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Stacking library shelves

How Washington is pushing Islamic propaganda into local communities. Where’s the ACLU when we need it?

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Stacking library shelves
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Libraries in America, like schools, have a long tradition of local control. In 2009 Minnesota librarian Barbara Fisher told Library Journal readers how she chose books: “I know my community, and I know what their interests are.” Wisconsin librarian Abigail Goben wrote about choosing books based on reviews, patron requests, and librarian blogs: “We’re a chatty bunch and love recommending things to each other.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities has a different process. Earlier this year NEH, as part of a “Muslim Journeys” project, shipped to 953 local libraries and humanities groups 25 books chosen by five “national project scholars” known for their positive appraisals of Islam. We’ll go book-by-book through some of the choices, but four critics of Islam who reviewed for WORLD the 25-book collection all said it was one-sided.

Alvin Schmidt, author of The Great Divide, said the selection “conveys the message that Islam is a peaceful religion,” which is “the biggest, unmitigated lie in circulation today.” Andrew Bostom, author of Sharia versus Freedom, said the books “whitewash” Islam and “amount to ‘dawa’—Islamic proselytization.” Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer said, “This is an egregiously propagandistic selection of books, designed not to give readers a balanced view of jihad, but solely a positive one.”

NEH’s five scholars—Giancarlo Casale, Frederick Denny, Leila Golestaneh Austin, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, and Deborah Amos—made the final selection of the 25 books. GhaneaBassiri told WORLD, “The purpose of this project is to give everyone who wishes to engage in dialogue about the issues it raises an opportunity to do so.” But Spencer sees a different desire at work: “All the scholars are disposed to obscure the links between Islam and terrorism.”

A different breed of scholar, Daniel Pipes, may be in the best position to critique NEH’s campaign because he has the kind of academic pedigree—Harvard Ph.D., years of study in Egypt, knowledge of Arabic and other languages, teaching at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and service on the board of the United States Institute of Peace—that NEH relishes. But his and their purposes are different, Pipes told me: “Where I try to help readers understand ... how Islamism came to be the main vehicle of barbarism in the world today, NEH would rather shield the reader’s eyes and pretend this unpleasantness is not happening.”

Adam Francisco, another scholar with a prestigious doctorate—from Oxford University, where he studied Islam—was also struck by “the pretty weak selection of books. There’s not a critical scholarly one among them, and certainly not one that has anything negative to say about Islam.” Francisco also noted the adulation of Islam’s founder, with “the absence of any discussion of the violence (execution of 600-900 Jewish men, the early jihads, etc.) and sexual impropriety (his 6/9 year old wife, illicit intercourse, etc.) associated with Muhammad.”

Of course, if the five critics I contacted had emphasized all their favorite books, libraries might also have received an unbalanced list—but why didn’t the selection committee include a mix of perspectives? Why not a balanced group of books that would not whitewash Muslim opposition to religious liberty (one new poll shows 64 percent of Egyptian Muslims favoring the death penalty for those who leave Islam) and denigration of women?

The 25 books cost approximately $627 retail, making the total cost $598,000 plus shipping and handling. Some 125 of the libraries/humanities councils will typically receive $4,500 each to create local programs centered around a lecture on Islam, so there’s another $563,000. Throw in three videos sent to all the libraries along with the usual bureaucratic costs, and we’re still not talking big bucks: Since two foundations contributed, the cost to taxpayers is only about $950,000. But when readers want to learn about Islam at their local libraries, they’re likely to get only one side of the story—and for Muslim proselytizers, that’s priceless.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the books. (I’ve read most of the 25, either while teaching about Islam at The University of Texas or more recently, and Alvin Schmidt—who has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska and is a retired Illinois College professor—has read those I haven’t, so these annotations are from both of us, and others as quoted.)

The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (which Robert Spencer calls “a Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood front group”), is a propagandistic account of how Islam’s sacred scripture came into being. Mattson refers very briefly to a counter-theory developed by John Wansbrough and other scholars, but readers would not know that the origins of the Quran are highly in dispute.

Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction: Jonathan A.C. Brown, in Adam Francisco’s words, “accepts unquestioningly some of the most spurious sources as matter of fact. Why? Because this is what the Muslim tradition demands.” Brown does not even mention Ibn Warraq’s The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, which shows that the real Muhammad was probably nothing like the character depicted in the orthodox Muslim story.

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain: Maria Rosa Menocal writes about “peaceful Islam” and ignores the centuries of persecution Christians and Jews experienced while Muslims ruled and dominated Spain. Dario Fernandez-Morera summarizes the real history in “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 2006.

The House of Wisdom: Jim Al-Khalili argues that Islamic discoveries in science led to Europe’s cultural awakening. Hmm: Muslim scientific discoveries pertained mostly to mechanical devices rather than experimental science. Renowned scholar Bernard Lewis is a better source of information on Islam and science.

Minaret: The NEH website accurately notes that “Leila Aboulela [is] challenging the perception that Islam is oppressive toward women and incompatible with a Western lifestyle. In their novels, the central female characters find empowerment through their Islamic faith.” Given the dismal facts, another word for Abouela’s attempt: propaganda.

