On Friday, State Board of Education members plan to vote on a controversial resolution that is likely to pit them along partisan lines and flare a familiar debate, embattling the board in culture wars once again.
The proposal, which seeks to prevent further instances of a “pro-Islam, anti-Christian bias” in world history textbooks, has elicited condemnation from interfaith leaders and community activists statewide, who point to ideas presented in the document as barriers to religious tolerance.
“This is in line with what is happening with the Muslim community right now in terms of anti-Islamic sentiment,” said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Texas chapter. “There is a real fear of Islam, or Islamophobia, surfacing in many of our institutions today, and this is an overreaching example of how it is happening.”
Brought to the attention of the board by Randy Rives, a failed state board candidate from West Texas, the six-page resolution argues books marginalize Christian beliefs and accomplishments while “sugarcoating” and “censoring” Muslim violence. Rives also contrasts lines of text devoted to each religion, concluding Islam is represented twice as much as Christianity. Patterns of pejoratives toward Christians and superlatives toward Muslims appear in the history books, contends Rives, as well as “sanitized definitions of jihad.”
Echoing the concern of many faith-based leaders, Carroll said the resolution is indicative of the current climate of hostility and may catalyze more anxiety about Muslims in both Texas and the nation.
Discontent from the religious community is growing as evidenced by an open letter, circulated by the Texas Faith Network, with nearly 100 signatures from interfaith clergy in the state requesting the board reject the “inflammatory” resolution. Leaders, who came together to showcase their disapproval during a Monday conference in Austin, noted the board’s failure to solicit the recommendations of scholars and spoke out against religious bigotry.
“It’s important that board members put education ahead of politics and ensure that Texas doesn’t become a poster child for intolerance toward people of any faith,” said Rev. Larry Bethune of University Baptist Church in Austin, during the event.
The resolution was also the subject of an analysis (PDF) conducted by nonprofit watchdog organization and conference host, Texas Freedom Network, which concluded Rives’ claims were, “superficial and grossly misleading.” The report pulled specific examples by page number in the texts to counter key allegations, including refuting the assertion that “world history textbooks ‘whitewash’ Islamic culture by ignoring Muslim practices, involving sexism, slavery and persecution of outside groups,” and debunking Rives’ claim that Middle Eastern textbook investors discriminate content.
According to TFN, several of the allegations were based on either an incomplete review of the textbooks or were taken out of context and, in some cases, portions of text were completely ignored. The report also noted that the books, published in 1999, are no longer in Texas classrooms. Publishers updated the text and released them in 2003.
Rives, author of the proposal and proponent of the hard-right conservative bloc’s voting pattern, said he is unconvinced current text is void of the alleged bias and hopes to see his resolution prevent other cases of perceived inaccuracy.
“It was done in the past, so there is noting to stop it from being in the future,” Rives said. “We want to make sure they are aware and cautious that this doesn’t happen again.”
When asked if he was worried about what the resolution means for the Arab or Muslim community, Rives, who said there is a good chance he will run for state board in 2012 after losing to Bob Craig of Lubbock in the March Republican primary, answered, “No, because I am only addressing the State Board of Education.”
The resolution has not only spurred resistance from clergy and activists, but from a future board member as well. State board candidate and moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, poised to replace Don McLeroy (R-College Station) in January, recently told the Dallas Morning News the measure is illegal and, “in direct conflict with a 1995 state law that limits the board’s authority over textbooks.”
According to the Texas Education Code, the board is tasked with ensuring curriculum standards are covered, books are error-free and bound appropriately. Critics say members have overstepped their scope of responsibilities in the past, most recently in May during social studies curriculum revision meetings, by loosely interpreting their role to ensure “factually accurate” text.
“Under state law the board has very limited editorial authority over textbooks,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, Texas Education Agency communications director. “There are times when they have managed to interpret factually accurate requirements very broadly, and I suspect they may be thinking that this falls under that category.”
Board member McLeroy, expected to vote in favor of the resolution, said the proposal fails to meet a separate section of requirements in the Texas Education Code that compels curriculum to promote, “appreciation for the basic democratic values of our state and national heritage.”
A leading speaker for the hard-right conservative bloc, McLeroy said he considers the alleged misinformation in the text a product of academics that are “hostile to the Judeo-Christian faith that this country is dependent on.”
“Textbook authors have a great fear of being ethnocentric,” said McLeroy. “They don’t want the West to appear superior, which ends up diminishing the role of Christianity and Judaism in these books.”
Mike Pardee, head of Rice University’s Boniuk Center, an organization devoted to religious tolerance, took issue with the resolution, calling it “peculiar and problematic.”
“What is peculiar is that it seems to focus exclusively on only two of the world’s religions: as if Islam and Christianity were competing in a zero-sum way for the hearts and minds of Texas students,” said Pardee. “It seems to be missing the kind of context that only equal attention to all the world’s major faith traditions could bring.”
Pardee, who has a background in education and curricula development, also questioned Rives’ method of criticizing the books.
“The language of the resolution is hardly the kind of dispassionate scholarly discourse appropriate for a balanced evaluation or discussion of curricular objectivity or impartiality. Its impassioned–even strident–tone, in other words, threatens to undermine the credibility of the claims it seeks to advance.”
(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/wohnai)Tags: Cair, Christianity, Don McLeroy, Islam, randy rives, SBOE, State Board of Education, textbooks, Thomas Ratliff