New school textbooks negate their own promotion of tolerance

December 28, 2015

(An Arabic version of this article was published on 7iber on September 16, 2015)

By Dalal Salameh, translated by Orion Wilcox

(Photo by Razan Salhi)

In early August 2015, the Ministry of Education held a National Education Conference to present its vision for the improvement of educational curriculums for all twelve grades levels of formal public education.

The conference came after the Ministry previously completed a modification of the curriculums for seven grade levels, including the curriculums for first through third grades, launched at the start of last school year, and the curriculums for fourth through sixth and ninth grades, upon which instruction began at the start of the current school year.

One of the conference’s sessions was devoted to a discussion of the instruction of values and morality in the new school textbooks. The Ministry presented a table of “ethical values” contained in the new curriculums that included citizenship, acceptance of others’ opinions, plurality, tolerance and repudiation of extremism and violence. These values were then compared to those found in curriculums from countries such as Canada, Sweden, Finland and South Korea. Following this comparison, the Ministry concluded that the new and improved Jordanian curriculums were in alignment with those of leading nations on education, given that they contained the same values.

However, a reading of the new textbooks’ contents reveals a contradiction between the values promoted and the backdrop against which this promotion takes place. In essence, the new school textbooks explain to students the concept of “plurality” and encourage its adoption, while at the same time presenting a singular, limited vision of society. Lessons call on students to be tolerant of others, while, at the same time, obscuring these “others” by not providing any unbiased description of them—a requirement of understanding and acceptance. Although complete sections are devoted to the discussion of “citizenship,” the concept of citizenship based on equality between all citizens is pulverized by the fact that the contents display a clear bias toward one set of citizens at the expense of others—a bias at times based on religion and at times based on gender.

Those in the Ministry of Education turned a blind eye to this contradiction because they assumed that the mere mentioning of concepts such as citizenship, diversity, equality and free-thinking meant that these textbooks had accomplished what was expected of them. This type of thinking ignores the fact that if education is to be an effective tool for developing ethical values it must be based, first, on a clearly identifiable vision of the values intended to make up students’ intellectual, emotional and behavioral development and, second, on a true will to implement that vision. Without this vision and the will to execute it, promotion of these values in textbooks will remain ineffective—incapable of breathing life into a list of “values” on a conference power-point and transforming students’ behavior in the real world.

Islam as the single basis from which to explain and interact with the world

One of the shortcomings of the previous school textbooks was that they imprisoned students in a bubble—masking the true religious and intellectual diversity of Jordanian society and presenting Islam as the single basis from which students could understand and engage with the world.

While the new school textbooks contain a substantial discussion of this diversity, the curriculum continues to maintain a singular vision of Jordanian society. For example, Islamic texts, including Quranic verses, Traditions of the Prophet and stories from Islamic history, are heavily employed to explain basic concepts, outside of the Islamic Studies curriculum. Throughout, human values are presented as Islamic values.

Arabic Language textbooks are effectively additional Islamic Education textbooks. In 11 of 32 Arabic lessons (34%) the primary reading is an Islamic text1. Moreover, the use of an Islamic text as a primary reading means that the lesson’s corresponding questions, drills and activities are also, in most cases, of a religious nature. This does not mean that the remaining lessons are free of religious rhetoric. 18 of the remaining 21 lessons contain a large number of references to Islamic texts in the drills, activities and skill-development sections corresponding to the primary reading.

A calculation of references to Islamic texts in lessons corresponding to primary readings reveals the following: In 23 out of 32 conversation practice lessons (72%) students were requested to include Islamic texts in their conversations. In 15 out of 32 activities (47%) students were tasked with reviewing Islamic sources and extracting relevant texts. In 12 out of 32 listening activities (36%), the listening material was an Islamic text. Finally, 20 lessons on writing skills (67%) contained reference to Islamic texts and in 11 out of 24 writing assignments (46%), in fourth through sixth grade textbooks, students were required to use an Islamic text in their essays2.

It is through the Islamic texts referenced above that students learn most of the ethical values contained in public school textbooks. Students learn the value of hard work, almsgiving to the poor, respect for freedom, the value of seeking knowledge, humility, respect for one’s parents, generosity, tolerance, and civility in speech and decorum. However, no one has told these students that these are universal human values, shared by the adherents of myriad belief systems around the world. Rather, these values have been tied exclusively to Islam and presented as an exceptional feature of the religion.

