Views From Kennewick

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Exposé: How Saudis influence our children’s education

jta staff report

Students and teachers in public schools across America are using pro-Islamic materials that are anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish.

A yearlong JTA investigation reveals that programs funded in part by Saudi Arabia are making their way into elementary and secondary school classrooms.

And experts say some publications — one of which was created in Berkeley — are playing fast and loose with facts. Those materials bandy biased claims and promote Islam while criticizing Judaism and Christianity.

The experts also found many of the major history textbooks used in schools across the country are highly critical of democratic institutions and forgiving of repressive ones.

For example, in the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” students are led to believe that Jerusalem is an Arab city; Jews control American foreign policy when need be; and the Koran is superior to other religious texts.

Most taxpayers don’t know they’re often paying — at the federal, state and local levels — for public schools to advance those materials.

JTA found Saudi influence penetrates the classrooms in three different ways: teacher-training seminars, supplementary teaching materials and school textbooks.

And some of that is happening with the assistance of federal funds and with the imprimatur of prominent universities.

So, how did the Saudis, in effect, get their hands on American classrooms?

They are funding pro-Islamic educational organizations. And prominent universities, in turn, are welcoming those groups onto their campuses through Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which has become a backdoor to the front of the class.

Title VI, currently up for congressional renewal, was initially enacted during the Cold War in part to meet the nation’s security needs. Under the law, select universities receive federal funding and prestigious designation as National Resource Centers.

Eighteen of those centers are for Middle East studies; each receives an average of about $500,000 per year. The taxpayer-supported grants are worth at least 10 times that amount in their ability to attract outside funding, proponents of the law say. But opponents say the centers readily attract and accept Saudi-funded educators with political agendas.

As part of its federal mandate, each center assigns an outreach coordinator to extend its expertise to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Outreach usually includes workshops, guest speakers, books, pamphlets and whole syllabi and curricula.

While some school district officials are completely unaware of the material reaching their teachers and classrooms, others welcome it. Believing they’re importing the wisdom of places like Harvard or Georgetown, they are inviting into their schools lessons developed with the support of Riyadh.

The “Arab World Studies Notebook” is one such example. Billed by its creators as an important tool to correct misperceptions about Islam and the Arab world, the manual has been blasted for distorting history and propagating misstatements. Critics say some of the misstatements are subtle, making them all the more harmful. For example, the manual:

• Denigrates the Jews’ historical connection to Jerusalem. One passage says “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.”

• Suggests that Jews have undue influence on U.S. foreign policy. Referring to Harry Truman’s support of the 1947 United Nations resolution to partition Palestine, it says: “The questions of Jewish lobbying and its impact on Truman’s decision with regard to American recognition — and indeed, the whole question of defining American interests and concerns — is well worth exploring.”

• Suggests that the Koran “synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations” in Jewish and Christian texts.

• Leaves out any facts and figures about Israel in its country-by-country section, but refers instead only to Palestine.

First published in 1990 as the “Arab World Notebook,” the manual was updated to its current form in 1998. It was created as the joint project of Berkeley’s Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR) and the Middle East Policy Council of Washington. Both receive Saudi funding.

The editor of the manual is Audrey Shabbas, who founded AWAIR in 1990 and receives funding from Saudi Aramco, a Saudi government-owned oil company.

Shabbas said the goal of the manual is “to establish a basis for understanding the Middle East” by examining the largest of the groups that live there — the Arabs.

Responding to criticism specifically about the effect of Jewish lobbying, she said everything in the manual comes from the Arab and Muslim point of view: “The notebook is what it is. If you go out anywhere in the Arab world, you’re likely to hear that view.”

In contrast, “most textbooks merely tell people the U.N. voted for partition and the Arabs rejected it,” she added, noting that American students need to “delve into why people do what they do.”

Shabbas also said that the manual directs students to solicit other perspectives from various groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee.

Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is one of a growing number of critics of the “Arab World Studies Notebook.” It is one of the examples she cites in a study, “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers,” in which she examines supplemental teaching materials.

The problem with many of the supplemental materials, which are most often distributed through workshops, “is the ideological mission of the organizations that create them,” she said in her study, published last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based think tank on education.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

The American Jewish Committee issued a scathing report on the manual earlier this year. That report said the material, while “attempting to redress a perceived deficit in sympathetic views of the Arabs and Muslim religion in the American classroom, veers in the opposite direction — toward historical distortion as well as uncritical praise, whitewashing and practically proselytizing.”

The result, the AJCommittee report added, “is a text that appears largely designed to advance the anti-Israel and propagandistic views of the manual’s sponsors … to an audience of teachers who may not have the resources and knowledge to assess this text critically.”

The AJCommittee took the unusual step of issuing a public warning “urging school districts across the nation” not to use the manual.

Still, Shabbas and her publication are welcomed by outreach coordinators to some of the nation’s key National Resource Centers, including those at Georgetown, Harvard and Yale.

