“This is a war,” Pamela Geller declared in Time in May 2015, just days after her deliberately provocative “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” event had come to an abrupt halt when two Muslim gunmen were shot dead outside the Garland, Texas facility where the event took place. For the time being, the national media turned its fickle spotlight on Geller’s efforts to persuade Americans that we are locked in a mortal struggle with Islam, a religion she characterized on the Fox Business program “Follow the Money” as “the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth.”
The spotlight was also on Texas and the Dallas suburb of Garland. The city’s mayor, Douglas Athas, clearly did not welcome the unfavorable publicity. In a “HuffPost Live” interview he pointed out that Geller, the gunmen, and most attendees were from out of state, and he told the Dallas Morning News that Garland “does not support in any shape, passion or form, [Geller’s] ideology.” Indeed, non-Muslims in the Dallas-Fort Worth area generally live quite peacefully alongside a Muslim community that the Census shows has more than tripled in size since 2000.
Yet a vocal and powerful faction of Texans agrees with Geller that Islam threatens the American way of life. As Mother Jones reports, Northeast Texas congressman Louie Gohmert claims that Muslim terrorists are sending pregnant women into the U.S. to spawn “terror babies.” In a similar vein, West Texas Republican Randy Rives warned the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 that Muslims are trying to conquer the U.S. by infiltrating the educational system and “taking over the minds of our young people.”
Rives is half right. As I learned in 2014, when I became involved in evaluating new history textbooks for Texas public schools, someone is indeed attempting to use the educational system to take over the minds of young Texans. But it isn’t Muslims. It is the anti-Islam faction in Texas. By controlling curriculum standards and pressuring publishers to distort instructional materials, anti-Islam activists are working to raise a generation of Islamophobes—future foot soldiers for a holy war against Islam.
One of their main weapons is the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). The fifteen members of the SBOE are popularly elected in down-ballot races that rarely draw much attention among Texans. Although board members are not required to be educators, or even have training in the subject areas they oversee, they are responsible for choosing instructional materials for all subjects in grades K-12. Equally important, they set state curriculum standards—the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS (usually pronounced “teeks”)—which specify what teachers teach and students learn.
Between 2006 and 2009, a bloc of ultraconservative Christian Republicans gained effective control of the SBOE. They used their newfound power to change the curriculum to reflect their own ideology, Christian Americanism—the belief that America is an essentially Christian nation in which the Bible should be normative for law and public policymaking.
Hand-in-hand with this privileging of Christianity goes a deep-seated distrust of Islam. In one revealing instance, a 2010 radio interview reported on the WND news site, former SBOE chair Don McLeroy dismissed the well-documented historical fact that Islam spread at least as much through the peaceful efforts of traders and preachers, as by military conquest.
The anti-Muslim attitudes of Christian Americanist board members became obvious in 2009, when the SBOE turned its sights to shaping new TEKS for social studies. This subject area includes geography and world history, which contain much of what students learn about world religions.
The world history TEKS in particular signal the Christian Americanists’ anti-Muslim agenda. Subtle differences in wording paint Christianity in bright tones and Islam in dark. For instance, an early draft of the TEKS described both Christianity and Islam as having a “unifying” effect on their respective societies. However, the final draft changed the mention of Islam’s unifying role to a reference to Islam’s “impact.” Thus what had been a positive portrayal of both Christianity and Islam became a positive portrayal of Christianity alone. Similarly, a standard on historical turning points from 600-1450 CE mentions “the spread of Christianity.” Then, instead of mentioning “the spread of Islam,” it refers to “the development of the Islamic caliphates.” This shifts the focus from the religion itself to its role in empire-building (and perhaps conjures up radical Islamist calls for a new caliphate).
When the world history TEKS turn to the period from 1450 CE to the 20th century, Islam largely drops off the radar. It resurfaces in the context of extremism and violence, in a reference to “the development of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.” As the ACLU of Texas noted in a May 2010 report, Islam is the only religion specifically linked with terrorism and fundamentalism in the TEKS, even though both phenomena are found in other world religions.
When the SBOE approved the new social studies TEKS in May 2010, it effectively put textbook publishers on notice: “curtail positive coverage of Islam and include more favorable treatment of Christianity in future world-history textbooks” (as the Dallas Morning News put it). Four years later, it became apparent that publishers had received that message loud and clear.
