March 22, 2017 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 122

'You've Got To Be Carefully Taught' – The Challenge Of Islamic Supremacist Textbooks And Beyond

March 22, 2017 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 122

Detail of 13th-century Mosul tomb of Imam Yahya Ibn Al-Qasim, blown up by ISIS


A recent 2017 MEMRI report documented the dissemination of ISIS textbooks on the Europe-based social media platform Telegram.[1] This development illustrated two key parts of the aggressive use of the ISIS narrative, in social media and in education. The textbooks were, not surprisingly, rife with images and terms connected to violent jihad. This is, of course, to be expected from the world's most notorious terrorist group.

But the problem of intolerant, supremacist, and violent content in school textbooks in the Muslim world, from North Africa to Pakistan, has been a public issue for decades now, long before the rise of the Islamic State. Campaigns to change the toxic content of textbooks among Palestinians and in Saudi Arabia have garnered high-level interest from the U.S. government. But the problem is much more generalized and existed long before the rise of social media, which has facilitated much of the latest wave of jihadi mobilization.[2] It continues to be a policy concern; an unreleased 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of State on Saudi textbooks only saw the light of day in 2016 through the Freedom of Information Act.[3]

In October 2013, MEMRI published a comprehensive study of textbooks used in government-run schools (not the notorious private Islamist madrassas) in Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which showed how young pupils are indoctrinated with concepts of violence and martyrdom as well as with hatred of non-Muslims.[4] Three years later, Pakistani columnist Zubeida Mustafa lamented the deep intolerance present in textbooks, after the publication of a scathing report finding that "the books glorify war, 'otherise' non-Muslims, take a uni-dimensional view of reality, distort history, and stereotype women."[5]

Efforts in Jordan in October 2016 to make textbooks less sectarian and intolerant were met with book burning and angry social media activism.[6] Some of the material in the new books was an image of a woman without a headscarf, and the inclusion of Jordanian Christians in the texts. Among those leading the response to the new, toned-down textbooks was the Jordan Teachers' Association, long dominated by Islamists, as well as the opposition Islamic Action Front (the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan). A spokesman for the teachers' association complained that the number of Quranic verses in Arabic-language textbooks from the fifth to the 10th grade had declined from 261 to only 44.[7]

The turmoil in Jordan underscores a basic problem in textbook reform. These are not religious schools, but state schools. The challenge is not limited to textbooks, but includes teachers and teacher training colleges that have long been sinecures for Islamists.

Yet despite these deeply engrained problems, there has been progress, at least on the written page. Local liberal intellectuals, such as the previously mentioned Mustafa, Qatar's Abdul Hamid Al-Ansari, Saudi Arabia's Ibrahim Al-Buleihi, and others have challenged the toxic status quo.[8] Ethnic and religious minority groups are acknowledged and less demonized in some places. After Qaddafi, Libya recognized non-Arabic minority languages, and recognized the possibility of them being studied in schools.

The nexus of intolerant texts, social media, extremist preachers, and thought leaders, and the passivity of regional states regarding them, underscore how much of the Islamist "moment" in the region, in both its ideologically intolerant and outright violent dimensions, is manufactured. Islamists and jihadis rely on a specific reading from elements of foundational Islam, but the ubiquitous nature of their reading, and its spread and scope, is something which was consciously fabricated.

While the Islamic State bitterly criticizes not just other Muslims but other Islamists, its reading of Islamic history, the lived experience of Muslims over the centuries, is – like that of many of its rivals – an intellectually impoverished and constrained one.[9] The great irony of the textbook controversy and the poison that Islamists and jihadis churn out is that they are presenting an image of the Muslim Middle East which actually could be challenged by an alternate reading of that same history and lived experience.

American academic Howard Zinn is, for many, a notorious figure, a Marxist whose highly influential 1980 history text A People's History of the United States seeks to provide an alternate, leftwing reading of American history.[10] The book sold several million copies and is used in some high schools and universities. Zinn's idea, flowing from his ideological worldview and reading of the sources, was to portray "the American story as one long chronicle of exploitation, oppression and deceit" by highlighting supposedly underexposed or unknown voices and stories.[11] I am no admirer of Zinn's political worldview and tergiversations, but I do wonder what a "People's History of the Muslim World" might look like.

Such a book, or series of books, yet to be written, would illustrate the great diversity existing in the Muslim East for much of its history – diversity not just between Muslim and non-Muslim, but among Muslims themselves. It would demystify the period of early Islam along the lines of Taha Hussein's 1947 iconoclastic book Al-Fitna al-Kubra. It would tell the stories of those from below, of the bitter revolt of black slaves in ninth-century Iraq, of heterodox Muslim sects, of wine-drinking Christian Umayyad poets like Al-Akhtal and even edgier Muslim Abbasid poets like Abu Nuwas, in all their splendor.

It would relate the very real conquests and glories of Islamic civilization and the human costs of such a history. In it, you would learn of both the splendor and learning of Islamic Cordoba and of the Christian martyrs of Cordoba. Sunni populations today could learn of past Shia rulers, and vice versa, without expletives. Religious freedom would also be an essential, if probably controversial, part of such a curriculum.[12]

That Islamists have successfully weaponized their past is well known.[13] The question now is whether liberal Muslims can do the same and, more importantly, be allowed the political space and the pedagogical base to put it in practice in a way that advances an agenda of tolerance and enlightenment but is also respectful of the historical record as it is. In the end, agitprop, or "fake history," even for the best of supposed intentions, is not going to be good enough to withstand public scrutiny. It can and should reflect untold alternate narratives, but it cannot refashion reality totally to fit a different age either.

But rescuing Islamic history from the Islamists can only be part of a much broader humanistic education that also includes music and art, as Dr. Al-Ansari has suggested. This is not to say that a better and more tolerant educational system is some sort of anti-jihad panacea. Radicalization is a complex process, and a guiding ideology is important, but is one of several key factors.[14] And the Islamist version of Islamic history is powerful because it is, despite the cherry-picking, grounded in history.

While my main motivation here is looking for additional, complementary tools in the struggle against the siren song of jihad, I also have a humbler goal. It is precisely the diversity and multifaceted humanity, the splendor and squalor, the complexity and contradiction of Islamic civilization that attracted me to its study decades ago. That is a multi-faceted patrimony worth knowing at its fullest and most complete, for Muslims and outsiders alike.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.


[1] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6767, Telegram Channel Circulates Full Copies Of Children's Textbooks Used By ISIS, February 1, 2017.

[2] "This is a Saudi textbook. (After the intolerance was removed.)", May 21, 2006.

[3] "State Dept. Study on Saudi Textbooks,", August 25, 2016.

[5] "Textbooks of hate,", April 1, 2016.

[6] "Protesters burn books as Jordan reduces religion’s role in schools,", March 22, 2017.

[7] "Protesters burn books as Jordan reduces religion’s role in schools,", March 22, 2017.

[8] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 113, Unpacking The Message Of Hate With Dr. Al-Ansari, December 20, 2016.

[9] "The Bondage of History: Daesh/ISIS and the Islamic Past,", March 9, 2017.

[10] "Agit-Prof - Howard Zinn's influential mutilations of American history,", March 18, 2013.

[11] "An honest history of Howard Zinn,", July 26, 2016.

[12] "Pakistan's Terrorism Fight Must Include Promoting Religious Freedom," March 21, 2017.

[13] "Nibras Kazimi: How Jihadists Weaponize Islamic History and How to De-Weaponize It,", posted June 2, 2016.

[14] "Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks,", Winter 2009.

Share this Report:


MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization.  All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.