Call me Mohamed
Textbook and terror tango in a Sacramento classroom
Last September, like any other concerned father, Khaled Umbashi thumbed through his son’s new ninth-grade geography textbook. His son, Mohamed, 14, had just started his freshman year at Rosemont High School in Sacramento. Umbashi flipped past pages detailing the subjects normally found in such tomes: how to find water and landforms on a map, the importance of seasons and weather, the diversity of politics and culture. At page 172, he screeched to a halt.
There, filling the entire page, he found the iconographic image of New York City firefighters raising an American flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. The photo served as the gateway to a 15-page current-events section titled “The Fight Against Terrorism.” A devout Muslim, Umbashi felt a pang of trepidation, the kind he’s been having ever since September 11, 2001. After he read the section, his feeling was validated.
“I looked through the book, and I immediately saw that it was biased,” explained Umbashi, 51, a native of Libya. In his opinion, the book portrays all Arabs and Muslims as terrorists and presents a distorted view of the conflict in the Middle East, particularly between Palestine and Israel. “I thought: Why would they want to teach this stuff to kids?”
History, Winston Churchill said, is written by the victors. As a result, there is often only a thin line separating education from indoctrination, pedagogy from propaganda. Umbashi believes that line is crossed by McDougal Littell’s World Geography (Houghton Mifflin), a high-school geography textbook used throughout the Sacramento City Unified School District, including in his son’s freshmen geography class.
“You can see that they are feeding kids the idea that Islam is evil,” he said. “There’s no way we’re going to take this out after they grow up.”
For Umbashi, there’s ample evidence that the textbook is slanted against Islam. According to World Geography, terrorist groups such as al Qaeda are representative of an emerging form of terrorism “driven by radical religious motives.” Traditional motives for terrorism include “gaining independence, expelling foreigners, or changing society”—goals that easily could be applied to, say, the rebel colonists who fought and won the American Revolution. Not so with these new-fangled Islamo-fascists, as President Bush refers to them.
“The goal of these terrorists is the destruction of what they consider to be the forces of evil,” the textbook states. “These terrorists often threaten to use weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, to kill their enemies.”
Leaving aside the fact that it is nation states, not terrorist cells, that tend to possess weapons of mass destruction, for Umbashi, the new, emerging face of terrorism conveyed by the book is that of the wild-eyed religious fanatic, in all likelihood sporting a beard and a turban. The notion that those who become affiliated with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or Hamas might have real grievances with U.S. policies in the Middle East is given short shrift in the text. When real issues are mentioned, their cause is more often than not obfuscated:
“Some terrorist groups want territory, like Palestinian extremists who use violence trying to gain a homeland in Southwest Asia.”
“What is Southwest Asia?” asked Umbashi incredulously. “They’re talking about Palestine?” Like many Muslims, he refers to Israel as Palestine, as it was known before 1948, when the United Nations designated the area as the homeland for European Jews displaced by the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the creation of Israel displaced 700,000 Palestinians, who’ve been fighting to regain what they view as their land ever since.
Israel is not mentioned by name until six pages later, when the text explains that “many terrorist organizations have their roots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land in the Middle East.” Though Israel has killed Palestinians at an average rate of 4-to-1 during the decades-long conflict, it’s portrayed as the innocent victim of Islamic violence. “Arab terrorist groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah have sought to prevent peace settlements between Israel and the Palestinians,” it states. At best, this is a gross simplification of a long, complicated conflict in which both sides have committed serious atrocities. But in the section “The Fight Against Terrorism,” it only takes one to tango, and Israel doesn’t dance.
To be fair, the freshmen reader is given a hint that Arab and Islamic anger toward the United States might have something to do with its relationship with Israel. The second-to-last paragraph of the section even attempts to correct the potential impression that all Muslims are terrorists. “The United States has tried to make it clear to Muslim nations that the antiterrorism campaign was not anti-Islamic and that Americans respected the religion of Islam,” it states. For Umbashi, it’s too little, too late.
Two days after 9/11, a girl walked up to 10-year-old Mohamed on the playground at school.
“Your name is Mohamed, right?” she asked.
“Aren’t you a terrorist?”
That’s become a familiar refrain for Mohamed, his family and Sacramento’s Muslim community since 9/11. Stockton-born Mohamed says he has been picked on because he has the same name as Mohamed Atta, one of the alleged 9/11 hijackers. Once, when his mother was filling up at the gas station, a man told her, “You have to leave. This is not your car; it’s an American car.” He knows of other local Muslim families who’ve had their houses vandalized. When he first read the chapter in World Geography, it felt like more of the same.
“Seriously, I thought that it attacked Muslims,” he said. “Being one myself, it made me feel like I wasn’t American.”
The decision to add the section was made virtually at the last minute, according to Collin Earnst, vice president of communications for Houghton Mifflin. September 11 occurred just as textbooks were going to print in the fall of 2001. The terrorist attack was deemed significant enough to warrant inclusion.
“This was one of those cases where they stopped the presses,” Earnst said. “From our perspective, we thought this was successful at dealing with the issue in a very short timeframe. That was the challenge. You’re really writing a history book in real time.”
Earnst noted that the Palestinian /Israeli conflict is touched upon in a separate chapter of the book and up until now, Houghton Mifflin has received no complaints about the book. At the same time, Earnst recognized Umbashi’s complaint as legitimate.
“As a publisher, we try to understand where the parent is coming from,” Earnst said. “As we revise the edition, our editors will look at further elaboration and clarification.”
The problem with putting current events such as 9/11 in textbooks is that the event quickly becomes outdated, explained Barbara Boyd, Mohamed’s high-school geography teacher. “The state of the text and the state of the world can’t be the same,” she said. “To be honest, we didn’t spend a lot of time on it.”
Though Boyd didn’t dwell long on 9/11, she asserted the right of educators to present the topics they see fit to their students, no matter how sensitive.
“I will defend vigorously the coverage of any issue,” she said. “The name of the course is World Geography and Contemporary Global Issues.”
Boyd isn’t the type of educator who simply teaches out of the book. When Mohamed’s class studied the unit on the Middle East, she prepared a PowerPoint presentation that explained basics such as Islam’s five pillars: the testimony of faith, prayer, tithing, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
“I do this to create an understanding that Islam is a religion with many forms,” she said. “There is no one Muslim mold. Ninth-graders in particular need to have that reinforced. You can’t stereotype; you need to reinforce it in a broad sense.”
Boyd often called upon Mohamed to explain aspects of Islam she was unfamiliar with, an approach that paved the way for the discussion of more difficult issues.
“We actually had a debate on what people thought a terrorist looked like,” Mohamed recalled. One student suggested someone with a beard. Another said someone with a turban or a robe. “These are all religious things,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
Mohamed straightened them out, a lesson he learned from his father.
“In school, they called him Osama after 9/11,” said Umbashi. “It did really affect him pretty bad. … I taught him to stand up.”
Explaining things can make all the difference, Mohamed agreed. After the class discussed what a terrorist looks like, a girl walked up to him and apologized for thinking about him like that.
“He got to tell his story,” Boyd said. “Maybe that’s why the girl came up and apologized. He got to tell his story. Maybe the world would be a better place if we all got to tell our stories.”