Mark Chancey: Islam resolution reflects frightening agenda

SMU Professor of Religious Studies Mark Chancey talks about a resolution on Islam that the Texas State Board of Education is considering for textbook entries on the world's major religions.

By Mark Chancey

Let's not pretend that the resolution on Islam that the Texas State Board of Education is considering is about balance in textbook coverage of the world's major religions. While its final lines sound reasonable – "reject future prejudicial Social Studies submissions" that have "significant inequalities of coverage space-wise" or that reflect bias "by demonizing or lionizing" one religion over others – the rest of it is clearly not about fairness. It is about fear – specifically, fear of Muslims, including, presumably, the numerous Texas Muslims among the board's constituents.

If the resolution were really motivated by concern for various religions, we might expect it to at least mention them. But it names only two traditions, Islam and Christianity, which it presupposes are in conflict. Its first line complains that "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias has tainted some past Texas Social Studies textbooks." It later objects that "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian half-truths, selective disinformation, and false editorial stereotypes still roil some Social Studies textbooks nationwide." In its rhetoric, the terms "pro-Islamic" and "anti-Christian" go hand in hand; whatever is "pro-Islamic" is by definition "anti-Christian."

The evidence the resolution provides is unconvincing. It asserts that some textbooks devote more coverage to Islam than to Christianity and that they often play down negative aspects of Islam but emphasize negative aspects of Christianity. Others have observed that these arguments misrepresent the textbooks in question, sometimes egregiously so. The more remarkable fact is that the resolution's complaints focus on 1999 editions that do not even circulate in Texas classrooms anymore. The textbooks actually in use reflect considerable effort to be fair.

Elsewhere, the resolution relies on an American Textbook Council report that is disturbingly anti-Islamic. That report adopts a "clash of civilizations" model and ignores the diversity within Islam, ultimately concluding that "Islamic values" are "not conducive" to values such as "the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and a market economy." In other words, it implies, Islam in its very essence is incompatible with American-style freedom. Board members should look elsewhere for reliable information about Islam.

The resolution warns that "more such discriminatory treatment of religion may occur as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly," referring to the Dubai royal family's investment in a major publisher. One might reasonably doubt such a correlation. Few would argue that Fox News is unduly sympathetic to Islam, even with a Saudi prince as the second largest shareholder of its parent company.

This charge is important, however, because it points to the motivation of the resolution's chief proponent, failed school board candidate Randy Rives. Rives recently cautioned that dangerous outsiders might try to control America, using textbooks as their tool. "If you can control or influence our educational system, then you can start taking over the minds of our young people." He predicted that problems would increase as "more and more Moslems' [sic] money is pumped into buying textbooks."

In short, this resolution appears to be motivated not by a desire for balanced treatment of Islam but by ill-founded anxiety about a Muslim takeover of America. It is the same sort of anti-Islamic sentiment that has manifested itself so often in recent weeks. It is driven by half-truths, selective disinformation and false editorial stereotypes.

Most Texans likely agree that textbooks should treat religions fairly and accurately. If anything, students would benefit from more attention to religion. Religious literacy is essential for the smooth functioning of a pluralistic democracy in a shrinking world. Greater religious literacy would make paranoid proposals such as this resolution less likely to gain traction. Let's hope the board votes it down.