Our Ignorance and Our Interests: Why We Need to Learn More, Not Less, about Islam and the Arab World

When the Texas Board of Education passed a resolution late last month decrying the "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias [that] has tainted… Texas Social Studies textbooks,” indicating that they would "look to reject [such] prejudicial textbooks" in the future, they were basing their criticism on a biased anti-Arab review. In doing so, they took a dangerous step backward that threatens to widen the knowledge gap that has put the U.S. at risk in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

America has enormous interests in that region. In the past 30 years, we’ve spent more money, sold more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost more lives, had more economic and political interests at stake, and expended more diplomatic capital in the broader Middle East than anywhere else on the globe. And yet recent polling shows that two-thirds of all Americans can’t point to Iraq on a map, just as many don’t know the year that Israel declared its independence, the same number don’t realize that Iran and Pakistan aren’t Arab countries, and about one-half share prejudicial and stereotypical views of Arabs as angry, backward, violent fanatics.

There are, of course, consequences to this lack of knowledge, all of which came into sharp focus in the lead up to the Iraq war. It was against the backdrop of ignorance that our political leadership and their echo chamber in the media were able to sell the public on: the war’s ease; the belief that we would be welcomed as liberators; and the notion that once the dictator was overthrown, democracy would flourish (remember neo-con Bill Kristol dismissing Iraq’s Sunni/Shi’a tensions as "pop culture" for which he said "there’s almost no evidence of that at all"). Because we knew so little of Iraq’s history and culture, our young soldiers marched into Baghdad seeing themselves as "liberators". They had no idea that in the eyes of many Iraqis they were merely the new Mongols who had conquered and now occupied their land.

How did we get into the situation in which we knew so little about a world where we had so much at stake? As I note in my new book, "Arab Voices: What they Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters", it all begins with education – or the lack of it.

For decades the Middle East Studies Association, the U.S.’s premier organization of academics specializing in regional studies, warned that our textbooks either outright ignored the Middle East or, when they dealt with it, conveyed "an oversimplified, naïve, and even distorted image" of the region and its peoples. And after 9/11, when U.S. teachers found themselves lacking the information and materials to address new interest in the Arab World and Islam, a study commissioned by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that most teachers "knew little or nothing about" the region and lacked the basic materials to provide their students with answers to the questions they were asking.

In the last decade, some changes have been made, but we are still suffering from a knowledge deficit. The following statistics on language study tell part of the story. Less than 1% of America’s high schools offer Arabic language instruction. And of the 2,400 four year colleges in the U.S., only 370 offer Arabic, with a total of only 2,400 American students in advanced language programs that can lead to a proficiency in this critical language.

Recognizing this as a problem has led some to call for improvements and expansion of programs in Arabic, Arab history and Islam. But this has not been without challenges. An organization headed by Lynne Cheney, wife of then Vice-President Dick Cheney, pushed back arguing that adding courses in these areas merely "reinforced the mindset that it was … America’s failure to understand Islam that were [sic] to blame" for 9/11! And a group of conservative professional anti-Arab activists pressed for Congressional legislation to monitor and serve as a check on "pro-Arab" curricula. They even launched an organized effort, called "Campus Watch", encouraging students to report teachers who are "pro-Arab" or "pro-Muslim". This same cast of characters was responsible for the movement to shut down the Kahlil Gibran academy, New York’s first-ever dual language Arabic-English school.

Education, or the lack of it, isn’t the only culprit. Our political culture also contributes to misunderstanding – with the anti-Muslim venom spewed by political leaders against the Park 51 project, serving as a case in point. Our popular culture is at fault as well, with Hollywood grinding out movies and television programs that have negatively stereotyped Arabs and Muslims for almost a half century.

The bottom line is that if the Texas State Board of Education’s (TSBE) warning to textbook companies to provide less information about Islam and the Arab World was intended as a warning shot across the bow, it ought to be viewed as a wake-up call to schools, educators, and all Americans. (Note: the reason why resolutions passed by the TSBE are important is because, as the nation’s second largest buyers of secondary school textbooks, they have historically had the ability to influence what the publishers of textbook will and will not publish.)

But if the TSBE has power, so do the rest of us. If the debacle of the war in Iraq taught us anything, it is that we can’t afford ignorance – not knowing has bitter consequences. If America is to productively engage the broader Middle East, we must understand its history and culture and its peoples. Our knowledge must grow, and what is taught in our schools matters to our future.