The use of Islamic texts is also found in the textbooks for civic education and social studies. In the fourth grade, for example, students learn about conservation of national resources, such as water and electricity, through Islamic texts. The social studies textbook for the same grade level describes “Jordanian customs and traditions” such as hospitality, good neighborliness and respect for elders as “Islamic values” passed down to Jordanians from their ancestors3. The book then furthers this conflation between Jordan and Islam when it describes Jordan as a “Muslim” country rather than a country with a “Muslim majority.” So despite stating that Muslims and Christians live in an “environment of tolerance and religious coexistence,” the text does so after having decided in the previous sentence that “the national religion is Islam.”4

In the same manner, the civic education textbook for the fifth grade level begins by describing to students the concept of citizenship through an Islamic text5 and later prefaces a discussion of the importance of education as a necessary service provided by the state with yet another Islamic text6. Later, in a lesson on public facilities, the text exclusively lists the mosque as the only religious institution that must be maintained by the public7.

At the sixth grade level, the textbook prefaces a lesson on the concept of the family with an Islamic text8 and allocates a portion of the lesson to an explanation of the importance of the family in Islam9. Later, in a lesson on Jordanian society, students are told that Jordanian society is characterized by “plurality, diversity and co-existence.” However, when the lesson actually discusses this “diversity,” it limits itself to describing diversity of lifestyles (nomadic, rural and urban) and makes no reference to religious diversity10. The textbook presents four “communal values” held by Jordanian society: generosity, tolerance, cooperation and respect for elders; three of the four values are explained by Islamic texts11. When it comes to describing the concept of “social solidarity” in Jordanian society, the text also relies on an Islamic text12 and a section of the lesson is devoted to explaining social solidarity in Islam13. Finally, the text identifies three prerequisites for “communal coexistence” (dialogue, tolerance and conflict resolution), all of which are explained by Islamic texts14.

In the ninth grade Civic Education textbook, an explanation of the concept of plurality is prefaced by an Islamic text15. Later, units on human rights as well as women’s and children’s rights are preceded by an extensive explanation of human rights in Islam16. At one point the text states that the protection of children’s rights in “Islam… predated children’s rights organizations by 14 centuries.”17 Finally, in a unit on democracy, the text prefaces an explanation of democratic principles with a comparison between democracy and the concept of Shura (consultation) in Islamic rule. The text says that Shura is distinct from democracy in that its “practice is based on the legal authority of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, whereas democracy is based on secular laws.”18

To conclude, most ethical values learned by students, even outside of the Islamic Studies curriculum, are presented and explained by Islamic texts, thereby cementing Islam in students’ minds as the single basis from which to view the world. This is exactly what the old textbooks did and it is what the new textbooks continue: imprisoning students in a bubble and berating them with ready-made answers for all basic questions. This is accompanied by a complete absence of any unbiased descriptions of other religious denominations or intellectual traditions from around the world. So despite that the new textbooks call on students to accept and respect other belief systems, this acceptance and respect is not found anywhere in the books other than as an abstract and ambiguous idea.

Masculinizing values after their Islamification

There is not only a religious bias in the new textbooks but also a gender bias. An analysis of the Arabic Language textbooks mentioned above shows that in grammar examples in which the learning objective could have been accomplished by either a male or female central character, the examples contained a male character 85% of the time.

Of course, we are not demanding some sort of “quota system” between fictional male and female characters in grammar drills. Rather, the issue here is that these grammar drills—the primary objective of which is to teach language skills—are being used to reaffirm the values implicitly contained in the readings’ contents. The vast majority of the characters in the text are positive. Therefore, the insistence on “masculinizing” these positive characters in a way masculinizes the very values they implicitly represent; in a reminder of the “Islamification” of these same values previously discussed. Meanwhile, the new textbooks confirm, in multiple places, the importance of women’s rights, exposing once again the contradiction between the books’ superficial rhetoric and actual content.

The past as an idyllic present

This contradiction between the supposed message of the new textbooks and the medium in which this message is actually delivered leads to confusion upon any close reading. One place where this confusion arises is during the textbooks’ enigmatic presentation of the concept of “Jihad.” In the ninth grade Islamic Studies textbook students read that Jihad “is a means for Muslims to defend themselves and their country,”19 that Muslims have “made peace with those that were peaceful towards them and war with those who waged war against them”20 and that Muslims do not “bring wars with their enemies.”21 However, that same book describes the Muslim’s “conquest” of the Roman controlled Levant during the period of the Rashidun caliphate as “Jihad.”22

