
more than 16,000 educators have attended its workshops in 175 cities in 43 states. The manual itself claims to have reached 25 million students.
The council, which is headed by Charles Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, gets direct funding from Saudi Arabia.
In an interview, the council’s acting director, Jon Roth, declined to specify how much money his group gets from Riyadh, but made clear that he is seeking much more.
In September, Roth visited Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the royal family who owns Kingdom Holding Company, one of the world’s wealthiest companies.
“We have been trying to cultivate the relationship with the prince for a long time, because he has lots of money,” Roth said after his trip.
“Our hope and expectation is millions” from the Saudi prince, who initiated the meeting after hearing about the teaching program, Roth said. He said his group operates on an annual budget of $750,000.
The council’s board of directors includes executives from companies with huge financial stakes in Saudi Arabia, including Boeing, ExxonMobil Saudi Arabia, the Carlyle Group and the Saudi Binladin Group.
Roth said that funding to the organization “has no strings attached.”
Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is one of a growing number of critics of the “Arab World Studies Notebook.” It is one of the examples she cites in a study, “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers,” in which she examines supplemental teaching materials.
The problem with many of the supplemental materials, which are most often distributed through teacher training workshops, “is the ideological mission of the organizations that create them,” she said in her study, published last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based think tank on education.
“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”
In an interview with JTA, Stotsky called the notebook “a piece of propaganda” rather than scholarly work.
The American Jewish Committee issued a scathing report on the manual earlier this year, called “Propaganda, Proselytizing, and Public Education: A Critique of the Arab World Studies Notebook. ”
The report said that the publication, while “attempting to redress a perceived deficit in sympathetic views of the Arabs and Muslim religion in the American classroom, veers in the opposite direction — toward historical distortion as well as uncritical praise, whitewashing and practically proselytizing.”
The result, the AJCommittee report said, “is a text that appears largely designed to advance the anti-Israel and propagandistic views of the Notebook’s sponsors, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) and Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR), to an audience of teachers who may not have the resources and knowledge to assess this text critically.”
David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, said upon issuing the report in February: “Educating American children about the Middle East and about different religions is vitally important, but the notebook is precisely the wrong way to go about it.”
Shabbas, in the introduction to the manual, says that AWAIR’s mission is to counter the “rampant negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims held by most Americans.”
“Recognizing that no work is of greater importance than the preparation of our young people for their roles as thoughtful and informed citizens of the twenty-first century, and recognizing too that U.S. involvement with the Arab World and with the wider world of Islam is certain to remain close for many years, AWAIR’s goal is to increase awareness and understanding of this world region and this world faith through educational outreach at the pre-collegiate level,” she writes.
In an interview with JTA, Shabbas said the goal of the notebook is “to establish a basis for understanding the Middle East” by examining the largest of the groups that live there — the Arabs.
Responding to criticism specifically about the effect of Jewish lobbying, she said everything in the manual comes from the Arab and Muslim point of view: “The notebook is what it is. If you go out anywhere in the Arab world, you’re likely to hear that view” of the U.N. partition and Jewish influence.
“Most textbooks merely tell people the U.N. voted for partition and the Arabs rejected it,” she said, adding that American students need to “delve into why people do what they do; what are their values.”
She also noted that the publication directs students to solicit other perspectives from various groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee.
Roth of the Middle East Policy Council dismissed the critics of the notebook as “cranks.” His council touts the manual as an important resource for educators.
The manual is “of such high standards that the Middle East Policy Council believes it should be in the hands of every educator,” the group’s Web site says.
In an interview, Roth said Israel is “a big topic” for the council, but added, “The council does not take a position on Israel’s existence. The council does not take positions at all.”
Criticism also has come lately from parents offended by what their children are learning. Parental pressure led to the manual being banned in school districts in Tulsa, Okla., and Anchorage.
The AJCommittee took the unusual step of issuing a public warning “urging school districts across the nation” not to use the manual.
Still, Shabbas and her publication are welcomed by outreach coordinators to some of the nation’s key national resource centers, including those at Georgetown, Harvard and Yale, from where she said in the interview that she had just returned from conducting a teacher-training session.
Many of the principal players involved in disseminating pro-Islamic, anti-American and anti-Israel materials to the public school system have links, direct or indirect, to a little-known place called Dar al Islam.
Located in Abiquiu, N.M., Dar al Islam (www.daralislam.org), which means “abode of Islam” in Arabic, is an Islamic enclave registered with the state as a non-profit in 1979.
