It appeared that Texas had finished battling over textbooks — with social conservatives winning a clear victory in May — but the Texas State Board of Education is taking up another explosive curriculum question: Are Texan youth being fed a sugar-coated version of Islam while Christianity is unfairly taken to task for its sins?
At a three-day meeting that started Wednesday, the board is scheduled to consider a resolution that would require it to reject textbooks that it determines are tainted with teaching “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian half-truths and selective disinformation,” a bias that it argues is reflected in current schoolbooks.
“I think our documentation clearly shows that the bias is there,” said Randy Rives of Odessa, who drafted the resolution. “And we feel that it was not done on accident.”
The discussion comes as Americans’ distrust of Islam is on the rise, possibly as a result of a bitter controversy over the proposed construction of a mosque near “Ground Zero” of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City. A national poll released earlier this week by the Angus Reid polling firm found that a narrow majority of Americans holds a generally unfavorable opinion of Islam, with 45 percent saying it is a religion that encourages violence. By contrast, only one American in 10 believes that either Christianity or Judaism "encourages violence,” the poll found.
While proponents of the Texas textbook resolution insist that they merely want to provide balance, charges of Islamophobia are already being leveled.
The Texas Freedom Network, a liberal religion and education watchdog group, did a point-by-point analysis and rebuttal of the resolution, which it described as “ill considered” and “filled with superficial, misleading and half-baked claims designed simply to promote fear and religious prejudice.”
Texas speaks, publishers listen
The sheer size of Texas’ textbook market means that the state’s requirements and sensitivities have considerable influence on what publishers produce.
That’s because Texas is the largest of about 20 “adoption” states that make decisions about textbooks at the central level — effectively dictating what some 4.7 million K-12 public school students in the state will read. That also means its textbook contracts are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If you don’t play by the rules set by the state, you don’t play,” said Lorraine Shanley, a principal with the publishing consultant Market Partners International in New York. “So it’s not quite the same as being a trade book publisher where a store won’t take your books because they are too risqué.”
So publishers are likely to take heed when the school board seizes upon an issue like the teaching of Islam, said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the resolution.
“Publishers take this kind of thing seriously and will do everything in their power — rewrite and revise — to make sure their book doesn’t become a hot button point of contention,” he said. “Publishers have Texas under the microscope.”
Rives, a member of the Odessa, Texas, school board who lost his bid for the GOP nomination in state board primaries earlier this year, was nonetheless able get his resolution on the agenda with support from the board’s powerful conservative bloc. He said he drafted it after conducting his own analysis of the textbooks, with the help of his wife and others.
One of his supporters was board member Don McLeroy, a key player in pushing through changes to economics and history curriculum standards for public school students in May. Among those changes were provisions calling for curriculum to emphasize the importance of capitalism, raise doubts that the doctrine of separation of church and state is embedded in the Constitution and cover “the unintended consequences” of progressive “Great Society” legislation, affirmative action and Title IX, a 1972 act that mandated equal access to federally funded programs for girls, most notably for sports programs.
McLeroy said he believes that academic writers skew to the left politically and repeatedly denigrate the importance of Christianity in American culture.
“I think there is a bias,” he said. “How can we go forward as a great society unless the children know what the truth is?”
Among the assertions in the resolution are that world history textbooks currently in use:
- “Dwell” on atrocities committed by Christian Crusaders during the Middle Ages while ignoring similar acts by Muslims.
- Provide sanitized definitions of “jihad” and ignore Muslim practices involving sexism, slavery and persecution of non-Muslim groups.
- Devote significantly more coverage of Islamic beliefs, practices and holy writings than they do on Christianity.
It also predicts that “more discriminatory treatment of religion” may occur as more “Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly” — a reference to an investment by the Dubai royal family that gave it a minority stake in major K-12 textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Harcourt Education.
