It was the first week in October in Newton, an upscale suburb of Boston, and Tony Pagliuso's daughter, a sophomore at Newton South High School, was visibly disturbed. When Tony asked her the problem, she showed him a passage from the chapter she was assigned in her World History Class. It was a chapter called "Women, an Essay," from a supplemental text called The Arab World Notebook. In a paragraph devoted to women "in the struggle for independence from colonial powers," we find:
Over the past four decades, women have been active in the Palestinian resistance movement. Several hundred have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Israeli occupation forces since the latest uprising, "intifada," in the Israeli occupied territories.
Pagliuso assured his daughter that this was "total propaganda," and took the matter up with the young teacher, a Miss Jessica Engel, who couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. The material had been "vetted" and was deemed "appropriate," she said, "and would stay in the curriculum. After all, she continued, the head of the history department had gotten this material at an outreach workshop of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard!
Thence to the principal, Joel Stembridge, who glared at Pagliuso and asked, "How do you pronounce 'Pagliuso'?" and dismissing him brusquely with a refusal to apologize, added: "If you're unhappy with this, you should know that next year we're planning to teach material that will be even more inflammatory to your sensibilities." (Where is Ferris Bueller when you need him?) Since Miss Jessica Engel had devoted one day each to Judaism and Christianity while spending 2 ½ weeks on Islam, Tony wasn't sure how much more inflammatory things could get.
A couple of weeks later, nine stalwart Newton citizens presented themselves at the Newton School Committee meeting, where superintendent David Fleischman, and even the mayor, Setti Warren, were present. The citizens were courteously received, and as it happens Fleishman announced shortly thereafter that indeed the chapter "didn't meet the learning goals of the class" and had been removed from the curriculum.
"Didn't meet the learning goals" is Eduspeak for "What the hell is this and how the hell did it get in?" The answer to the latter is, as noted, Harvard, which, as it happens, held a seminar on Israel and Palestine at Newton South in April 2011. And Newton is far from the only community to take its lead on matters Islamic from Harvard. Public and private schools all over Massachusetts send teachers to the Outreach Center at Harvard for guidance and (free) materials. The program, like the Center for Middle Eastern Studies itself, is heavily Saudi-funded.
The answer to what it is can be found in a number of places. In 2005, responding to a complaint from a teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, the American Jewish Committee published a thorough critique of the Notebook (the full report Propaganda, Proselytizing, and Public Education, is available at the AJC website), thanks to which Anchorage stopped using the book. As background, the AJC report explains:
The Arab World Studies Notebook was first published in 1990 under the title Arab World Notebook [apparently Newton was using this edition], but was updated and republished in 1998 with its current title. The funding for the publication was provided by the Middle East Policy Council, formerly the Arab American Affairs Council....The Notebook was published in conjunction with Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR), founded by Audrey Shabbas, who penned many of the articles...as well as the editorial commentary throughout.
Who is this Audrey Shabbas? The moving spirit behind AWAIR, she says all she wants from teachers is to "let you step with me to the inside, to see what a Muslim worldview looks like and feels like, so you can bring it back to your students." This from an adoring 2002 interview posted, fittingly, at Saudi Aramco World.
A little earlier than the AJC's report, in 2003, William J. Bennetta, president of The Textbook League, produced a preliminary assessment of the Notebook. He gives a little background:
The Middle East Policy Council, a pressure group based in Washington. D.C...adopted its present name in 1991. The MEPC's activities include the sponsoring of "teacher workshops" that allegedly equip educators to teach about "the Arab World and Islam. AWAIR, which operates from Abiquiu, New Mexico, distributes printed items and videos for "ALL LEVELS-Elementary to College" and runs the "teacher workshops" sponsored by the MEPC."
But on to the meat in Mr Bennetta's scathing report:
The promotion of Islam in the Notebook is unrestrained, and the religious-indoctrination material that the Notebook dispenses is virulent. Muslim myths, including myths about how Islam and the Koran originated, are retailed as matters of fact, while legitimate historical appraisals of the origins of Islam and the Koran are excluded. [Audrey] Shabbas wants to turn teachers into agents who, in their classrooms, will present Muslim myths as "history," will endorse Muslim religious claims, and will propagate Islamic fundamentalism. In a public-school setting, the religious-indoctrination work which Shabbas wants teachers to perform would clearly be illegal.
Or, in the words of Tony Pagliuso, "total propaganda." What is striking, though, is how amateurish the chapter on women is. Taqiyya -- telling falsehoods for Islam -- is a well-known tool of Islamic propagandists, but this shoddy merchandise is so riddled with lies and half-truths that no respectable Arab merchant in the shuk would hang it in his market. Just a sample:
Women's Rights in Islam. There is no basis in Islam for the subjugation of women or their relegation to a secondary role. Far in advance of women's emancipation in Europe, Islam made revolutionary changes in the lives of women in 6th-century Arabia.