A Quiet Revolution: The NEH website accurately notes that Leila Ahmed’s defense of women’s veil-wearing represents “a ‘complete reversal’ of her expectation to find that the resurgence of the veil meant a step backward in Muslim women’s pursuit of gender equity.”

I could go on book by book, but the critiques would be repetitive: You’ll find more descriptions online in a “Muslim Journeys” tab at worldmag.com. Why so one-sided? Eva Caldera, NEH’s assistant chairman for Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, told WORLD’s Whitten, “There are many negative views in the United States around Muslims and Islam, and I don’t know that those negative views are necessarily based on a lot of information. … What these books offer is some additional sources of information.”

Caldera said the process of choosing “national scholars” for the Muslim Journeys project was standard NEH—see which scholars are highly regarded by other scholars—and asserted that the books’ emphasis is more cultural than political. Asked why the booklist didn’t include a work by the leading U.S. scholar of Islam over the past half-century, Bernard Lewis, she said his works are already “very widely available.”

That’s half-true: A check of 12 public libraries chosen at random from the NEH’s list of Muslim Journeys recipients showed half of them with Lewis’s most accessible look at Islam, What Went Wrong?, and half without. Caldera also said the NEH, rather than ignoring Lewis, had given him its highest award, a Jefferson Lectureship. True, but that was in 1990 during the Reagan-Bush years. Caldera also pointed to one of the 25 books, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, as a work critical of Islamic fundamentalism, and she’s right: It’s an excellent graphic novel that I’ll also discuss at worldmag.com.

Criticism without recommendation is easy—so what are good ways to respond to the NEH’s pro-Islam slant? One member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who learned that Craven Community College in his district was one of the 953 bookshelf recipients, said, “It is appalling to me that a federal agency like NEH is wasting money on programs like this.” He asked the college to add 25 books about Christianity.

Neither reporters nor other members of Congress backed up Jones, and the story died. But evening the score with 25 books on Christianity wouldn’t give readers better insights into Islam: Local libraries would still offer only one side of the story.

I’d suggest supplementing the Muslim Journeys books with some that give another side. A starting point is Lewis’s What Went Wrong?, which shows how Islam’s multi-century Middle East decline came because Muslim leaders, instead of allowing individuals to think for themselves, set up obstacles to freedom, economic development, and scientific initiative. Other books by Lewis, including The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, are also valuable.

It’s strange that the NEH, looking for great works of Muslim literature, did not include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Palace Walk, the first of Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy, shows life, especially for women, under Quranic social authority. Mahfouz opposed Islamists and contended (through a character in one of his novels) that “they wish to drag us back 14 centuries.” Islamists retaliated in 1994 by knifing Mahfouz in the neck: He recovered, but his right arm was paralyzed until his death in 2006.

The work of Egypt-born British historian Bat Ye’or is also crucial: Either The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam or Islam and Dhimmitude (both published by the Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) would introduce readers to a key Muslim concept. From Muhammad’s time to the present, dhimmis were and are conquered people who have to pay extra taxes and put up with enormous scorn and abuse in return for not being murdered. Overall, these scholarly books show that “human rights” is a meaningless term within Islam. Readers who want a shorter book could turn to The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims, edited by Robert Spencer.

(Emily Whitten asked one of the national scholars, Giancarlo Casale, the NEH’s expert on the “connected histories” of Muslims and non-Muslims, to comment on Bat Ye’or’s work on dhimmitude. Casale said, “I am not very familiar with the writings of Bat Ye’or.... It is a status that is in some ways troubling to modern notions of tolerance and equality, because it involved systematic legal discrimination against non-Muslims. On the other hand, it also provided a legal framework to protect the lives and livelihoods of non-Muslims under Muslim rule on a permanent basis.” )

To provide an alternative view to Mattson and Brown’s apologetic for the Quran and Muhammad, one of Ibn Warraq’s books—The Origins of the Koran, Which Koran?, or The Quest for the Historical Muhammad—should have been on the NEH’s reading list. Those looking for background on the idea that the Quran emerged long after Muhammad’s death could go to John Wansbrough’s Quranic Studies, or (for an easier read) Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?.

(Of course, it would have taken an unconventional scholar to have recommended a critic of Islam like Ibn Warraq—someone like Rice University professor David Cook, who teaches courses in the history of Islam. In Understanding Jihad, another book that the NEH should have promoted, Cook wrote that Ibn Warraq has been “devastating in pinpointing the weaknesses in Muslim orthodoxy” and in academia’s “systematic failure to critique the foundational texts of Islam as those of other faiths have been critiqued.”)

A fifth need is for memoirs to provide an alternative view to the glowing pro-Islamism of Aboulela and Ahmed. Ibn Warraq edited Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, which includes moving testimonies by brave men and women now threatened with death because they saw the inadequacy of Islam and refused to pretend. Those wanting to know more about women under Islam could go to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel or Wafa Sultan’s A God Who Hates. Sultan told WORLD, though, that her message is not one Americans want to hear: “It’s hard for you to believe that people can be evil.”

Librarians could reassert the tradition of local library control by stocking these and other unconventional works. For more reading suggestions from Daniel Pipes, other scholars, and myself, please go to the Muslim Journeys tab at worldmag.com. You can also download a PDF of the 953 recipients of NEH largesse and other materials.

—with reporting by Emily Whitten

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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