The New York Times on Thursday quoted a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as saying the family’s investment arm, Istithmar World Capital, lost its stake in the publishing house after the publishing company restructured its debt earlier this year.
To be sure there are more scholarly arguments along these lines than those laid out in the resolution.
Gilbert Sewall, founder of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit that reviews history and social studies textbooks used in U.S. schools, said that the reasoning in the document is flawed and doesn’t accurately reflect his extensive research on bias in textbooks. Nonetheless, he is generally sympathetic to its intent.
“My complaint is the misinformation and selected information that attend chapters on Islam,” Sewall wrote in an email response to queries from msnbc.com. “The resolution is correct that textbooks routinely doctor the meaning of jihad (or fail to cover it) and that Muslim intolerance/military aggression, (is) soft-pedaled or excised.”
In a 2008 report called “Islam in the Classroom,” Sewall argued that progressive politics and “multiculturalism” have undermined textbook accuracy.
“Islamists use the rhetoric of diversity, rights, tolerance and democracy to use the struggle over textbooks to their advantage,” he wrote. The result, he says, is a publishing industry that “resists ugly facts about Islam.”
He also makes the case that the omissions actually pose a security risk for the nation.
“From what they read in history textbooks, students and teachers are not likely to grasp why the United States and its allies consider militant Islam an enemy,” Sewall wrote.
From Ahmed Rehab’s point of view, however, American culture — including textbooks — routinely vilifies Islam and focuses unduly on the militaristic aspects of the religion.
“Islam has a wealthy history that goes beyond the battles, in the arts and cultures and sciences,“ said Rehab, spokesman for the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR). “There’s this strange attempt to portray anything Islamic as uniquely bad.
“When someone comes along and then speaks the truth, or basically renders an accurate account of reality, then (readers) are shocked and confused because it goes against everything they have heard, therefore it must be a lie. It’s what I call willful ignorance.”
How the debate over Texas standards plays out will depend, long term, on the makeup of the board. All board members will be up for election in 2012, and implementation of any new textbook standard would come only after that. Budgetary constraints may slow it down further. In the interim, there is discussion of requiring textbook companies to create supplements to address the new standards.
For now, though, the fight is among the same board members who have been slugging it out over creationism, evolution and sex education— five Democrats, and 10 Republicans.
The resolution has a 50-50 chance of approval, according to Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, depending on moderate Republicans who make up the swing vote.
But even before the formal debate, the fireworks have begun.
On Monday, the interfaith Texas Faith Network wrote an open letter to the board calling on it to reject the resolution, which it describes as “misleading and inflammatory.”
“Together we are speaking out against divisive attacks directed toward any religion,” said Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Austin’s Congregation Agudas Achim, a member of the group. “Religious bigotry has no place in our society, and especially not in our children’s textbooks and classrooms.”
The letter has been signed by 100 Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy around the country.
Conservatives at the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that champions a conservative Christian agenda, quickly responded, attacking what they called "the usual band of Austin liberals."
“And I thought these liberal groups wanted separation of church and state, so why are they encouraging pastors to get involved in government decisions and using teaching of faith and morals to support their position?” said Liberty Institute attorney Jonathan Saenz in comments posted on the organization’s blog. “Once again, the double standard plagues the liberal left, particularly this same group of a handful of ‘Keep Austin Weird’ pastors.”
But Jill Carroll, adjunct associate professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston, said that argument doesn't hold water. She sees two factors — fear and opportunity — as being behind the resolution.
“To be fair to this group, there’s probably a lot of trepidation,” she said, referring to the conservative board members. “They have a history of being alarmed by any kind of instruction about any kind of religion besides Christianity.
But the debate also dovetails with a national "frenzy" aimed at heightening fears of Islam as voters are preparing to go to the polls, she said.
“There’s this frenzy that is getting whipped up … It’s not an accident that we are about 40 days from national elections," Carroll said. "There are people who benefit by stirring up fear in the general population about certain people in our society — whether they are immigrants or