Middle East Facts and Fictions
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC) have long been concerned with the inadequate and inaccurate portrayal of Middle Eastern history, geography and culture in many pre collegiate texts. In its initial 1974 examination of K-12 textbooks, MESA found them generally disappointing. Although in the last nineteen years, several superior texts have been published, regrettable errors still exist in many other books.
It may seem strange that college faculty eminent in Middle Eastern Studies have been willing to donate their time to a review of the coverage of secondary level U.S. textbooks. Yet, the reviewers, appointed by MESA, give up the necessary time for a variety of reasons. Some are tired of having to re-educate their beginning college students, after miseducation at the secondary level. Too often old myths, rather than solid information, find their way into texts. In addition, it may take thirty years or more for new research to filter its way into secondary textbooks. Very often U.S. textbooks are Europe- or America-centered, and do not provide information from the perspective of other countries. This is particulary true among authors who play the role of "cheerleaders'' for U.S. positions; unfortunately for the authors, U.S. positions and "friends'' change rapidly in the Middle East, making such texts laughably out-of-date very quickly. If we want Americans to play a role in peacemaking, then they need to understand the perspectives of the various countries they study.
Since its inception, I have served as coordinator for the project, and editor of the book of reviews. From my experience, I have noted that inaccuracies and distortions in text materials are neither a new phenomenon, nor confined exclusively to coverage of the Middle East. One of the motives for my interest in this project is that I personally felt that one of my college history texts, though written by historians with excellent credentials, provided a systematic miseducation for American youth with respect to issues concerning African Americans. I went through college in the 1950's, just before the civil rights movements of the 1960's. I think it was very hard for some in my generation to respond because we had been so systematically miseducated. I have kept this particular textbook, Growth of the American Republic (Morison and Commager, Oxford University Press, 1950), and can quote some of the more egregious passages verbatim to illustrate what I mean. The coverage of the pre-Civil War black experience in the U.S. begins with, "As for Sambo...'' It continues with an explanation laced with racist sterotypes intended to downplay the pain of slavery by saying, "Topsy and Tom Sawyer's devoted Jim were nearer to the average childlike, improvident, humorous, prevaricating, and superstitious Negro than the unctuous Uncle Tom.'' The cruelty of slavery is excused with the explanation that the slave "suffered less than any other class in the South from its peculiar institution.'' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy. Competent observers reported that they performed less labor than the hired man of the Northern states...although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his white folks' '' (p. 537 ff.). In fact, slavery is actually endorsed: "If we overlook the original sin of the slave trade, there was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization.'' Beyond the damage done to the understanding of U.S. history, note that here we have U.S. historians asserting that Africa was a land of barbarism. While this provides a rather extreme example which we would hardly expect to find in contemporary textbooks, unfortunately the tradition of inaccurate, stereotypical and distorted coverage continues in the treatment many texts accord the Middle East and North Africa.
The foreword to the Third Edition (1994) of the Evaluation of Secondary-Level Textbooks by Professor Dale Eickelman (Dartmouth U.), indicates the scope of this problem. "The United States pays a high price for the great divide between secondary and higher education. Even as college and university teachers decry the softening standards of pre-collegiate education, few scholars take concrete steps to develop better resources for teachers at these levels. Until recently, Middle Eastern and Islamic components of college courses dealing with the non-Western world... were published with minimal review or comment by scholars directly concerned with such issues... It would be reassuring to claim that the quality of representations of Middle Eastern societies and of religions in the Middle East, including Islam, have improved since MESA produced its first text evaluation report in 1975... but this is not the case.''
Indeed, a number of errors and inappropriate stereotypes persist in all too many texts. In the current evaluation project, begun in 1990, the reviewers found some improvements, with several texts obviously written in close consultation with experts, but many texts still in wide use were perpetuating misinformation. The Third Edition reviewers provide some details of the problems.