The alert reader will observe that there was no Islam yet in 6th-century Arabia, Muhammad himself having been born in about 570, and having been tapped by the angel Gabriel no earlier then about 609. Then too we think of the unpleasantries swept under the Oriental carpet -- such as permissible rape, clitorectomies, honor killings, child marriage, indeed the whole sorry gamut of women's trials under Islam, including those specifically decreed by the Koran. As Robert Spencer sums up:
--Women are inferior to men, and must be ruled by them: "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other" (4:34).
--It [the Koran] likens a woman to a field (tilth), to be used by a man as he wills: "Your women are a tilth for you to cultivate so go to your tilth as ye will" (2:223).
--It declares that a woman's legal testimony is worth half that of a man: "Get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her" (2:282).
--It allows men to marry up to four wives, and also to have sex with slave girls: "If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice" (4:3).
--It rules that a son's inheritance should be twice the size of that of a daughter: "Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females" (4:11).
--It allows for marriage to pre-pubescent girls, stipulating that Islamic divorce procedures "shall apply to those who have not yet menstruated" (65.4).
"Such a verse might have made its way into the Koran," writes Spencer, "because of the notorious fact that Muhammed himself had a child bride." That would be Aisha: As the hadith says, "The prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death)." Newton's Notebook chapter mentions Aisha in passing, that she heroically promulgated Islam after the Prophet's death, but neglects to tell us how old she was when Muhammed found her, as the story goes, playing on a swing.
It turns out, not surprisingly, that most of the Notebook is as slipshod, even farcical, as the chapter on women. But it is no less dangerous for being slovenly. As the AJC report confirms, "Teachers are subjected to heavy propaganda, both in the Notebook and in the teacher workshops sponsored by MEPC and conducted by AWAIR, in which the Notebook is the primary source material....The Notebook critiques other educational materials for being Eurocentric; yet it provides students with a completely Muslim-centered perspective."
Worst of all, educationally speaking, in addition to inventing history, the Notebook is guilty of two cardinal sins, according to the AJC: "It uses no qualifiers to differentiate between fact and interpretation; and it fails to clarify that, like the stories behind many other religions, some of the stories within traditional Islam are disputed or unverifiable." The all-important qualifier, "Muslims believe," or "Islam teaches that" is entirely eliminated. Imagine all the Miss Engels in the world preaching to the class, "And God chose Abraham." Or "Jesus performed miracles."
Other innovations from the Notebook, these concerning what the author calls "the Israeli 'fetish of Jerusalem'":
When people talk of Jerusalem and consider the historic rights over the city and claims to it, they are not talking about the European-type colonial suburb-turned-city which foreign Jews built next to the historic religious city-shrine, even though they called it Jerusalem too. They are talking about the walled city, fully built up, containing a small Jewish quarter, it is true, but almost exclusively a home to Christian and Muslim Palestinian Arabs.
Yet the "Old City," 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.
Other colonial suburbs were built by foreigners in Arab countries, but today no one suggests that Algiers, Tunis, Casablanca, etc., may be rightfully claimed by the Europeans who settled there during their colonial period of recent history. Only in the case of Jerusalem does colonialist thinking still predominate.
How many high-school students would be able to repudiate "facts" like these? Or total falsehoods such as, "In 1948, between 50 and 70 percent of Palestine's Christians were driven from their ancestral homes with the creation of the Jewish state"?
Moreover, in an earlier version, we are told "that Yasir Arafat was president of a newly declared State of Palestine, that the United Nations General Assembly had voted to recognize this state in 1988, and that the Canaanites were the ancestors of many present-day Palestinians." Sandra Stotsky, a professor at the University of Arkansas, deals with these gems and others in her 2004 report for the Fordham Foundation, The Stealth Curriculum, which has now been updated for a new book published by Palgrave MacMillan. She points to one article, ascribed to Audrey Shabbas and Abdallah Hakim Quick, titled "Early Muslim Exploration Worldwide: Evidence of Muslims in the New World Before Columbus." The article claims that
Muslims from Europe were the first to sail across the Atlantic and land in the New World, starting in 889... [and that]West African Muslims had not only spread throughout South and Central America, but had also reached Canada, intermarrying with the Iroquois and Algonquin nations so that, much later, early English explorers were to meet Iroquois and Algonquin chiefs with names like Abdul-Rahim and Abdallah Ibn Malik.
Stotsky interjects, "The idea that English explorers met native Indian chiefs with Muslim names in the middle of the Northeast woodlands sounds almost like something a Hollywood film writer dreamed up for a spoof." (Mel Brooks, of course.) Interestingly enough, the Algonquin Nation itself demanded a retraction of this "indefensible" farce. But seriously, as Stotsky continues, "What is most astonishing about this 'historical information' is that it seems not to have been recognized as fake history by all the satisfied teachers that MEPC claims have participated in its workshops over the years."
Ay, there's the rub. Thanks to the Tony Pagliusos of this world, perhaps more parents will rear up on their hind legs and shout, "Who's teaching my kids? And what in God's name are they teaching?"