Book controversies in schools defy easy answers

Sunday, August 13, 2000

Last week, I told you about efforts to ban Harry Potter books from public schools. Not only does Harry top the bestseller lists, he's also the number-one target for removal from classrooms and libraries.

But Harry has plenty of company. According to the American Library Association, there were 478 efforts to remove books from schools in 1998-1999 alone.

Some civil libertarians are quick to characterize any and all challenges to books as attacks on free expression that must be resisted at all costs. But a closer look reveals that some of these cases involve deep convictions and complex issues that defy easy answers.

Consider the current fight over The Terrorist by Carole B. Cooney, a book on the recommended-reading list for middle-school children in the state of Texas.

Muslim parents in one Texas district recently demanded that this book be taken off the list and removed from school libraries. They charge that The Terrorist is full of “false allegations about Muslim traditions” and “promotes hate towards Islam and Muslims.”

After a formal review process, the school district has decided to keep the book.

In sorting out this conflict, the first step is, of course, to actually read the book. (First Harry, and now terrorism. It's been a long summer.)

In the opening chapter, 11-year-old Billy is killed by a package bomb handed to him in a London tube (subway) station. The rest of the book focuses on the efforts of his 16-year-old sister to find out who killed Billy and why.

Without detailing the plot, let's just say that the killer turns out to be — you guessed it — a Muslim.

Along the way, the reader gets a decidedly nasty view of Islam. Broad generalizations uncritically link Islam with terrorism, and many passages throughout the book portray Islam as a faith that oppresses women.

Sound familiar? Sure it does. These are stereotypes widely believed in our society and frequently reinforced by the media.

Unfortunately, this author makes little attempt to distinguish the Islamic faith as practiced by the vast majority of Muslims from various political movements that wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam. And no effort is made to offer more than one point of view about the role of women in Islam.

These distortions are made worse by the fact that students are unlikely to learn much more than this about Muslims during their public-school education. World history or geography textbooks may touch on Islam, but the treatment of Muslim beliefs and practices is superficial and sometimes inaccurate.

Given these problems, did the Texas school district make the right decision about The Terrorist?

Yes and no.

Yes, I would keep the book in school libraries.

Any number of books read by young adults — Huck Finn comes to mind — contain passages that some may find offensive or insensitive. If we removed all of the books that every group finds objectionable, the shelves would soon be empty.

But no, I wouldn't keep it on my recommended-reading list. With all of the outstanding books written for young people, there's no need to promote one with this many inaccurate and offensive passages.

The bigger challenge is to make sure that students are learning about the world's major faith communities from books that are scholarly and balanced.

A good start would be to ensure that every school library has Religion in American Life, a 17-volume series published by Oxford University Press. Written for young adults by outstanding scholars, this series is an excellent introduction to the major religious traditions and to the role of religion in our nation's history.

This is important. Unless students have an accurate understanding of at least the major religious traditions, how will they be prepared to live in a world where religion still plays a critical role in human affairs?

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