Textbooks maintain Islam was 'evil', says historian

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Today's pupils are still being taught a `narrow and unbalanced' image of Muslims during the Crusades claims lecturer who fears negative bias

Muslims are one-dimensional villains: deceitful, barbarous aggressors prone to motiveless violence. This is the one-sided version of history that has been taught in British schools for centuries, and is still present today.

Generations of children have been taught that Muslims are irrational evildoers, out to destroy the property of others, according to Fiona Kisby Littleton, of St Edmund's College, Ware, and Winchester University, who examined history textbooks published between 1790 and the present day.

She studied books covering the Crusades to determine how classroom representations of Islam have changed over time. In fact, she found remarkable consistency.

Throughout the 19th century, legendary accounts of English kings were used to promote entirely negative views of Muslims. For example, several tell the story of Prince Edward, stabbed by an emissary from the Emir of Joppa, despite this account having no evidence to support it.

"It exposed pupils to a tale of unprovoked Muslim attacks on the English, where no motive was given, and only the uncontrolled and unexplained evil of the East was exposed," she said.

This version of history also presented the kings as gallant heroes: an 1890 textbook refers to Richard I as "tall, stalwart and handsome, fair- haired and blue-eyed". Their pale-skinned English valour is contrasted with the treachery of the "swarthy Oriental". Muslims, many of whom took their religion very seriously, were seen as "infidels", "unbelievers" and "evildoers".

In contrast to Richard I, the Muslim leader Saladin was characterised as an "aggressor", "trickster" and "destroyer". Even in the late 20th century, textbooks tended to depict Richard as the peacemaker and Saladin as the passive conquered party.

Such attitudes persist today. In a 2002 textbook, Richard is described as "the best military commander of his day", who "wanted to capture Jerusalem from the Turkish Muslims". No explanation of the Turks' motives is given.

"Muslims appear as rebels without a cause, part of a one-dimensional culture and civilisation," said Dr Kisby Littleton. "This forms part of the national memory of many persons still living."

Eventually, history lessons became more than a list of monarchical adventures. But the presentation of Muslims did not change significantly. For example, a 1962 textbook refers to a "relentless ring of barbarians" desperate to plunder Constantinople. (It admits that Europeans also looted and plundered, but this was only because they mistakenly thought they were looting from Muslims.)

Whenever children were tested about the Crusades, they were expected simply to regurgitate the biased views of their textbooks. In 1908, for example, pupils were asked: "What were the Crusades? Sketch the principal events connected with the first Crusade." In 1959, a textbook posed the question: "In what ways was the Mohammedan religion: a) better than the old Arabic religion; and b) not so good as Christianity?"

By 2002, pupils were asked more temperate questions: "Is there anything within source C to suggest that the chronicle is biased towards the Christian Crusaders?" But they are not provided with a balanced range of source material - the inclusion of a contemporary Muslim account is rare.

Indeed, Dr Kisby Littleton concludes that a recent publication date is no guarantee that a textbook will represent the Islamic world fairly or objectively.

"Representations of the Islamic world, its people, culture and religion . often present an unfair, unbalanced, narrow and biased image to Western children," she said.

"More importantly, Muslims are often . understood to be motiveless and without complex concerns of their own, which may have developed over many generations. In these circumstances, they are easily dismissed, disparaged and demonised."


Muslims maligned

The Turks "treated the Christian pilgrims with rudeness and barbarity" (1807).

- "Whilst we have been gaining and improving knowledge . the Turks and all the people of the East have been standing absolutely still" (1823).

- "Holy places . conquered by the Seljukian Turks, who treated the Christians with the utmost insolence and cruelty, and profaned the Holy Sepulchre" (1860).

- In 1192 "a victory . saved Jaffa from the Turks" (1910).

- Islam was a "rival to the Christian religion . possible that Mohammedanism might destroy Christianity and take its place as the religion of the civilised world" (1959).

- The Turks are an "evil race", who "ambushed and massacred" Christians (1988).


Richard I "behaved in all things with exceeding great courage, insomuch that the glory of the king of England eclipsed the glory of all the Christian princes" (1799).

- "Richard I was tall, stalwart and handsome, fair-haired and blue-eyed . Of reckless bravery, he would peril his life for the sake of adventure" (1890).

- Crusaders are described by an eyewitness as "people whose faces shone with good humour and a desire to obey the will of God" (1988).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today