By this point students have already learned in the fifth grade Arabic Language textbook that the Muslim wars of conquests in North Africa were also “Jihad.” In describing these wars, in which the Muslim armies were led by the Islamic commander Uqba bin Nafi, the book states that “the conquests and military battles fought by [Uqba] were simply a means for the Muslims to transmit to the people the principles of the one true religion—to enter them into Islam. Therefore, [Uqba] is most worthy of the credit for spreading Islam and the Arabic language in North Africa.”23

These conflicts are not taught to students in the context of a historical past assumed to be different than today’s world. Moreover, students are never told that what was considered normal in the past (i.e. entering into wars to spread religion) is no longer acceptable today. Rather, the textbooks discuss these conflicts in a nostalgia charged rhetoric that transforms the period of Islamic conquests from a historical period into an idyllic present. Finally, the text presents a double standard: the wars fought by Muslims when faced with an outside attack are justified as a defense of country and religion. However, the wars begun by Muslims are “a means for the [them] to transmit to the people the principles of the one true religion—to enter them into Islam.”

In this same vein, the ninth grade Civic Education textbook teaches students that Islam gives individuals “freedom of belief in embracing the religion of which they are convinced.”24 However, this contradicts the sixth grade Islamic Studies textbook that describes the war fought by the Caliph Abu Bakr as-Sadiq against the Arab tribes that renounced Islam after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) as “Jihad.” The textbook later confirms this description when it mentions that a large number of those who had memorized the Quran were “martyred” during the fighting against the “apostates.”25

The new textbooks send another ambiguous message during a comparison of the principles of governance in Islam and modern democracy. In a ninth grade Islamic Studies lesson on the system of governance in Islam, students read that religious texts provide an outline for a general system of governance, however, individuals are able to derive the mechanisms and details of this system through independent reasoning in order to keep pace with world developments.26 Additionally, the Civic Education textbook from the same grade-level contains a unit on democracy prefaced by an extensive discussion on Shura in Islam.27

The source of ambiguity here is that despite the fact that this Civic Education textbook provides an extensive explanation of democracy, lists its principles and forms and calls on students to become involved in its activities, it precedes all of this by saying that the virtue of Shura is that its “practice is based on the legal authority of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, whereas democracy is based on secular laws.” In this single phrase students are told that Shura is distinct from democracy because it is governed by God’s law as found in the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet. Moreover, this distinction is corroborated by saying that democracy is governed by “secular laws” with the well-known negative connotation that phrase holds when used in comparison to religious laws.

Returning again to the previously mentioned ninth grade Islamic Education textbook, we find a unit that concludes that “Islam is capable of improving peoples’ lives in all places and in all ages.”28 Taken together, the message sent by these texts is confusing. Are students to understand that modern democracy is simply part of the “mechanisms and details” derived by “individual reasoning” in order to “keep pace with world developments?” Or is it something else, given that it is based on “secular laws” that do not conform with “the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet?”

These are questions with no easy answers—part and parcel to the ambiguous contradictions found in our new school textbooks that, despite being full of references to diversity, coexistence, plurality, free-thinking and tolerance of others, in the end present a very limited moral example. They are not, as we had hoped, windows into a world full of life, ideas, religions, ethnicities, colors and possibilities.


1 The analysis in this report includes the textbooks for Arabic Language, Civic Education, Social Studies, Islamic Studies and History for fourth through sixth and ninth grades. 7iber previously published a study on textbooks for the first three grade levels.
2“Social Studies,” Section One, Fourth Grade, Page 25
3Previous reference
4“Social Studies,” Section One, Fifth Grade, Page 13
5 Previous reference, Page 33
6Previous reference, Page 29
7“Civic Education,” Section One, Sixth Grade, Page 12
8Previous reference, Page 15
9Previous reference, Page 17
10Previous reference, Page 18
11Previous reference, Page 21
12Previous reference
13Previous reference, Pages 30, 34, 40
14“Civic Education,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Page 38
15Previous reference, Pages 15-18
16Previous reference, Page 24
17Previous reference, Page 31
18“Islamic Studies,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Page 76
19Previous reference, Page 120
20Previous reference, Page 121
21Previous reference, Page 76
22“Arabic Language,” Section One, Fifth Grade, Page 77
23“Civic Education,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Page 16
24“Islamic Studies,” Section One, Sixth Grade, Page 15
25“Islamic Studies,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Page 64
26“Civic Education,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Pages 30-31
27Previous reference, Page 31
28“Islamic Studies,” Section One, Ninth Grade, Page 66