The investigative series by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the sources of anti-Israel and anti-American content in the curricula and textbooks in American schools that begins in this week's Jewish Exponent raises questions about who is calling the tune for education about Islam and the Middle East.
There has been a good deal of commentary in the recent past about the influence of funding from Saudi Arabia on Middle Eastern studies at the college level. But what this series explores is the possibility that Saudi-backed Islamist institutions have not only affected universities, but high schools around the country as well.
Teaching programs and educational seminars backed by Islamist groups - and often paid for in Saudi coin - are gradually working their way down from the lofty perches of academia, and winding up in textbooks and curricula for high school and even elementary-school students.
Ironically, one of the principal engines for this trend is not just the deep pockets of Saudi princes, but the wallets of American taxpayers. Title VI of the Higher Education Act has provided federal funding for 18 centers on Middle Eastern studies around the nation, including one at the University of Pennsylvania. These same centers also attract funding from abroad. But in return for the federal money, they are asked to serve as resources for other educators, and the result is that their material about Islam and Israel may be setting the agenda for the public schools.
Unfortunately, much of the material is biased and factually incorrect. Moreover, it tends to reflect an uncritical view of the Muslim world, including tyrannical Islamic regimes such as the Saudi monarchy, while incorporating critical views of Israel. It also often demonstrates hostility to Judaism and Christianity, while affording Islam an unquestioning respect.
Even more insidious than the role of the university-based centers is the way that Islamist groups have worked in tandem with them. For example, the New Mexico-based Dar al Islam group seems to be a ubiquitous source of material filtering into the schools about Islam and the Arab world - backed by Saudi money and promoting the interests of its fundamentalist masters.
The irony here is two-fold. On the one hand is the Islamist war on the West, made manifold by the Sept. 11 attacks, which has helped spark some interest in these subjects, and drives an effort to combat the ignorance here about Arab and Muslim history and culture. On the other comes worries about a largely mythical American backlash against Muslims and Arabs, which has fueled a desire on the part of many educators to teach children to respect diversity.
Both of these interests are well-founded. But rather than teach the truth about Islam and the conflicts in the Middle East, what the material paid for by the Saudis and, to some extent, by U.S. taxpayers, does is create new - and potentially dangerous - myths in the minds of Americans.
Nearly three years ago, during the prelude to the Iraq war, the Philadelphia School District distributed material about the Arab world from a federally-funded center at Georgetown University with references to Dar al Islam and other troubling partners.
At the time, complaints by Jewish activists caused the district to balance the material with unbiased information. But that incident, as well as the results of the JTA investigation, should cause us to examine the textbooks and the curricula in our schools even more closely in the future.
In the recent past, America has paid dearly for ignoring a clear threat from Islamists, especially those who came from Saudi Arabia. We cannot afford to repeat that mistake at the most elementary levels of our society.