We found, for example, that the portrayal of Islam was seriously flawed. In many books, the precepts of the religion were not accurately portrayed and almost from the first introduction, Islam is associated with violence. As one review points out, "The sense of Islam as an intolerant, militant faith whose adherents are unreasonable, violent and lacking in compassion seems to be pervasive.'' The earlier (and erroneous) interpretation that Islam was spread by the sword appears, often with an artist's dramatic interpretation of the wielding of scimitars on hapless and reluctant non-Muslims. Absent a real understanding of historical movements, writers too often fall back on an assertion of Islamic fanaticism to "explain'' what they don't know. Thus, religious fanaticism is used to account for the decline of the Islamic empires without any evidence (and without any discussion, for example, of the relocation of trade routes, the paucity of natural resources, or problems with unnavigable rivers). The Mahdi in the Sudan in the 1880's is one of several indigenous leaders described as a fanatical religious prophet. Somehow all the leaders in the Middle East become fanatics (because they oppose Europeans?), whereas their counterparts in Europe are labeled as "reformers.'' The concept of ``jihad'' is often given primacy over the Five Pillars in explaining the faith. And too frequently "jihad' is taken to mean simply fighting to spread the faith, rather than the ``Greater Jihad,'' the struggle to control one's self.
Muslim "fundamentalism'' (a term which many scholars would find problematic) is often termed "a threat to peace'' without adequate explanations of what it is that this movement is reacting to, and how social protest movements frequently become embedded in religious expression. The writers could appropriately put the movement in the context of fundamentalist movements in other faiths. The tolerance that Islam has traditionally shown to "Peoples of the Book' is often overlooked or misstated. When Catholic Spain required Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism, leave, or die, many Jews and Muslims fleeing persecution found refuge and welcome in (Muslim) Morocco and areas of the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, such as Algeria, Tunisia and the cities of Istanbul and Beirut. Yet this tolerance is rarely mentioned.
Concerning the treatment of peoples of the Middle East, once again, as in previous studies, we found an over-portrayal of deserts, camels and nomads. Less than 2% of the population of the Middle East and North Africa now lives as nomads. Even when the text describes the diversity of climates and lifestyles, the pictures may show only sterotypical views of deserts, nomads and camels. Typical is the sentence: ``Most of the Arabs wandered across vast deserts seeking food and water for their animals and themselves.'' In fact many Arabs live in cities, villages and towns (now more than half the population). Also, nomads do not "wander,'' they have set migration patterns related to seasonal occurrence of pasture and water. All too often, cities are not even mentioned, nor is the historic process of urbanization, which began, after all, in the Middle East. In all too few books were the cultural achievements of Arab and Islamic civilizations mentioned, so that the image of the nomad with his camel in the desert emerges unchallenged as the sole example.
Several reviewers noted that world history texts also seemed Europe- and America-centered. It is clear that in the effort to cover world history, a great deal of compression has to take place. But for the Middle East, reviewers felt that this was sometimes taken to extremes, and compared unfavorably with the coverage given to other geographic areas. As an example, the Ottoman empire all too often receives cursory treatment (in one text there was not one reference to the Ottoman Empire) with little attention to its cultural achievements or its ability to provide some measure of autonomy to its various ethnic groups through the millet system. The West's indebtedness to the Middle East for scientific and cultural advances is rarely acknowledged.
The Crusades and the colonial period are frequently covered only from the view of the West and in abridged form, so that it is very often difficult to understand the pervasive damage done to the Middle Eastern and North African cultures. It would be impossible for students relying on these texts to understand the extreme sensitivity of Middle Easterners to any moves by Western powers to reinsert themselves into the region or to control Middle Eastern resources. The summary dismissal in one text, for example, of the War of Liberation in Algeria as "seven years of sabotage and murder by a few determined fanatics who needed vast numbers to hold them in check'' may be one French view of the struggle during those years, but it offers totally inadequate information about a war in which perhaps as many as a million Algerians died and vast numbers were imprisoned and tortured. Similarly, the treatment of modern Iran usually does not give the student enough information to understand current events. It is well known in the Middle East that the CIA in 1951-53 conspired to overthrow Mossadegh, the duly elected prime minister of Iran, and then brought back the unpopular Shah. Shouldn't we let our students know this? The very real grievances against the Shah are obscured. If we don't explain the reasons for the Shah's unpopularity, and his close ties to the U.S., students will not understand the passion behind the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Some writers helpfully add that the revolutionaries "hated'' the U.S., but without any explanation for the basis of this antipathy.