In 2014, the SBOE began the long, complicated process of evaluating new social studies textbooks for adoption in Texas public schools. Prior to that time, I, like most Texans, paid little attention to public education policy, and I’d been blissfully unaware of what the SBOE was up to in 2009 and 2010. That changed when I was recruited by the grassroots watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) to review the new textbook packages.
By 2014, the SBOE had moderated somewhat. The ultraconservative bloc had shrunk from seven members to five. However, GOP members still outnumbered Democrats 10-5, and more moderate Republicans often voted with the ultraconservatives, who had begun to change Islam’s portrayal in state textbooks. And there were concerns about how the SBOE had chosen members for the state review panels charged with evaluating the new textbooks. Texas Freedom Network found that the SBOE had passed over many credentialed academic specialists, but had found places for “political activists and individuals without social studies degrees or teaching experience.”
In response, TFN asked me to join two other university professors, along with several graduate students, in conducting an independent review of the textbooks up for adoption. As the team’s religious studies scholar, my job was to assess the balance and accuracy of the coverage of world religions in six world history textbook packages.
Though I was favorably impressed with most of the textbooks, I was disappointed to find that some publishers had gone overboard in trying to avoid any hint of “pro-Islam, anti-Christian bias.” Indeed, as I wrote in Religion Dispatches, many of the textbooks “presented Christianity more favorably, and Islam more unfavorably, than… historically warranted.” For instance, McGraw-Hill’s World History, Texas described the early spread of Islam wholly in terms of military conquest, despite the fact that Muslims in the early period also spread their faith by peaceful means. By contrast, the same text depicted the spread of Christianity in roughly the same period as much more peaceful than it actually was. The authors write that after Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, “The Germanic peoples… adopted the faith of Christianity”—as though the conversion to Christianity was wholly voluntary. In fact Charlemagne often resorted to forcible conversions and the destruction of “pagan” holy places, especially among the Saxons.
Incomplete and misleading accounts of the important Islamic term jihad were another common problem. Meaning literally “struggle,” jihad has entered contemporary American parlance as “holy war,” due to its use (or misuse) by Islamist terrorist movements. Douglas E. Streusand writes in The Middle East Quarterly, “Most Muslims do not see jihad as warfare as an active obligation, upon either themselves or the Muslim community as a whole.” Indeed, for most Muslims, jihad refers primarily to interior, spiritual struggle against one’s own evil tendencies.
Although some of the textbook packages (such as the offerings from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson) got jihad right, others presented a misleadingly one-sided picture. The most egregious instance cropped up in a module on the Ottoman Turks in the package from Social Studies School Services (SSSS). The authors defined jihad one-sidedly as “wars of the faithful, the Muslims, against non-Muslim peoples.”
Worse, they also asserted that “Much of the violence you read or hear about in the Middle East is related to a jihad.” This effectively blamed Islam for a very complex cycle of violence, a cycle driven by a host of factors, including colonialism and population pressures. While none of the world history textbook packages wrote about Islam with outright hostility toward Islam, many emphasized violent aspects of Islam's history while seeming to downplay or ignore violence in Christian history. Apparently, they had taken the SBOE’s wishes to heart.
TFN published our reviews in September 2014, prior to the SBOE’s first public hearing on the textbooks. Later that month, I sat in a packed hearing room in Austin, waiting my turn to testify before the board about my findings. The experience was an education in Islamophobia on the board.
One of the first persons to testify was Mustafa Carroll, Houston executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). (All testimony can be viewed on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website.) Addressing the inaccurate passage on jihad in the SSSS package, the tall, soft-spoken African-American said, “The majority of Muslims understand jihad as the struggle for good to fight corruption, poverty, and oppression, and this text glosses over that.” Apart from one question of clarification, board members did not interact with Carroll at all.
GOP members were much more receptive to Dr. Amy Jo Baker, a retired schoolteacher and Director of Curriculum for the anti-Muslim group Truth in Texas Textbooks. Although Baker has no academic credentials in Islam or religious studies, she flatly contradicted Carroll’s testimony.
In strident tones that contrasted with her pleasant, somewhat matronly appearance, Baker insisted that by jihad Muslims do not mean “the struggle to be a better person”; instead, she declared, in the Qur’an and subsequent Muslim tradition jihad means “to wage war.” She then claimed—erroneously—that “one of the commandments of the Muslim faith” is the “obligation without limit of time or space” to wage jihad “until the whole world has either accepted the Islamic faith or submitted to the power of the Islamic state.” Baker received warm thanks from several Republican board members, who assured her that they would see that her “corrections” were made.
