18 Mar 2011

Islamic scholar says Utah schools doing better job teaching students about all religions

Deseret News - Utah March 12, 2011

Islamic scholar: Religious education improving in schools

By Sara Israelsen-Hartley  |  Deseret News

OREM — Twenty years ago, elementary and high school textbooks contained fairly secular and even slightly negative views about religion, often painting Mormonism as a "sect" and glossing over the Islamic faith entirely. But since the 1990s, when schools and states began to implement more content standards, religious representation in K-12 classrooms has improved, said Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education.

During a recent lecture as part of Utah Valley University's conference on Mormonism and Islam, Mansuri talked about how schools went from "sacred classrooms," where religion was preached as well as taught to "naked classrooms," which were devoid of any religious instruction.

Today's classrooms are "civic classrooms," he explained, where religion is taught, but not preached — an essential and constitutionally appropriate action to ensure well-rounded students.

"Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world," according to the Council on Islamic Education's study: "Teaching About Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards," created in partnership with the First Amendment Center.

"Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant," the study says. "Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible."

While Mormons were often mentioned in older textbooks, such references were usually short and within sections on "Westward Expansion," explaining very little about actual religious beliefs.

Now, Utah requires students to "understand the contributions of Native American Indians, explorers and Utah's pioneers," "explain the reason for the Mormon migration to Utah" and "recognize how the Mormon pioneers' heritage influences Utah today."

Muslims fared even worse in historical accounts, Mansuri said, showing several pictures from his daughter's sixth-grade book from 1989.

Within the 450 pages of her social studies textbook were 10 pages covering several different world religions. Yet these religions weren't actually named, instead called, "Religion in Japan," "Religion among the Bedouin" and "Religion in France" — rather than talking about Shintoism and Buddhism, Islam or Catholicism.

And in a California textbook from 1990, "Moments in Time" pages taught students about traditional figures from various eras, showing a Japanese warrior, an African woman, a Parisian market woman, a crusading warrior and then, to represent Muslims, there was a picture of a camel.

Mansuri and other members of the Council on Islamic Education went to talk with the book's publisher and asked why they were depicted by a camel, not a person.

The publisher's response?

"You people were great traders, and the trading tool of the time was the camel, so we chose the camel to represent that part of the nation."

"Thank you," Mansuri responded. "But it wasn't the camel who did the trading."

Based on the council's input, the 1999 version of the textbook contained a beautiful image of an Abbasid scholar instead of the camel.

"You can take your place at the table and contribute in major ways," Mansuri said.

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