One of the most surprising results of the Third Edition reviews is the fact that American history texts, which offer only tangential coverage of the Middle East, were deemed the most disappointing. Apparently, when writing about topics that concern the Middle East, American writers do not feel any need to consult world area experts. As a result, several texts offer serious misinformation, and frequently only America-centered pespectives. As one reviewer pointed out, while the treatment of foreign relations within the context of American history is much improved in other world areas, the Middle East continues to be portrayed as an area "chronically hostile to American interests and, even more striking, as a nuisance, an area that inherently resists American efforts to bring peace, harmony, justice, etc.'' His comments serve to summarize problems common to many secondary textbooks; he continues: "none of these texts really tries to convey ethnic, religious, cultural or geographic identity of the peoples or nations of the Middle East/Islamic world. Its peoples are portrayed implicitly as a mysterious other without any legitimate cultural, ethnic, religious or national interests. To one extent or another the texts are all disproportionately America-centered, especially when compared to the treatment of other world areas. The crisis by crisis approach adopted by most texts underscores my criticism. The U.S. is routinely portrayed as victim and/or policeman, dragged into the morass of a region that is divided by religious animosity (unlike the USA) and selfishly covetous of its oil wealth.''
Too often writers of American textbooks felt that their most important task was to give positive portrayals of putative American friends, and a disparaging view of those countries deemed our enemies. Very likely the writers of these texts feel that since the Middle East is such a small component in their work, it does not deserve professional review. But from the point of view of Middle Eastern scholarship, these texts reach readers who may never take Middle Eastern or world history/culture courses. Misinformation here is very damaging because there may never be a chance to rectify it.
I believe that the textbooks of today are sowing the seeds of misunderstanding, just as they did forty years ago. The costs are experienced by individual students, whose heritage is so insensitively treated. There is also a needless alienation from the educational community of the marginalized groups (whether African American, Native American, Muslim, Arab American, or whoever). One can also see that issues of public policy may be framed inappropriately; if the African heritage is presented as "barbarian,'' and if slavery is presented as being a reasonable way-station from barbarism to ``civilization,'' then U.S. citizens may not understand why African Americans want to end promptly their inferior status in the U.S. And if Muslims, or Arabs, are presented as natural terrorists, then Americans may discount the possibility that we have contributed to their problems and might do something constructive to resolve the issues.
Beyond these effects, and perhaps not so obvious, is that by denigrating others, we deceive ourselves about our own roles and problems. When Arabs are protrayed as "greedy,'' because they want to sell at a good price "our'' oil (which just happens to be in their borders), we are in a sense framing the question so that we are prevented from seeing an esential part of it. We consider "them'' greedy, while the U.S., only 6% of the world's population, is consuming 40% of the world's nonrenewable resources. This is a problem that must be faced by the generation now in high schoolindeed, it should have been faced earlier. Yet by calling ``them'' greedy, we are prevented from seeing our own role in the demand for this resource and its scarcity.
Likewise by characterizing "them'' as violent, we do not look at actions taken by the U.S. and the West which have in fact increased turmoil and violence in their regions. To the extent that we see violence as something that comes from outside our society, we are prevented from recognizing and dealing with the violence in our own culture, as for example the West's willingness to sell arms to the rest of the world.
It should be emphasized that, according to the reviews in the Third Edition, there appear to be new books in each category which seriously attempt to present the Middle East and North African region in a non-Eurocentric manner, dealing with the diversity of landscapes and resources, peoples, religions and lifestyles. The authors and publishers of these texts have taken the trouble to ensure that the information provided is accurate, and that it incorporates the lastest available scholarship. Some attention is given to the viewpoints of indigenous populations.
On the whole, we found generally positive responses from publishersit is as easy to publish an accurate book as a sloppy oneand teachers have been grateful for the guidance we offer. We intend to extend our coverage and to promote the results for a few more years. We hope to increase the timely dissemination of the project by putting the work on the Internet, where it can be instantly accessible to teachers who are considering a new textbook. We believe that the correction and improvement of these texts will be a real benefit to American education. The Middle East Studies Association and the Middle East Outreach Council intend to do their part by evaluating new or revised texts as they are published and widely disseminating their findings. Copies of the Third Edition of the Evaluation of Secondary-Level Textbooks are available through: Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, 144 Lane Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1290.
Elizabeth Barlow is Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Middle East and North African Studies. She has served as president of the Middle East Outreach Council.