In recent years, a growing focus of my concern has been the staggering ignorance of millions of young Americans when it comes to certain fundamental and crucially important matters. One of those matters is the evil of Communism: just the other day came news of a report showing that roughly half of young Americans would prefer to live under that system, a clear indication that their history teachers have entirely misinformed them on the topic. Another, related matter is the greatness of America: again, history teachers are at fault, having played up the horrors of slavery, the mistreatment of American Indians, and the debacle of Vietnam (so that some kids actually think America is uniquely evil) while soft-pedaling our nation's role as a revolutionary beacon of freedom, fortress of democracy, and guarantor of world order.
Then there's Islam. As 9/11 has receded year by year into history, kids who weren't even born at the time, or who were just infants, have grown into young adults. And during all these years, while America has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Muslim terrorists have created chaos and taken lives in major cities around the world, what have these kids learned about Islam? With relatively few exceptions, they've been told over and over, by teachers and the media and our presidents (first Bush, then Obama), that Islam is a Religion of Peace, that Muslims who commit acts of terrorism in the name of Allah have misunderstood the faith, and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims love peace and freedom and entirely abhor acts of terror.
They don't know that Islam means submission. They don't see the hijab as a symbol of female oppression. They either don't know the word jihad or have been told that it's a benign concept, referring to inner moral struggle. They don't know about the caliphate. If they've ever read anything from the Koran in school, they've read one or two of the innocuous-sounding tidbits, pulled entirely out of context; they've never read any of the hateful stuff that makes up most of the book. They don't know about the more than a million Europeans who were taken into slavery by Muslims from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. They don't understand that Islam has, from its very birth, been a religion of conquest; that its followers had to be beaten back again and again in their ruthless attempts to take over Europe, attempts which, if successful, would have resulted in the slaughter, enslavement, or forcible conversion of everyone on the continent; that the Crusades were attempts to regain conquered Christian lands, not wars of unprovoked aggression.
You might expect there to be some admirable exceptions to this mass ignorance. Perhaps students at the nation's very best high schools have been taught more about Islam than their counterparts at crummier schools? Perhaps teachers at an elite school in the very shadow of the Freedom Tower in New York, where the Twin Towers once stood, would feel especially obliged to give their students a proper education about Islam?
The terrorist attack on Halloween took place on a thoroughfare that runs right past Stuyvesant High School. It is considered to be the best public high school in the city and one of the best in the country. You have to pass a rigorous test to get in. The school offers a broad and ambitious curriculum, including highly advanced courses in the sciences, and its graduates are sought after by America's so-called “best” colleges (which I increasingly tend to view as its worst, but that's a subject for another piece). Sayfullo Saipov did his evil work at around the time that school was supposed to let out, but because he had turned the neighborhood into a killing field, the school was put on lockdown for two hours. What did the kids at Stuyvesant make of this jihadist atrocity at their doorstep? How have they been taught to think about such horrors? To find out, I pored through some of the social-media exchanges they had that evening and the next day.
One of the first documents I ran across was a letter to the “Stuyvesant Community” from the school's principal, Eric Contreras. The language was familiar. Contreras referred to “the incident that took place outside of Stuyvesant.” He described the violent deaths of the terrorist's victims as a “tragic loss.” And he spoke of “moving forward as a united community.” He conspicuously avoided the words terrorist and terrorism. And of course there was no mention of Islam.
This approach to the “incident” wasn't unique to Contreras. One student praised the faculty and administration for keeping students safe “in the face of the unthinkable” and expressed sympathy for “the victims of this mindless act.” How can you go to school down the street from what was once Ground Zero and call such an event “unthinkable”? How can you be supposedly well educated and call a calculated act of Koran-based jihadist terror “mindless”?
To be sure, Islam did come up. “Oh boy, another bad apple,” wrote one lad with an apparently Bangladeshi name. “Islamophobia, here we come.” A girl with a European-sounding name was baffled: “why do people try to blame a religion for someone being an ass?” Another boy with a Bangladeshi name expressed anger at the media for mentioning Saipov's religion and his shouting of “Allahu akbar.” “Putting our religion on the line,” this kid wrote, “is worse than people dying, since we are targets now.” He maintained that the real problem is not Islam but “white people” and that the solution lies in Communism.
Yes, there were kids who got it and weren't scared to speak out. In arguments with the boy who thinks Communism is the answer, a couple of non-Muslim kids stated that Saipov was obviously an Islamic terrorist and that pointed out plenty of Muslims around the world are, in fact, killing non-Muslims simply for not being Muslims. But other kids argued back with gusto: one insisted that Islamic terror isn't any more widespread than other types of terror; another said that it “doesn't help at all” to focus on Saipov's motive and that doing so was a “tabloid” thing, an act of “yellow journalism”; a third took the position that such actions were the work of “evil...people, not a religion telling them to do something.” The kids debated as to whether this atrocity should even be called a terrorist act, with several blaming the media for linking it to Islam.
In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity in New York, I posted a brief anecdote at City Journal in which I noted that young Americans have learned to view every act of jihadist terror not as yet more proof of Islam's intrinsic insidiousness but as a reason to fret yet again about a “backlash” against Muslims. My niece graduated from Stuyvesant this year and on Halloween was terrified for her classmates and teachers; the next morning, assured that they were all safe, she was mainly worried, sure enough, about what the day would be like for Muslim students at Stuyvesant – as if anything whatsoever would happen to any of them. Has any Stuyvesant faculty member ever told a classroom that there's far more reason to worry about the lot of Christians, Jews, gays, and women in the Muslim world than about Muslims in the Western world?
On November 2, the website of Seventeen ran a piece by one of my niece's friends, a Stuyvesant student named Grace Goldstein, in which she recounted the terror attack from her perspective. She'd been in Jewish History class watching Fiddler on the Roof. (What, I wonder, has she been taught about Jews under Islam?) She mentioned Islam exactly once, telling of a hijab-wearing Muslim classmate who was worried about “being stereotyped and painted as a bad person.” Grace had learned her PC lessons well: she summed up the experience by saying that she and 3,000 other kids had been huddled in the school “scared and worried — not about a political figure or movement...but about one man who was terrorizing our community.” And she expressed the hope that instead of using this event to “divide to perspectives” (sic), people will focus on the victims.
So it stands, sixteen years after 9/11: a girl attending an elite high school down the street from what was once the World Trade Center has learned nothing about Islam except that it's verboten to examine it too closely, to criticize it at all, or – above all – to draw a link between it and the terrorist acts committed in its name. Needless to say, I'm not blaming her or any of those 3,000 other kids. I'm blaming their teachers, all up and down the line, who have failed in their duty to enlighten them about a topic that is, yes, very touchy but from which our society cannot afford to turn away in silence. A free nation whose adult generation regards Islam with a combination of self-censorship, self-deception, and sheer ignorance will not be free for long.