Students in Texas may be getting a glorified view of Islam, according to some state education leaders who are pushing for a resolution that would denounce social studies textbooks as biased against Christianity.
Though the president of conservative-leaning Texas State Board of Education supports the measure as promoting religious equality in schools, faith leaders and activists have condemned the board's proposal as intolerant and anti-Muslim.
"It's clearly just an attempt to propagandize the state's student population against the faith of Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Council on Islamic-American Relations. "Somehow they were getting too rosy a picture of Islam."
The board of education is set to vote Friday on the resolution, which was proposed by a one-time board candidate who failed to get elected earlier this year. It charges that "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias has tainted some past Texas social studies textbooks."
It also refers to the board of education as the "principal democratic check and balance" against "otherwise often-unresponsive editors and unaccountable authors."
But the Texas Freedom Network, a state religion and education watchdog group, said this measure is just another attempt by the hard-right majority to infuse its own religion and politics into the education of millions of school children.
"It's really hard to know if this board will pass something as inflammatory as this," spokesman Dan Quinn said. "I assume it will be close."
Gail Lowe, the governor-appointed president of the board of education, dismissed the criticism that the proposal, which she supports, is anti-Muslim.
"The resolution is not attacking that religious group," she said. "There are some entities that like to stir up controversy even when there isn't any."
Lowe said she hasn't studied the textbooks or the passages called into question by the resolution, which would bear her signature should it pass, but that she intends to before Friday.
The critics, she said, are "unnecessarily worrying."
"It has nothing to do with anyone's personal religious beliefs," she said.
The proposal doesn't say children shouldn't learn about Islam, Lowe noted, just that there should be more emphasis on Christianity to give students a balanced education.
Lowe said she's been told that the textbooks treat other religions, such as Judaism, Confucianism, Sikhism and Buddhism, in the same light as Islam, but only Christianity seems to be demonized. The resolution however, does not mention any other religions besides Islam.
But at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to have reached fever pitch in the U.S., between the debates over to so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City and a Florida pastor's one-time plan to burn a pile of Korans, Hooper said the board's proposal is just another way to contribute to "today's atmosphere of anti-Muslim hysteria."
"Given the atmosphere today, nothing shocks me but one would hope that cooler heads would prevail here and they would ultimately see it's not in the best interest of Texas or the United States of America to promote anti-Muslim propaganda," he said.
Lowe denied that the Texas school board's actions had anything to do with the current debate over Muslims in America.
"Possibly, since 9/11 people are very nervous about terrorist groups. Regrettably, most of those individuals came from Muslim countries," she said. "But I think that textbooks show that the bias existed before 9/11."
The debate over the textbooks is fresh on the heels of the board's recent controversy over the entire social studies curriculum.
In May, the board approved new standards that call for greater emphasis on Biblical references and the Christian traditions of the founding fathers as well as on noted Republican leaders including Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Quinn said that just the debate about the textbooks is "yet another black eye" for the state of Texas.
"It's been one culture war after another on this board," he said. "Once you attack one religion, you have to be wary. What are they going to go after next?"
The musings of the Texas School Board of Education are closely watched by educators and administrators across the country. Because the state purchases textbooks in bulk for its nearly 5 million students, industry publishers often will write to their preferences given that most other states allow individual districts to purchase textbooks on their own.
Though the resolution wouldn't affect any immediate changes in Texas school, Lowe said she knew the industry was watching.
"It would be a message to the publishers that we are looking for balanced religious treatment," she said. "I guess it sort of tells them on the front end this is what we're looking for."
California, the nation's largest textbook purchaser, has a bill pending specifically to keep watch for any Texas-related content before ordering its own textbooks.
The most recent Texas proposal is unusual, Lowe noted, in that it was not offered up by a sitting member of the board.
"This has been the only time that a member of the public has come before us to offer a resolution," she said. "I had four board members who expressed interest in discussing it further."
The proposal came from one-time school board candidate Randy Rives, who Quinn identified as a member of the same social Conservative network that controls the board. The language of the resolution, Lowe said, is Rives' own and has not been altered.
He uses words such as "tainted," "false editorial stereotypes" and "whitewashes" in describing the current content of the books in Texas schools and wrote that "more such discriminatory treatment of religion may occur as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly."