Textbook example: Tim Sukits wades into the battle between Rich Swier and the Sarasota County School Board

Published July 28, 2010

I approach the Sarasota County Schools building a bit after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20 to see a handful of people in front passing out white T-shirts with green lettering that reads “Choose History, not His-Story.” As I pass through the foyer and enter the meeting room I spot about three dozen people wearing those shirts, scattered throughout a packed house of roughly 200. Sarasota County School Board Chair Shirley Brown helps her six-year-old grandson use a microphone to open the meeting with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The stage is set for the day’s main event. Dr. Richard Swier, editor of local conservative blog Red County, will have his chance to appeal the decision of a district advisory committee that denied his “request for reconsideration of instructional material,”  a formal complaint originally filed on April 25. Swier sought to have the textbook World History: Patterns of Interaction removed from the school curriculum, believing that it unfairly favors the religion of Islam over Christianity.

The right-wing positions adopted by Swier are no secret among the Sarasota community — former CL editor Cooper Levey-Bakerregularly criticized his Red County posts on our blog. From advocating the dismemberment of homosexuals, to encouraging armed revolt against our own government, to calling a popular Gainesville solar panel-promoting tariff “stealth welfare for tree huggers,” Swier is every local far-right-wingers Golden Boy. But this textbook fiasco appears to be the result of a new project he’s working on.

Swier recently started a Sarasota chapter of ACT! for America, a group founded by noted Islamophobe Brigitte Gabriel, author of bestselling books Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, and They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It. ACT!’s mission statement says their goal is to, “inform, educate and mobilize Americans regarding the multiple threats of Islamofascism, and what they can and must do to protect themselves and their country against this determined enemy.” Shortly after Swier’s appeal was granted, Gabriel posted a blog on the Red County website titled, “Major Development on the Textbook Front! ACT! for America’s Sarasota Chapter Achieves a First in Florida State History!” Apparently, she’s quite fond of exclamation points.

Over the course of his anti-textbook crusade, Swier exchanged several emails with the School Board and Superintendent Lori White, including one titled “Joys of Muslim Women,” attributed to former Muslim and human rights activist Nonie Darwishwarning of Islam’s intention to destroy Western civilization by imposing Sharia law, although much of the article refers to Darwish in the third person. The email is commonly circulated among Glenn Beck fans. Swier also supplied the board with reading material like The Muslim Masquerade: An Unveiling of Islam’s Façade, and The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion, which specifically lists World History: Patterns of Interaction as a book favorable to Islam.

The educational material that Swier, who ran unsuccessfully for a School Board position in 2002, has recommended to replace the contended textbook is a ten-part series of 64-page books by Mason Crest Publishers called World of Islam. The cover of one volume in the series, titled Radical Islam, depicts an AK-47 sitting atop an Arab-style garment soaked in blood. The board feels that the series is not a suitable replacement, thanks both to the $229 price tag (compared to the current book’s $83), and because the series is classified at a sixth-grade reading level.

After about 50 minutes of proceedings dealing with the poor nutritional value of cafeteria food and a$2.5 million gift to county schools from the Venice Community Foundation, the board votes to open up discussion on the “resolution of challenged material appeal.” Brown announces that 47 cards have been approved, each allowing concerned citizens three minutes to speak. After the public gets its turn, Swier will have ten minutes, then ten minutes for a review committee member, then they each get a five minute rebuttal. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

The first speaker is a sweet little silver-haired woman named Barbara Vaughn, who starts out talking about her experience living in the Middle East and how close she became with many of the Muslims whom she lived and worked with, right before descending into a rant about their plot to take over Western society. “This textbook is the camel’s nose under the tent,” she says. “The truly moderate Muslims are those that believe they can win by degrees while we are busy being politically correct or not paying attention. To them victory is a matter of incremental jihad.”

