WHEN RELIGIOUS ENLIGHTENMENT MORPHS INTO RELIGIOUS INDOCTRINATION
ANTI-MUSLIM BIGOTRY TRIPS UP TEACHER TEACHING RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE
You might have seen news reports about Augusta Country, Virginia, closing all its schools last week following the explosion of outrage – and the inevitable threats of violence and death that resulted – that resulted from a high school teacher’s calligraphy assignment. First a bit of background. Augusta County is located in the far western part of Virginia, tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is rural and has a population of 74,000, 93% of whom are White. And, as is the case in so many states in America, it is conservative and Republican unlike urban Northern Virginia (the D.C. suburbs) which is liberal and votes reliably Democratic. Interestingly, only Illinois has a greater Muslim population than the Commonwealth of Virginia and the state’s Muslims pretty much all reside in urban Northern Virginia, not the rural bits. No big surprise there.
The controversy that closed all of Augusta County’s schools and sparked the death threats, arose from the high school teacher’s assignment to her students that they practice calligraphy by copying the Shahada, the opening prayer of the Koran that roughly translates as “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” That’s it, although the opening line sometimes is “There is no god but Allah.” The geography teacher did not ask her students to translate the Shahada, nor did she ask for any analysis or commentary on its meaning. No. She simply wanted her students to practice copying Arabic script as a calligraphy assignment.
Well, this didn’t sit well with some of Augusta County’s Moms and Dad, the adults, so to speak, in the county. They called it “religious indoctrination” although I’m not sure how one can be indoctrinated by copying Arabic script without knowing its meaning. I suppose it might be that rural folks have different a brain structure than us urban denizens that allows this strange metamorphosis to happen. In any event, as inevitable as water rushing downhill, the telephone calls, e-mails and letters poured into the Augusta County School District accusing the teacher and the school district of indoctrinating their malleable high school progeny, demanding that the offending teacher be fired, and one e-mailer who desired to see the teacher’s severed head on a stake, presumably in the courtyard of the school or maybe in the town square. Now I know this might sound a bit like the same tactics ISIS uses, but you would be wrong. Well, I think you would be wrong to come to this conclusion but, then again, we have this Republican Candidate for the Presidency running around telling his supporters and the nation that we should bar Muslims from entering the United States. (At this point he hasn’t advocated beheading Muslims like the e-mailer in Augusta County, but then we still have almost a year to go before the 2016 Presidential elections.)
And this anti-Muslim, anti-Islam, anti-Koran outrage is not limited to Augusta County. In Tennessee recently, there has been an uproar over the teaching of school children about Islam and ancient Islamic civilizations (like, I suppose, the Ottoman Empire one of the most advanced and sophisticated civilizations in recorded history) so much so that the Tennessee State Legislature is considering limiting the teaching of world religions. Then too, parents were upset that some Georgia middle schoolers were learning the five pillars of Islam according to news reports there. And even liberal Northern Virginia hasn’t been immune to complaints that Fairfax County students were being “indoctrinated” by reading the Shahada aloud. An assistant principal of Ravensworth Elementary School ordered the lesson dropped following complaints. The school remained open, however.
In the words of Ibrahim Hooper, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “Anything to with Islam or Muslims somehow becomes controversial, and you get this kneejerk reaction based on misinformation, stereotypes, bias and it’s really reaching frightening proportions.” And, one might add, additional fodder for ISIS’ recruiting efforts. Experts say that teaching about religion is critical in public schools because religion- including Islam – is essential to understanding everything from ancient history to current events. Religious literacy, they say, has taken on an especially important role now, as religion has become a regular aspect of political rhetoric, in part because of fears of terrorism linked to jihad.
As Charles Haynes from the Newseum Institute says, “to be an educated person, to be a citizen, to be part of the global conversation, to be engaged in our world, religious literacy is essential. More important than that is, how are we going to live with one another in one of the most religiously diverse societies without understanding one another?”
If a benign calligraphy lesson results in righteous outrage, religious condemnation and religious bigotry, does anyone have any questions about the appeal of Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States?
No. I thought not.