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Religious content at issue in U.S.-provided textbooks

In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation.

The primers, which roiled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system's core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.

Now that Afghan schools are reopening, the United States is back in the business of providing schoolbooks. But it is wrestling with the unintended consequences of its successful strategy of stirring Islamic fervor to fight communism. What seemed like a good idea in the context of the Cold War is being criticized by humanitarian workers as a crude tool that steeped a generation in violence.

Many of the 4-million texts being trucked into Afghanistan, and millions more on the way, still feature Koranic verses and teach Muslim tenets.

The White House defends the religious content, saying that Islamic principles permeate Afghan culture and that the books "are fully in compliance with U.S. law and policy." Legal experts, however, question whether the books violate a constitutional ban on using tax dollars to promote religion.

Organizations accepting funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development must certify that tax dollars will not be used to advance religion. The certification states that AID "will finance only programs that have a secular purpose. AID-financed activities cannot result in religious indoctrination of the ultimate beneficiaries."

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush have repeatedly spotlighted the Afghan textbooks in recent weeks. On March 16, Bush announced during his weekly radio address that the 10-million U.S.-supplied books being trucked to Afghan schools would teach "respect for human dignity, instead of indoctrinating students with fanaticism and bigotry."

The first lady stood alongside Afghanistan interim leader Hamid Karzai on Jan. 29 to announce that AID would give the University of Nebraska $6.5-million to provide textbooks and teacher-training kits.

AID officials said in interviews that they left the Islamic materials intact because they feared Afghan educators would reject books lacking a strong dose of Muslim thought. The agency removed its logo and any mention of the U.S. government from the religious texts, AID spokeswoman Kathryn Stratos said.

"It's not AID's policy to support religious instruction," Stratos said. "But we went ahead with this project because the primary purpose is to educate children, which is predominantly a secular activity."

Some legal experts disagreed. A 1991 federal appeals court ruling against AID's former director established that taxpayers' funds may not pay for religious instruction overseas, said Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law expert at American University, who litigated the case for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ayesha Khan, legal director of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the White House has "not a legal leg to stand on" in distributing the books.

"Taxpayer dollars cannot be used to supply materials that are religious," she said.

Published in the dominate Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu, the textbooks were developed in the early 1980s under an AID grant to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and its Center for Afghanistan Studies. The agency spent $51-million on education programs in Afghanistan from 1984 to 1994.

After the U.S. invasion last year, the United Nation's education agency, UNICEF, began preparing to reopen Afghanistan's schools, using new books developed with 70 Afghan educators and 24 private aid groups. In early January, UNICEF began printing new texts for many subjects but arranged to supply copies of the unrevised U.S. books for others, including Islamic instruction.

Within days, the Afghan interim government announced it would use the old AID-produced texts for its core school curriculum. UNICEF'S new texts could be used only as supplements.

Earlier this year, the United States tapped into its $296-million aid package for rebuilding Afghanistan to reprint the books but purged the violent references.

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