Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Stacking library shelves

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

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

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.”

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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.

—with reporting by Emily Whitten


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