The Middle East Policy Council of Washington helps print and disseminate the 500-page manual of essays, lesson plans and primary sources. It lists the manual as the primary resource material for its teacher-training program.

According to the group’s Web site, more than 16,000 educators have attended its workshops in 175 cities in 43 states. The manual itself claims to have reached 25 million students in a five-year period.

The council, which is headed by Charles Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, gets direct funding from the Saudis.

Jon Roth, the council’s acting director, declined to specify how much money his group gets from Riyadh, but made clear that he is seeking much more.

In September, Roth visited Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the royal family who owns Kingdom Holding Company, one of the world’s wealthiest companies. (Fortune magazine recently estimated that Prince Alwaleed, who requested the meeting with Roth, has a net worth of $20 billion, making him the richest businessman in the Muslim world.)

“Our hope and expectation is millions” from the Saudi prince, said Roth, noting that his group operates on an annual budget of $750,000.

The council’s board of directors includes executives from companies with huge financial stakes in Saudi Arabia, including Boeing, ExxonMobil Saudi Arabia, the Carlyle Group and the Saudi Binladin Group.

Roth said that funding to the organization “has no strings attached,” and that the council does not take a policy position concerning Israel.

Many of the principal players involved in disseminating pro-Islamic, anti-American and anti-Israeli materials to the public school system have links, direct or indirect, to a little-known 1,600-acre compound in the remote mountainous desert of northern New Mexico called Dar al Islam.

Dar al Islam, which means “abode of Islam” in Arabic, is an Islamic enclave registered as a nonprofit since 1979.

It was created with direct financing from the late Saudi monarch, King Khaled ibn Aziz, and from five princesses in the Royal House of Saud, according to Saudi Aramco World.

The enclave’s Web site indicates that the original intent was to establish a “Muslim village as a showcase for Islam in America.” When that became too difficult, the vision changed to an educational conference and retreat center.

In addition to the mosque, the enclave has a religious school, summer camp and teacher-training institute.

Dar al Islam spokesman Abdur Ra’uf Walter Declerck acknowledged some minor participation by a Saudi princess in helping to create Dar al Islam, but he disputes most of the group’s funding history as recounted in the Saudi Aramco World article.

“It was not purchased by the royal family,” he said. Funding then and now “comes from Muslims all over,” he said without elaboration.

Some watchdogs say Saudi Arabia’s goal is to export the most rigid brand of Islam: Wahhabi Islam.

It’s an agenda “more dangerous than communism” ever was because it targets all non-believers, including Christians, Jews and most Muslims, according to Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington-based pro-democracy think tank.

Such apostates have only three choices, he said: “Convert, be subjugated or die.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to several requests for comment.

Declerck of Dar al Islam said the kind of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is “not what we transmit. Dar al Islam communicates much more of a mainstream Islam.”

But Al-Ahmed was adamant. In American public schools, he said, the Saudis are carrying out “a deliberate program to spread their version of Islam everywhere.

“Their job is to give money to certain groups of Islamic organizations, to fund certain people, and those people they fund are people who they believe will further their goal of spreading Wahabi Islam.”

Many individuals and groups involved in promoting education about Islam and the Arab world in American schools have ties to Dar al Islam. Some are educators such as Shabbas, whose work is promoted by outreach coordinators at the National Resource Centers, and some are outreach coordinators themselves.

Shabbas was director of Dar al Islam’s summer teacher-training program in 1994 and 1995, according to Declerck.

Others with connections to Dar al Islam include:

• Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, a Title VI National Resource Center on the Middle East. For several years she was assistant director of Dar al Islam’s teacher-training institute, the Teachers Institute, according to Dar al Islam’s Declerck.

Seikaly promotes many associates of Dar al Islam, printing their writings and inviting them to lecture. Asked about Dar al Islam, she at first refused to discuss it, then admitted working there, but said it was only for two weeks.

• The Council on Islamic Education. The group until recently was listed as an associate of Dar al Islam, under the heading of secondary schools. Independent textbook review organizations describe the council as one of the most powerful groups in the country influencing the content of textbooks. Critics say that in its effort to promote a positive view of Islam, it distorts history.

The group’s director, Shabbir Mansuri, says his organization is a “non-advocacy research organization.”

Criticism that his group exerts undue influence on textbook publishers “comes from people who have no idea what we do,” he said.

“The Constitution allows us all a place at the table without leaving our heritage at the door,” he said. “I can lobby, I can demand and I can contribute.”

• Susan Douglass. An associate of Dar al Islam’s Teachers Institute, she also is the curriculum specialist for the Council on Islamic Education.

She is a former teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy of Virginia, a Saudi government-supported school, and she consults on textbooks and curriculum by major publishers. She has written a series of books on Islam for K-6 students at Islamic and public schools.

Saudi influence

Related Stories:

California on the frontlines of textbook battles

Education law on the block?


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