Situated in the remote mountainous desert of northern New Mexico, near the Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe lived, the massive complex is accessible only by an unpaved, dirt road.
It was created with direct financing from the late Saudi monarch, King Khaled ibn Aziz, and from five princesses in the Royal House of Saud, according to Saudi Aramco World.
A 1988 article in Saudi Aramco World detailed the saga of the royal family’s purchase of 8,500 acres of land and construction of a mosque and other buildings to form Dar al Islam.
According to the enclave’s Web site, the original intent was to establish a “Muslim village as a showcase for Islam in America.” When that became too difficult, the vision changed to an educational conference and retreat center.
Those buildings sit on 1,600 of the original acres; the rest was sold and invested to help finance its operation, Dar al Islam officials say.
In addition to the mosque, the enclave has a madrassa, or religious school, summer camp and teacher-training institute. It runs speakers bureaus and programs and maintains a Web site.
Dar al Islam spokesman Abdur Ra’uf Walter Declerck acknowledges some minor participation in the creation of Dar al Islam by a Saudi princess, but he disputes most of the funding history of Dar al Islam as recounted in the Saudi Aramco World article.
“It was not purchased by the royal family,” he said. Funding then and now “comes from Muslims all over,” he said, but would not elaborate.
Many of the individuals and groups involved in promoting education about Islam and the Arab world in American schools have ties to Dar al Islam.
Some are educators such as Shabbas, whose work is promoted by outreach coordinators at the national resource centers, and some are outreach coordinators themselves.
Shabbas, the lecturer and editor of “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” was director of Dar al Islam’s summer teacher-training program in 1994 and 1995, according to Declerck and Shabbas.
Others with connections to Dar al Islam include:
• Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, a Title VI National Resource Center on the Middle East. For several years she was assistant director of Dar al Islam’s teacher-training institute, according to Dar al Islam’s Declerck.
Seikaly promotes many associates of Dar al Islam, printing their writings and inviting them to lecture. Shabbas has been involved in teacher training at Georgetown. Asked about Dar al Islam, Seikaly at first refused to discuss it, then admitted working there, but only for two weeks.
• The Council on Islamic Education. The group until recently was listed as an associate of Dar al Islam, under the heading of secondary schools. Independent textbook review organizations describe the council as one of the most powerful groups in the country influencing the content of textbooks. Critics say that in its effort to promote a positive view of Islam, it distorts history.
The group’s director, Shabbir Mansuri, says his organization is a “non-advocacy research organization.”
Criticism that his group exerts undue influence on textbook publishers “comes from people who have no idea what we do,” he said.
“The Constitution allows us all a place at the table, without leaving our heritage at the door,” he told JTA. “I can lobby, I can demand and I can contribute.”
In initial interviews, Dar al Islam officials said the council has multiple roles there, including helping to create and evaluate content for its teachers.
After those interviews, the Dar al Islam site was changed to eliminate any mention of the council.
Asked to explain, Declerck said it was taken down to “avoid confusion. We know each other but we are independent organizations, we are not connected.”
• Susan Douglass. An associate of Dar al Islam’s Teachers Institute, she also is the curriculum specialist for the Council on Islamic Education.
She is a former teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy of Virginia, a Saudi government-supported school, and she consults on textbooks and curriculum by major publishers. She has written a series of books on Islam for K-6 students at Islamic and public schools.
One of Dar al Islam’s Web sites, islamamerica.org, posts articles defending Palestinians and their supporters, while excoriating democracies, including America and Israel.
Some Saudi watchers say Saudi Arabia’s goal is to export the most rigid brand of Islam: Wahhabi Islam, which in contrast to other forms of Islam, is intolerant of other religions, according to experts.
It’s an agenda “more dangerous than communism” ever was, according to Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington-based pro-democracy think tank, because it targets all non-believers, including Christians, Jews and most Muslims.
Such apostates have only three choices, he said: “Convert, be subjugated or die.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to several requests for comment.
Declerck of Dar al Islam said the kind of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, is “not what we transmit. Dar al Islam communicates much more of a mainstream Islam,” he said.
But Al-Ahmed was adamant. In American public schools, he said, the Saudis are carrying out “a deliberate program to spread their version of Islam everywhere.”
“Their job is to give money to certain groups of Islamic organizations, to fund certain people, and those people they fund are people who they believe will further their goal of spreading Wahhabi Islam,” he said.
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