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Teaching Religious Tolerance - 2003-01-09

A group of educators from several Muslim countries and the United States recently gathered at the Library of Congress to discuss what their countries teach about other cultures.

The South-east Asian country of Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, more than 180 million. Azyumardi Azra, rector of the State Islamic Studies Institute in Jakarta, says Indonesian public school textbooks promote tolerance between the majority Muslim population and non-Muslims. For example, he says, a commonly used high-school textbook for citizenship contains a special chapter devoted to the importance of religious harmony.

"It says that any person is free to follow any religion. Followers of different religions should co-operate and have mutual respect and tolerance so that there will be harmony and tolerance in the religious life of the nation."

Azyumardi Azra says public schools offer two hours of religious education a week for five officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism. He says promoting respect for different religions is considered important in Indonesia. "To take Islamic instruction as an example: the content of the instruction includes the doctrine of Islamic monotheism, relations between Islam and other religions, particularly (Abrahamic religions such as)Judaism and Christianity. (And they teach) also, about the Koran and its relation to other holy books, such as the Torah and Injil or the Old Testament, New Testament and the selection of Koranic teachings on various values related to morality."

Azyumardi Azra says he has not found any disparaging comments about non-Muslims in primary and secondary school textbooks. The situation appears to be different in Pakistan, the country with the world's second largest Muslim population. Rubina Saigol of the Society for the Advancement of Education in Lahore, Pakistan, has examined 22 Pakistani textbooks on social studies, national history and civics. She says they are not very kind to Hindus, Pakistan's major non-Muslim group. "So there are all kinds of stories about how the Hindus were always conniving and scheming and they were cheats and they were tricksters and how they always mistreated us."

The Pakistani educator says a decade or so ago, textbooks used to depict Muslims as hyper-masculine heroes, aggressors and killers and Hindus as effeminate, vegetarian and unable to defend themselves. "This discourse has shifted in the last few years. In the latest textbooks, the Muslim 'self' comes out as besieged 'self' from all sides and all these 'others,' whether it is Christians or Jews, are attacking and killing the Muslims, and the Muslims are in defeated postures."

Rubina Saigol says this reflects the fact that all over the world, Muslims feel besieged, if not militarily, then ideologically. Textbooks in Arab countries reveal a variety of approaches to teaching about the "other." Mounir Farah, professor of Middle East studies and education at the University of Arkansas, has reviewed high-school textbooks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. "The easiest to deal with is Saudi Arabia because they teach almost nothing about non-Muslim and non-Arab countries and civilizations very little."

Professor Farah says Saudi students learn more about other cultures in expensive private schools, which are accessible to a limited number of students. In Syria, he says, high-school textbooks offer a multitude of facts about world geography and history, but seldom discuss other cultures. Of the three countries he has studied, Mounir Farah says Jordanian textbooks have the most up-to-date methodology, with critical analyses of other cultures supplementing basic facts. Gregory Starrett, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, researched middle-school Islamic textbooks in Egypt. He says they emphasize the importance of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and the "other." But they are more favorable to Muslims. For example, he notes, the Prophet Mohammed is portrayed as a peace-loving, tolerant leader. But contemporary Jews, the major non-Muslim group on the Arabian Peninsula at the time, are treated more ambiguously. "It wasn't long though, the books say, before the Jews began to conspire secretly against the Prophet along with the polytheists (Pagan Arabs) who joined them in violation of their pact (with Mohammed), earning them the name 'munafiquin' or hypocrites."

But the same textbooks, says Professor Starrett, credit Judaism with paving the way for monotheistic Islam among polytheistic pagan Arabs. Michael Suleyman, professor of political science at Kansas State University, has reviewed elementary and high-school textbooks of Tunisia and Morocco. He says they teach very little about other countries, and that may be reflected in his 1988 survey of students' attitudes toward 22 different countries. "Basically, I asked the students to rate from zero to ten. And the findings are as follows: basically, we find that the Arab countries are at the top of the list. And of these, Saudi Arabia and Palestine were way above everybody else."

Professor Suleyman says in the survey of the 22 countries, the United States the former Soviet Union and Israel were the least popular. At the conference, American educators said teaching about Muslim countries and Islamic cultures in the United States has been inadequate, but there are efforts to improve it, especially after the September-eleven attacks. Karima Alavi, director of Islamic World Educational Services in Abiquiu, New Mexico, compared the portrayal of Iran in three major textbooks for high-school advanced history courses. She said in dealing with the 20th-century revolutions, all three note the interference of western countries in the affairs of other nations, which she said is an improvement over earlier textbooks. But she found none of the three major world history textbooks covered the 20th century history of Iran accurately.

"I think what's omitted is what bothered me. And what was omitted in a couple of the books was something very important to Iran and very important to many countries and that was the 1953 CIA coup that put the Shah back on the throne after the Iranians have overthrown him." TEXT: Karima Alavi said the most widely used world history textbook "World Civilizations, the Global Experience" by Peter Stearns, does not mention the 1953 CIA coup, the 1980's Iran-Contra affair or the 1979/81 hostage crisis. But the author does acknowledge the U.S. support of Iraq in its 1980's war with Iran.

Karima Alavi said Richard Bulliet's book The Earth and Its Peoples is the only one of the three that deals with the Iran-Contra affair. Jerry Bentley's book Traditions and Encounters is the only one that describes the hostage crisis, but hardly mentions the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

The educators noted that some countries make a genuine effort to teach understanding of diverse cultural and religious groups. But many do not. Their textbooks still abound in negative stereotypes and insensitivity toward the "other." Participants agreed that most elementary and high school textbooks in Muslim countries and in the United States lack objective analyses of other cultures. They suggested more focus on similarities rather than differences among the world's religions and cultures.