Putting a face on the Arab world, A front page article in the Bergen Record

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Putting a face on the Arab world, A front page article in the Bergen Record

Thursday, November 24, 2005

STAFF WRITERS, Bergen Record

Arab-Americans want Governor-elect Jon Corzine to create a special commission that would have a greater say over what New Jersey schoolchildren are taught about the Middle East.

The Arab Heritage Commission would advise the state Department of Education on how to ensure that public school courses accurately depict Arabs and present a deeper, balanced picture of their predominately Islamic societies.

“In today’s world – where the Mideast is at the center of so many foreign policy and domestic issues – it is more important than ever for American students to have more in-depth knowledge about the [region] and the people who live there,” said Maha Munayyer Kabbash, an attorney in Morris County who sits on the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s board.

Kabbash said she wants New Jersey’s students to learn more about the “culture, ethnic diversity, music and family life that puts a face on the Arab world,” at a time when popular misconceptions about the Middle East are dominated by “images of oil and terrorism.”

Among those championing the idea are several prominent members of New Jersey’s Arab-American community. One is Randy George, the mayor of North Haledon.

Proponents include both Arab Christians and Muslims.

The push to create the advisory commission is the latest step by Arab-Americans to secure a greater voice in New Jersey’s public discourse and political life..
New Jersey has one of the nation’s largest Arab-American communities. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates there are 250,000 Arab-Americans living in the state; the Census Bureau puts the number at 80,000.

The proposal is not without precedent. New Jersey already has two similar educational commissions – one focusing on the Holocaust and another on Italian-Americans.

“We’re not asking for something unique,” said Aref Assaf, who is president of the American Arab Forum, an interest group..
Etzion Neuer, director for New Jersey office of Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, said he welcomes the creation of an Arab Heritage Commission.
“I think it’s a positive step,” he said. “When we look at New Jersey as a multicultural state, there is something to be gained if we’re talking about building and strengthening the cultural identity of Arab-Americans.”

Neuer said New Jersey’s Jewish community would be concerned, however, if the proposed commission became a vehicle for promoting a political agenda..
“I could envision some sticking points if we come across the issue of Palestine/Israel,” he said. “There is a tendency for Palestinian-oriented programs to become anti-Israel. We’d want to talk a closer look to see what [the commission] stands for.”

Balance urged

Kabbash, the Morristown attorney who also serves on the Arab/Muslim Advisory Council of the state Attorney General’s Office, said any teaching about that disputed region of the Middle East should be presented in a balanced fashion.

She said students should learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via “a depiction of both sides of the story” that puts “facts from both sides at their disposal.”;
The state Department of Education already requires school districts to teach about the Israel/Palestine conflict, said Jon Zlock, an agency spokesman.
“We also require teaching about the Gulf War, the war in Iraq, the oil crisis and the impact of oil-producing countries on the world economy,” as well as Islam, Zlock said.

But decisions on how these subjects are taught, the depth of instruction, and which textbooks and other course materials to use are left entirely to school districts, he said.

Assaf, who lives in Denville, has been working to promote the concept of an Arab Heritage Commission for several years.
He said he is “very optimistic” that Corzine will adopt the proposal after he is sworn in as governor in January.
Assaf said he received private assurances from Corzine confidants before the Nov. 8 election that the Democrat will “endorse” the concept.
He said he has met with Corzine and his staff to discuss the issue on several occasions and believes the commission’s mission “fits within the great design” of the Democrat’s world view.

“Considering 9/11, considering the war in Iraq and the continuing misperceptions between Arabs, Muslims and the United States, we envision the commission will attempt to improve this environment,” Assaf said. “It is in our common interest for both communities to come to a better understanding.”;
Corzine has not yet decided publicly whether to create the Arab Heritage Commission.

“These are the kinds of questions we’ll address when Governor-elect Corzine is in office,” said Andrew Poag, a spokesman for his transition office. “This will be something that will get serious consideration at that time.”

Inaccurate textbooks

Some scholars who study Islam and the Middle East have been critical of many textbooks used by American schoolchildren. Some contain information that is inaccurate or filled with stereotypes, they say.

“Some textbooks … say some horrible things about the prophet Muhammad and the [Islamic] religion itself,” said Yvonne Y. Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Many textbooks don’t even have a Muslim component.”;
Often missing is the sweeping narrative of the Islamic world’s rich history, Haddad said, and its “contribution to science, civilization and man are not there.” Sometimes in supplementary classroom materials, she said, distorted portraits are painted: The Arabs are depicted as backwards and Muslims are depicted as terrorists.

To address such concerns, the Middle East Outreach Council, an organization of U.S. academics, will undertake a comprehensive review next year of all history and geography textbooks used in high schools and junior high schools across the nation.

Few details have been worked out about precisely what New Jersey’s commission would do. But Assaf, the chief proponent behind the plan, wants every New Jersey public school teaching the culture, history and heritage of both Arabs and Arab-Americans.

A number of states already require schoolchildren to learn about the Middle East as part of their world history and geography studies, experts say. But sometimes these efforts meet with resistance.

On occasion, parents have “effectively blocked the teaching of anything to do with Islam,” said Leslie Nucho, vice president of Amideast, a non-partisan organization that works to strengthen cooperation between Americans and the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

“To me that is irresponsible,” said Nucho, whose group is based in Washington. “The U.S. is the biggest world power. If we don’t learn about the world, than we can’t use our power responsibly. It is our obligation as American citizens to learn about the world.”

E-mail: maddux@northjersey.com and varoqua@northjersey.com

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