Next up is John Scolaro, a smooth speaker who keeps nobody guessing with an instant ratification of “everything previously said, cited, presented and fact-checked by Dr. Swier and his supporters both today and in the past.” He goes on to say, “terrorism transcends history into our daily lives. It affects the lives of our soldiers, which one day many of our school children will become.”

The next six speakers take the podium in opposition to the textbook before Harvey Gochberg rises as the first in support. “I can’t tell you which religion wins the most killed of innocents,” he says. From here the cards begin to shuffle, and the players start raising the stakes.

Esther Rachwal takes the mic and reminds the board members about the video she sent to all of them on the horrors of Sharia law. “It is unbelievable as to what Sharia law is doing to the women of those countries,” she says. “The most frightening is what happens when Muslims and Islam reach a certain percentage of the population. I think people need to understand that we have to be careful.”

Luckily, good ol’ Murray Blueglass lightens the mood a bit by reciting a line from a 1942 Rogers and Hammerstein musical: “‘You’ve got to be taught to hate and hate, you’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, you’ve got to be taught because you’re seven and eight.’ That’s what I’m hearing today.”

Jacqueline Tutt, co-chairperson of the Women’s Interfaith Network, a women’s organization that represents every religion under the sun, offers the day’s first truly cultured perspective. “I don’t think you’re going to find a textbook about religion that anyone will agree to,” she says. “As a Christian and an African-American, I could well hate every white Christian for the terrorism that has been put on my people in this country. But I don’t. It is not the way that we progress.”

Gene Tischer’s is the next card dealt as he takes the stand. “We used to be a Judeo-Christian nation and we’ve moved away from that because it’s politically correct or whatever,” he says, “but don’t go to the other shore and demote Christianity and elevate Islam. Slowly Islam becomes something very attractive without people even knowing what they’re buying into.” He then reminds the board to watch those videos Esther sent them.

Finally, after all the religious back and forth, Zaid Smith, a doctor of neuroscience, shows up with a healthy dose of solid reasoning and some profound thoughts about following in the footsteps of our forefathers. “I’m struck by the optimism of the opponents to this textbook,” he says. “They seem to believe that high school students open their textbook, read it very carefully, remember it, and change their lives as a result. This textbook has been here for five years, and I don’t think there have been any cases of people renouncing Christianity, capitalism, or converting to Islam as a result. I don’t think this is really about the textbook at all. I think we should run with a different sort of optimism, the optimism of Tom Jefferson and Tom Paine, who decided to take a chance on a country where tolerance and openness and freedom of religion prevailed.”

The first person to speak with any actual religious authority is Reverend Tricia Dillon Thomas. As it turns out, she’s a bit more open than some of her fellow Christians in the room. “I have to say as a parent that I thank God for the separation of church and state, because my religion does not follow these men’s religion,” she says, after passionately debunking many of Swier’s claims. “The opponents of this textbook have been painting broad strokes about Islam and the Muslim community because of actions of a small group of folks that have perpetuated hate.”

From this point on the cards cease to shuffle so randomly. 25 people in a row rise to voice their support for the continued use of World History: Patterns of Interaction, many of them Muslims detailing the intricacies and common misunderstandings surrounding their faith. They point out why the review of the material by Dr. Terri K. Wonder, a doctor of Middle Eastern studies who is Swier’s primary expert referenced, is flawed in many ways.

Many of the supporters are troubled that Swier had apparently not talked to an actual Muslim when compiling the evidence for his case. They explain that jihad is not actually one of the five pillars of Islam; that it is not a call to holy war against Western culture; and how Islamic women are not seen as second-class citizens, all of which Swier and others opposed to the textbook deny.

Other complaints posed by Swier are rebuked more with common sense than religious knowledge. Swier has a problem with the book’s contention that Christians “regard” Jesus as the Son of God rather than “know” he is. He also finds fault in the book’s referring to theProphet Mohammad with a capital “P,” a simple case of textbook grammatical style, as the book uses a lowercase “p” later when not using the term as an official title. Swier asserts that many more of the book’s pages are dedicated to Islam than are toward Christianity. In reality, there are 23 pages devoted to Christianity and 21 to Islam.

