Paranoia Will Destroy Ya

by Dan Quinn

Once again Texans are getting a lesson in how the religious right uses lies and distortions to promote fear and bigotry. The newest lesson revolves around the Mansfield school district’s decision to accept a five-year, $1.3 million federal grant that largely funds elective classes teaching Arabic (alongside current classes in the district that teach Spanish, German, French, Russian, Latin and Chinese). Right-wing groups have been screaming that the classes will lead to pro-Islamic indoctrination in classrooms. Some have also used the program to make the equally absurd claim that an overbearing federal government is “forcing” students at the local level to learn how to speak Arabic.

One of the loudest screechers has been Kelly Shackelford of Liberty Institute, the Texas affiliate of Focus on the Family. Last week Shackelford, who is a major supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, spoke on an Internet radio show about the Mansfield program, offering one distortion after another. The show’s host transcribed some of Shackelford’s comments here. Shackelford’s fear-mongering echoed bizarre complaints by other extremists on the right that Mansfield’s classes would lead to students learning about Islam:

“When you have requirements that not only teach the Arabic language, but the culture, the history, the traditions, the words that they use, you can’t help but teach Islam. Now you are going to be in a serious situation of how balanced or biased this is going to be.”

Does Shackelford not know that the social studies curriculum standards in Texas already require students to learn about the world’s major religions? Of course he does. But he’s interested in promoting baseless paranoia, not facts.

Shackelford also suggested in his interview that the federal government is forcing the program on local schools. That nonsense is part of the right’s paranoid anti-government agenda. Shackelford:

“We don’t need the Federal government to tell us how to do local education. Look in the Constitution, there is no enumerated power that gives the federal government any authority or right to control or impact education around the country.”

As usual, the facts don’t match up with Shackelford’s paranoid rhetoric. The federal grant program is voluntary. It’s part of a larger program designed to help more students learn languages — such as Arabic, Russian and Chinese — that are important to global business and security today. Isn’t that the kind of thing we want our schools to do — identify the skills students need to prepare for the jobs of today and the future? In fact, Mansfield is one of just five districts across the country getting the grant funding for teaching Arabic. Because of a shortage of Arabic speakers in this country, Mansfield students who choose to take Arabic classes could actually have an advantage in competing for jobs (as interpreters, translators, investors, overseas businesspeople and more) down the road.

But don’t tell Shackelford all that. He’s too busy promoting anti-Muslim hysteria. And that Internet radio program he was on? Its host is a contributing editor for Family Security Matters, a virulently anti-Muslim Website. In fact, a 2007 Family Security Matters publication called on the United States and Israel to engage in “genocide” by obliterating Muslim countries: “The simple truth [is] that modern weapons now mean a nation must practice genocide or commit suicide.” The same article even argued that President Bush should have simply used nuclear weapons “to slaughter Iraqis” rather than invade the country in 2003.

Shackelford should be ashamed of himself for throwing in his lot with the rabid anti-Muslim haters in this country. The hysteria he is helping promote with lies and distortions is just vile. But it’s hardly surprising. During the debate over new social studies curriculum standards in Texas, Shackelford’s group accused teachers and other curriculum writers of engaging in a “war on Christmas” because they suggested Easter instead of Christmas as an example of a Christian holiday in a course on world cultures. Apparently, cynically branding teachers as anti-Christian zealots was a promising fund-raising gimmick  — and Liberty Institute used it over and over. Now they likely see promoting anti-Muslim paranoia as the next ticket on the fund-raising gravy train.