The historian Barbara Lefebvre took it upon herself to find out what is taught about Islam to students in French middle and secondary schools. What she discovered was not surprising, but deeply disturbing nonetheless. And her close analysis may encourage others — in Germany, in Great Britain, in Sweden, in the U.S. – to engage in a similar examination of what young people in the West are now being taught about Islam.
It takes the form of a detailed answer to a question posed by the leading center-right newspaper Le Figaro:
What is the purpose of the history taught in schools? Is it to teach us to “live together” or to instruct pupils?
Barbara LEFEBVRE: History as taught in our schools, defined by the official curricula and faithfully transcribed in textbooks, is not history as taught in the universities. It is not a history in which the present-day historiographical debates, often virulent, are treated. It is the story of the past reflecting the state of research where there is academic consensus. History in the schools serves a positive goal: to transmit to pupils factual knowledge, based on critical analysis of the sources. One hopes, possibly naively, that later on the students will exercise their critical reason and think for themselves. Yet this discipline is most often used to impose value judgments on pupils. Today the problem is aggravated because of the crisis of identity and of massive de-culturation.
It is interesting to study the new history syllabus that the present government wants to impose, the major themes of which are, however, recycled from previous syllabi. A lot of noise for nothing? Not really, for France is now at a breaking point on the question of national identity. How history is presented in the schools is a sensitive area on which we can have an effect, and though the fire has been simmering since 2000, with the attacks of 2015 and the grotesque business of the burkini, the pressure-cooker is really beginning to whistle. The tension is due to the pressure exercised by a tyrannical minority of political Islamists, some of whom who are being presented as “moderates” and thus legitimized by the government, who treat with opprobrium a silent majority of Muslims who are often non-observant or even non-believers, but who are used for political ends. The teaching of religion, in this case Islam, has never been as necessary and as demanding. Now if one wishes to fight, as is claimed, against a politico-religious ideology, it is especially important not to hide troublesome things under the rug, which leads us to teach a history of Muslim civilization without any warts, sometimes bordering on apologetics, all in the service of dogmatically glorifying this whole business of “living together.”
I base my observations on the 2016 programs of study and the official resources to be found online, and then I’ve observed how these programs have been transposed in the school textbooks for the 7th grade that are most in use [published by Hachette, Belin, Bordas, Hatier]. What do these programs say?
“The study of religion… allows pupils to better situate, and understand, present-day debates,” with an approach which must not be too fixated on such a long period. That’s it. To approach the question with notions of theocracy and of “contact” between the Western and Byzantine Christians and Islam is judicious, but one has a right to be disturbed by the explicit intent of these programs to spend more time on “peaceful contacts” such as commerce and the sciences, rather than the warring contacts, that is to say, the Crusades and the Jihad. The war between Christians and Muslims dominates the history of the Middle Ages and even beyond, in the form of Muslim raids on the Mediterranean shores of Europe. Minimizing the effect not just of these facts, but of their social and cultural effects in the two civilizational spaces, Muslim and Christian, reveals the political message here: “relations between the Christian and the Muslim worlds are not limited to military clashes,” the curricula insist.
On the question of contacts, the official instructions call for teachers to “balance things, by not giving too much weight to the “study of events that put too much emphasis on bellicose contacts.” And thus one proceeds to the construction of social and cultural representations, and in this the 2016 school program is scarcely different from that favored by the Third Republic and its famous “our ancestors the Gauls,” regarded with such contempt by today’s educational establishment. The only difference being that present-day school history presumes to represent an objectivity in the service of multicultural progressivism, an aim that the Third Republic did not have, for it wanted to create a French people, from its various elements, without distinguishing origin or social class. I want to raise another point: the creators of this history curriculum, who defend a “global approach to historical facts,” a constant leitmotiv in the official instructions, want very much to offer a “mixed history.” By that is meant that “the conditions and actions of women and men of a certain period will be treated in the same way.” But curiously, about the condition of women under medieval Islam, silence reigns. In fact, none of the textbooks say anything about women [Belin] in Islam except for one regent of the Ayyoubide dynasty in the 13th century, as if this singular exception could be used to describe the place of women in Islam. What would one think of a historian who described the condition of women in France at the end of the 16th century by giving the example of Catherine de Medici?
The liberty accorded to teachers is a liberty of how to teach, one must remember, not what to teach. It is not a liberty of interpreting the curriculum as one pleases. The official curricula insist on a historiographical orientation: thus one is required to treat the battle of Poitiers as less important than it was, almost as if it were an anecdote, and in fact, some of the textbooks no longer even mention it. At the same time, teachers are required to study the friendship between Charlemagne and the Abbassid caliph al-Rashid, whose name is associated with the Thousand and One Nights, where he appears as the perfect caliph. This is an idealized version of the reign of the Al-Rashids, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, since the historians today distinguish the myth of the ideal Caliph presented by Arabic literature with the historical record showing that he weakened the power of the Abbasid caliphate, as the recurrent uprisings during his reign testify, and the troubles on the edges of his empire, and the violent civil war that followed his reign. Besides, his so-called “friendship” with Charlemagne was only a diplomatic friendship, motivated by the shared desire to oppose the Byzantine Empire and the Omayyad emir of Cordoba.
Certainly, in a school textbook, one doesn’t expect to go into detail about the academic debates on the historicity of Mohammed, and the reliability of the facts of his life, but nonetheless it is surprising how little there is about him in the textbooks. Let me sum up what the pupil is told about Mohammed: he was a merchant, who travelled by camel caravan, received a visit from the angel Gabriel in about 610, and founded the first Muslim community and firmly established monotheism with the taking of Mecca from the pagan Arabs in 630. Everything seemed to happen without any major obstacle: Islam spread itself through conquest and everyone was happy to submit! One of the textbooks, the one that is published by Belin, doesn’t even present Mohammed as a head of state and commander of the armies of Islam. However, the figure of the Prophet, the unsurpassable model of the Perfect Muslim, surely merits a closer look at his manner of living, all the more so since his private life was made public by his disciples,and held up, in the Qur’an and the Hadith, as a model to be followed. His life is well known to all practicing Muslims, but students in French schools will not learn what all Muslims know of the exemplary life of Mohammed. Perhaps this absence of biographical information is to be explained by the difference between Western notions of what constitutes an irreproachable man of faith and head of state, and the Muslim view of the Prophet as the Perfect Man?
But everything is a matter of interpretation, and the life of Mohammed, most human in its darker side, should be placed in his historical context, precisely to counter the narrative of political Islam that produces these Jihadists, who hammer home the notion that nothing in the Qur’an is to be “interpreted” away, and tell fellow Muslims that they should live “like the Prophet.” It would be salutary to stop this practice of not talking about certain things in order not to offend the delicate sensibilities of certain pupils and their families, and instead, to deal with the facts and place them within a rational framework rather than filter them through the demands of an ideology.
The way that the conquests of Mohammed and his successors are presented [in the history curriculum] reveals the indulgence with which the politico-juridical side of Islamic history is treated. Every possible means are employed to “balance” the story and to avoid a “violent” presentation of the Muslim conquests. But the series of abridgements and outright omissions in the textbooks leads to historical falsehood. For example, when one reads that in 630 Mohammed and his followers “re-took the city of Mecca” [Bordas], using that verb suggests to pupils that Mecca in some sense already belonged to the Muslims, that what they did was only a legitimate re-taking of what had been theirs. But Mohammed before 630 was never in possession of Mecca; he even had to flee the city in 622 with his 70 followers, accused of disturbing the public order in pagan Mecca.
Yet another illustration of an abridgement that constitutes a falsehood is the way that Mohammed’s capture of cities and territories is presented as having occurred without any resistance. All of the history textbooks for French pupils now suggest that the Muslim conquest was so rapid because it was easy. If the conquest of Arabia was so rapid, it is because Mohammed had only to capture an oasis, which would then give him control of all the territory – hundreds of kilometers in every direction – that depended on that oasis. Similarly, in the Middle East and North Africa, internal divisions among the locals, including both political and theological disputes, allowed the Arab armies to quickly take possession of centers of power. Nonetheless, there was popular resistance [to Mohammed] in Arabia, where resistance by the Jews, in particular, is known from Arab sources, as well as in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Only the textbook published by Hatier attempts to offer – just a little — about the military dimension of Islam’s conquests.
The objectives of the Muslim conquerors are never made clear to pupils, though territorial conquest and the birth of Islam go hand-in-hand, and Mohammed’s statements in the Qur’an and Sunna are unambiguous: Islam is a proselytizing religion, with the vocation of enlightening humanity, and territorial conquest is the principal means to that end. This fusion of the political and the religious ought to be emphasized if one wants to make sense of certain statements by today’s fundamentalists, in order to deconstruct them. Here the concept of Jihad should be addressed: it has, since the beginnings of Islam, provided religious justification for conquest of the imperialist type – at the time entirely commonplace – consisting of pillaging, massacres, and colonization. The work of Sabrina Mervin is used many times to describe the conquest, but what she wrote was not factual history. It is, rather, intended to be a study of Islamic doctrines through history and the present. In Mervin’s preface, she emphasizes that her book does not claim to trace “the political or social history of the Muslim world,” but that is exactly what excerpts from her book are used for in the textbooks, distorting her work. The excerpts that were taken from her book depict Islam as a perfect theocratic project, realized without any obstacle, and describes a “social representation” of this project by Muslim theologians. In the Hachette textbook, there is even worse: “The Muslim caliphs took control of vast territories peopled by nomads. In order to better control these nomads, they developed cities ruled by emirs.” Now in what sense were the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East in the pre-Islamic period [of Judaism, Christianity, or the Persian or Roman Empires], who for centuries had lived a settled existence, having developed a high level of urban civilization – in what sense were any of these “nomads” comparable to the Bedouin tribes of Arabia Islamised by Mohammed? Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Yarmouk, Cairo, Mosul and many other cities, were not, to my knowledge, founded by Arab conquerors. The Muslim conquerors did redesign some aspects of the urban landscape in order to better Islamize its inhabitants, but did not found any of these cities that retained many traces, especially archeological, of their glorious pre-Islamic past. It is errors like this in the textbooks that leave one perplexed.