In my own testimony, I pointed out the pro-Christian, anti-Islam slant of several of the textbooks, and took issue with Baker’s earlier mischaracterization of jihad. Republican board member Pat Hardy, another retired schoolteacher with no academic credentials in religious studies, replied by insisting that jihad means holy war. I disagreed, and asserted that students should learn how Muslims themselves use the term. Democratic members and one moderate GOP member welcomed my comments; the conservative board members, however, treated me with palpable hostility.
After the September hearings, the publishers began issuing responses to the public comment. With a few exceptions, most declined to make the corrections I had suggested. (Happily, however, SSSS did remove the lesson with the offending jihad account.)
Then, well past the deadline for public comment and just two weeks before the SBOE was to take its final vote on the textbooks, Baker’s group, Truth in Texas Textbooks (TTT), published their own reviews of the social studies textbooks—over 460 pages of material. According to the TTT website, all but one of their reviewers lacked academic credentials in history, geography, economics, or religious studies. Yet that did not stop them from pronouncing on a vast range of topics, including prehistory, climate change, economics, political science, and U.S. government—and of course, Islam.
Many of these TTT reviews (available on their website) reeked of vitriol toward Islam. One reviewer wrote of Islam’s “threat to the Western world”; another made the bizarre claim that “the greatest fear for a communist, a socialist or a Muslim is Truth.” Other TTT comments were just plain false, even nonsensical such as, “Islam is spread by the sword while monotheistic religions are not.”
Despite the TTT reviewers’ lack of credentials and the obviously biased and tendentious nature of their critiques, conservative SBOE members insisted that publishers give them the same level of attention they gave comments from credentialed scholars. Unfortunately, several publishers made changes in response to TTT’s criticisms.
One casualty was the Pearson world history package. TTT reviewers attacked its wholly accurate statement that jihad “is most frequently used [by Muslims] to describe an inner struggle in God’s service.” To the contrary, TTT claimed that “the primary meaning of jihad is mandatory, aggressive warfare to convert or subjugate infidels.” Sadly, Pearson agreed to replace the passage with a much more ambiguous description: “For some Muslims, [jihad] means a struggle against one’s evil inclinations. For other Muslims, it refers to a struggle or violent holy war to defend or spread Islam.” The “some Muslims… other Muslims” phrasing hides the important fact that only a tiny fraction of Muslims today use jihad primarily to mean holy war.
To their credit, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt generally stood their ground. TTT reviewers attacked Harcourt’s balanced and accurate definition of jihad, insisting that the textbook should instead stress that armed struggle is the “predominant” meaning of jihad, “specifically including aggressive warfare for the purpose of making Islam supreme over the entire world.” Harcourt would have none of that: “The dual meaning of ‘jihad,’” the publisher replied, “is accurately described in the text, which makes clear which meaning was most relevant in the context of the expansion of Islam.”
The good news is that publishers did not give the SBOE and TTT everything they asked for. The bad news is that some publishers met them halfway, by stressing violence in Islam’s history while soft-pedaling violence in Christian history, and by changing accurate accounts of jihad. Such compromise may be a necessary cost of doing business in Texas, but it only empowers Islamophobic activists. Worse, it deprives non-Muslim students of accurate information about their Muslim neighbors.
Like Pam Geller, Islamophobes in Texas want Americans to believe that we are already at war with the Muslim world. That’s absurd: Muslims are as much part of the religious fabric of America—and Texas—as any other group. The notion of a war against Islam itself is nothing more than a paranoid fantasy.
However, another war is all too real—a war to win the hearts and minds of future generations of Texans. It is being fought out in the Texas public school curriculum and in the textbooks. At the moment, the forces of intolerance and ignorance seem to have the upper hand. Who eventually triumphs will depend on whether parents, classroom teachers, academics, and religious leaders demand balanced and accurate portrayals of Islam and all religions. That may be the only way to ensure that, instead of raising foot soldiers for the Islamophobes’ war with Islam, Texans raise a generation motivated and equipped to preserve America’s tradition of religious diversity.
David R. Brockman, a religious studies scholar and Christian theologian, serves as Adjunct Lecturer in Religion at Texas Christian University. He is the author of No Longer the Same: Religious Others and the Liberation of Christian Theology and Dialectical Democracy through Christian Thought: Individualism, Relationalism, and American Politics.