Swier may have taken many of these rebuttals into account, if he was in the room. As it becomes apparent that supporters will have control of the microphone for some time, I notice Swier is mysteriously absent from his seat. I escape to the foyer to find him talking to an angry opponent of the book, later revealed to be Carol Holland. I approach Swier, shake his hand, and ask why he left the meeting. As he begins to speak about how only in a Judeo-Christian Republican nation could we have such a free exchange of religious discourse, a blond woman in a pink tank top bursts through the door toward Swier, exclaiming, “the whole God-damned Muslim nation is in there!” Holland is quick to hush her.

Eventually, Swier returns to the room and is soon invited to come forth and make his appeal. He begins by asking the crowd to observe a moment of silence for Sakineh, the 43-year-old woman in Iran who is accused of adultery, claiming that he just received a text message that she is being stoned to death at this very moment. That turns out to be false. Swier goes on to repeat many of the points from Dr. Wonder’s review, the same ones that have just been debunked for an hour and that review committee member Roger Bone will soon shoot holes through officially. “Dr. Wonder is an expert in historiography and just returned from working for the Department of Defense, where she was recruited and spent two years in Iraq,” says Swier. “If anyone understands Islam and how this textbook misportrays not only Islam but Western civilization and the free market system, she is the one.”

A tense moment comes when Brown asks Swier if he can back up his claims with students who have been negatively affected by the textbook, as at least five students had stood up in support of the book. “I don’t know why [parents] would go to you rather than come to us,” she says. “So who are these parents and students?” Swier starts to go into how he got involved in the issue, before Brown interrupts him: “Mr. Swier, all I ask is a list. You’re not answering the question.”

During their closing statements the board members each give their reasons why they will be voting to keep the book, effectively taking the anticipation out of the final vote. At one point during Brown’s comments she says, “This is not a Judeo-Christian nation, but a nation of Judeo-Christians, founded by people fleeing religious persecution in Europe.” This prompts pink tank-top lady, who I now know to be Eileen Green, and others to storm out of the room flailing their arms in disgust.

I approach Green and Holland in the parking lot to find out what they think about the decision. “What do we think about it? I’m disgusted! I’m disgusted with these communist progressives running my schools,” says Green. “I’m paying my taxes and we have no rights. This is called social justice, not equal justice… And theKoran preaches that you must kill all Christians and Jews.” Holland adds to the dissent: “When they first started I knew what the vote was going to be,” she says, “because I know how bureaucracies are. They’re all liberal, left-wing, and they see nothing wrong with the textbook… Don’t tell me that Muslim is a religion of peace. Starting in 1972, everything that has happened, everybody who was killed, that was peaceful?… Believe me, if you are Muslim and you do not believe what they believe, you do not have the freedom to say I don’t believe you.”

Soon Swier walks up to join the two women. “I’m going to take the board’s recommendation and I’m going to appeal it to the state board, to the commissioner of education,” he says. “The reason I went this route is I’m a military guy and I believe in going through the chain of command. You take the necessary steps along the way, and then each level says things about the book. Fortunately, what you end up having is some public officials that say things that are sort of strange. One of the things that really upset a bunch of people and they walked out around me was that America is not a Judeo-Christian nation. That really struck a negative chord.”

I then ran into Farah Abid, an 18-year-old Muslim-American who recently graduated from Pine View and had enjoyed using the textbook. I ask her what she thinks about people storming out of the room. “Seriously, that’s what 7th graders do,” she says. “Kids at Pine View, once they get into 10th grade, don’t even do that anymore. I think that just shows their intolerance to just listen to other people’s ideas. And honestly, had they actually listened to all of our ideas, they probably could have done better today.”

The video of the July 20 Sarasota County School Board meeting that heard Dr. Rich Swier’s “challenged material appeal” can be viewed here, complete with some of our favorite quotes from the meeting and the times where you can find those speaker’s comments.

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