Friday, April 16, 2004

An Indian tribe has forced distributors of an Arab studies guide for U.S. teachers to remove an inaccurate passage that says Muslim explorers preceded Christopher Columbus to North America and became Algonquin chiefs.

Peter DiGangi, director of Canada’s Algonquin Nation Secretariat in Quebec, called claims in the book, the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” “preposterous” and “outlandish,” saying nothing in the tribe’s written or oral history support them.

The 540-page book says the Muslim explorers married into the Algonquin tribe, resulting in 17th-century tribal chiefs named Abdul-Rahim and Abdallah Ibn Malik.

Mr. DiGangi said the guide’s author and editor, Audrey Shabbas, and the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a Washington advocacy group that promoted the curriculum to school districts in 155 U.S. cities, have been unresponsive to his concerns since November.

But Ms. Shabbas said this week the passage was removed immediately from subsequent copies, and that she was “giving careful and thoughtful attention” on how to notify the 1,200 teachers who have been given copies of the book in the past five years.

“As the editor of the ‘Notebook,’ when I heard from Mr. DiGangi that a citation in the work was not borne out by either Native American written records or by oral traditions, I was grateful that the statement could so easily be removed,” she said.

She did not explain how the false information got into the curriculum.

“There was no [scholarly] peer review,” said Mr. DiGangi, who says he was never contacted after lodging his complaint. “It was so outlandish. It never should have gone to press.”

Jon Roth, MEPC’s program manager, yesterday said the group has decided to remove the two-page chapter called “Early Muslim Exploration Worldwide: Evidence of Muslims in the New World Before Columbus.”

“It is not, nor has it ever been, our intention to spread lies or untruths,” Mr. Roth said.

Meanwhile, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation this week issued a report that is critical of “Arab World Studies Notebook.”

The study, titled “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers,” reviewed many curriculum supplements and “professional development” programs aimed at schoolteachers.

“It appeared that the creation and dissemination of these materials, often through professional development institutes and [teacher] in-service programs, had fallen into the eager hands of interest groups and ideologues yearning to use America’s public school classrooms to shape the minds of tomorrow’s citizens by manipulating what today’s teachers are introducing into the lessons of today’s children,” the Fordham study concluded.

Mr. Roth said the “Arab World Studies Notebook” is the primary reference text used in the council’s program of teacher workshops conducted by Ms. Shabbas, which have numbered more than 268 in 155 cities since 1987.

The book, offered at a markdown of $15 from $49.95, has 90 readings and lesson plans covering the history and culture of the Arab world, the broader Middle East and Islam worldwide. “A lot of teachers use it,” Mr. Roth said.

Chester E. Finn Jr., Fordham Foundation president, said the new “cottage industry” of “predigested supplemental materials” and professional development for history and social studies teachers was intended to help teachers who had little or no background in certain areas, and because textbooks are often insufficient.

“How could we expect them to handle complicated and emotionally charged subjects like the Holocaust and figure out what lessons to learn about it? To escort youngsters safely through the thicket of political correctness and ethnic politics that now surrounds such benign holidays as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving?” he asks in the preface of the foundation’s report.

The void in teachers’ knowledge and instructional materials has been filled by publishers, universities, research groups and think tanks, advocacy groups, cable networks, film producers and itinerant teacher trainers, Mr. Finn said.

“We know staggeringly little about how good these materials and workshops are — how accurate they are, whether the information they present is balanced and accurate. We know even less about the efficacy, value or intellectual integrity of innumerable workshops, institutes and training programs in which teachers participate,” he said.

The report, written by Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, described the “Arab World Studies Notebook” as “propaganda.”

The chapter written by Ms. Shabbas and Abdallah Hakim Quick claims that Muslims from Europe were the first to sail across the Atlantic and land in the New World, starting in 889, the report says.

“The idea that English explorers met native Indian chiefs with Muslim names in the middle of the Northeast woodlands sounds almost like something a Hollywood film writer dreamed up for a spoof,” the report says.

The current 1998 edition of the “Notebook” has “no evidence or documentation to support key historical ‘facts’ that serve to advance their political views or religious beliefs,” the report says.

“One can only wonder if this has ever been questioned by the teachers who use its materials, or if they feel they must agree to any claim made by Muslims as an ‘alternative perspective’ or risk being labeled insensitive, Eurocentric, or racist.”

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