The Center City offices of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Council on American-Islamic Relations may be separated by just a few blocks, but their interpretations of a new series of books on Islam couldn't be farther apart.
CAIR-Pennsylvania is calling on schools and libraries nationwide to return the books, which are geared for middle and high school students and deal with topics including radical Islam, Islam in America and Jewish-Islamic relations.
The advocacy group claims that the school books paint a distorted and inaccurate picture of Islam and Muslims worldwide. FPRI, a Philadelphia-based think tank with strong Jewish ties that acted as a consultant on the series, maintains that the books are fair, accurate and balanced.
The dispute shines a spotlight on CAIR, a national organization that many in the Jewish community regard with deep suspicion. The group, critics claim, had ties to Hamas and has been supportive of Palestinian terrorism. CAIR denies these charges and asserts that it opposes all terrorism.
The controversy also raises questions about how Islam is taught in schools, what materials are appropriate, and to what extent elements within Islam can fairly be criticized without evoking some sort of media reprisal from Muslim organizations.
"A book is about a theme, and when you finish reading these books, you walk away with the impression that Muslims are inherently violent, that Islam is a second-rate religion and that one should be very wary of Muslims in any society," Moein Khawaja, civil rights director of CAIR-Pennsylvania, said during a March 17 news conference here.
But according to FPRI — which in addition to its policy work seeks to promote international literacy in the classroom — this couldn't be more inaccurate. The group countered that the books clearly delineate the difference between the majority of Muslims and the minority who may have embraced extremism.
"They have simply misconstrued the meaning of the books," said Alan Luxenberg, vice president of FPRI and author of Radical Islam, one of the volumes in the recently released "World of Islam" series.
Luxenberg, who also teaches Hebrew school at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, wasn't allowed into the CAIR news conference but stood outside, handing out printed versions of FPRI's response to the journalists in attendance.
CAIR, Luxenberg said in an interview, sees "criticism of some Muslims and an ideology as criticism of all Muslims. But it is not."
The new series was produced by the Broomall-based Mason Crest Publishers, which oversaw the project. Luxenberg said FPRI acted as a consultant, but the publishing house retained editorial control.
Mason Crest did not immediately return a call requesting comment.
None of the authors in the series are Muslim and a number happen to be Jewish.
Khawaja labeled FPRI a pro-war, right-leaning organization. Luxenberg said the organization is devoted to debate and scholarship rather than advocating specific policies. Khawaja also claimed that the books were tarnished by citing scholar Daniel Pipes, a former FPRI director who is considered a harsh critic of Islamic extremism.
Luxenberg said that Pipes was one of many scholars cited, including some with opposing perspectives, and that he was not directly involved in the project.
Pipes circulated his own e-mail on the controversy, which contained what he said were excerpts of e-mails sent by CAIR staff members. Pipes declined to say how he obtained the messages.
In Pipes' e-mail, Karen Dabdoub, of CAIR's Cincinnati chapter, is quoted as saying that "many of these authors have names that at the very least sound Jewish and none that sound like Muslim names. While I know we can't judge a book by its cover it still gives me reason to doubt the balance of the information in these books."
Khawaja declined to comment on the authenticity of the e-mails, adding that Pipes "doesn't support Muslims living in the United States" and that Pipes should address the content of the textbooks rather than make accusations against CAIR.
Pipes countered that he has no problems with Muslims but is opposed to Islamists living in the United States. CAIR, he said, is pursuing an extremist agenda through non-violent means.
"It would be like in 1942 having a Nazi offshoot in the United States," he said. "They are not engaging in physical war but they are promulgating the ideas of our enemies."
Khawaja, citing an instance of what he called bias, quoted a sentence from the title Islam in America that read "… Muslims began immigrating to the United States in order to transform American society, sometimes through the use of terrorism."
FPRI countered that this partial use of a quote was representative of CAIR's attempts to defame the project. By omitting certain key phrases, including the word "some" from the sentence, CAIR changed its entire meaning, according to Luxenberg.