Concerns about religious indoctrination have emerged in several overwhelmingly white, Christian counties. Why?
Williamson County, Tennessee, embodies demographic stereotypes about the South: The county just south of Nashville is overwhelmingly white, Christian, and Republican. But this fall, a curious controversy emerged there. Parents and school-board members have voiced worries about alleged Islamic indoctrination in the public schools.
In seventh grade, kids study world geography and history, including a unit on “the Islamic world” up to the year 1500 A.D. “Williamson County parents and taxpayers have expressed concerns that some social-studies textbooks and supplemental materials in use in Tennessee classrooms contain a pro-Islamic/anti-Judeo- Christian bias,” one school-board member, Beth Burgos, wrote in a resolution. She questioned whether it’s right to test students on the tenets of Islam, along with the state and district’s learning standards related to religion. She also said the textbook should mention concepts like jihad and not portray Islam as a fundamentally peaceful religion. “How are our children to reconcile what they’re seeing happening in the Middle East when they’re not even exposed to the radical sects of Islam like ISIS?” she said at a working meeting in mid-October. (Burgos did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.)
In interviews, a number of parents and school-board members used the word distraction to describe the local debate over “Islamic indoctrination.” “We have a shortage of bus drivers,” said a school-board member, Robert Hullett, at that October working meeting. “We have a problem with substitute teachers. We have things that are affecting our kids right now, and we’re fooling around with this.”
Ultimately, the resolution was withdrawn, but Islam and education continues to be a topic of discussion. This week, the local chapter of Glenn Beck’s nationwide advocacy organization, the 912 Project, is hosting a townhall about it. Other Tennessee counties are talking about this, too. In October, the school board in Maury County, which borders Williamson, submitted a resolution to the State Board of Education questioning whether basic knowledge of world history “requires the depth of study of the underlying contents or tenets of world religion to the extent that the State currently requires in sixth and seventh grade social studies, especially given the impressionable nature of students’ ages during such grades.” The resolution also called for units covering religion to be moved to high school. In White County, farther east, a group that calls itself Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination placed an ad in the local paper, the Sparta Expositor, featuring all-caps text: “ISLAMIC INDOCTRINATION IS IN SCHOOLS ACROSS OUR STATE AND OUR NATION,” it read, inviting parents and citizens to attend a town-hall meeting with a self-identified Muslim convert to Christianity. It also featured this graphic:
Partially in response to similar concerns raised across the state earlier in the summer, the state’s department of education decided to move up its regularly scheduled review of learning standards to January 2016—two years early, according to Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s commissioner of education. It’s not clear what they’ll find, but the move sends a clear message: This is a politically potent anxiety in the state of Tennessee.
In Williamson County and elsewhere in the United States, people are experiencing real fear about Islam. They are scared of ISIS, and they don’t know what to make of religiously motivated terrorism. At one of those October meetings, a seventh grader at Heritage Middle School—who started by clarifying that she is “almost 13 years old”—said she is concerned about her social-studies lessons. “I am being taught in class that Islam is a peaceful religion, yet there are many historical and modern-day examples of violent killings and persecution in the name of Allah and Islam,” she said.
Above all, the public-education system has an obligation to this 12-year-old girl: to teach her how to read the news and understand it; to prepare her to sort through truths and untruths about world religions; to ensure she can navigate complicated questions about ideology and violence. The question, though, is whether this kind of campaign against “Islamic indoctrination” in classrooms actually helps kids, and their parents, grapple with their fear and uncertainty in a constructive way—and whether these are plausible concerns in an overwhelmingly white, Christian place like Williamson County.
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The debate over “Islamic indoctrination” in schools hasn’t just been happening in Tennessee. In April, a high-school history teacher in Union Grove, Wisconsin, allegedly assigned her students to write a five-paragraph essay from the perspective of an American Muslim. In response, the American Center for Law and Justice, a D.C.-based legal nonprofit founded in 1990 by the evangelist Pat Robertson, wrote a letter to the school’s principal, advising him that this task violated students’ First Amendment rights. “This assignment is problematic because it required the students to adopt and adhere to Islamic religious activity and viewpoints,” wrote Carly Gammill, a senior litigator at the organization. “By requiring students to engage in and adopt a Muslim lifestyle, Union Grove is advancing a particular religious viewpoint.”
Gammill and the ACLJ have also been involved in the Tennessee cases, although the firm does not provide money to support particular issues or candidates in school-board elections and does all of its work pro bono. The organization claims it has been contacted by 7,000 Tennesseans about the way Islam is taught in social-studies classrooms. In response, it filed an open-records request with the state in September to be able to review lesson plans and other school materials. The request was later withdrawn.
“The ACLJ has become known as the place to call if your child is having an issue and … religion is being taught in what seems like an inappropriate manner,” said Gammill in an interview. She said the organization tracks First Amendment violations related to all religions, but most concerns tend to be about Islam. “All that these students are being taught is that Islam is entirely a peaceful religion, and that they peacefully colonized—I think we know historically that that is not entirely accurate,” she said. “It is very difficult to attribute ill intentions when you don’t have all of the facts. But it certainly raises questions about who’s behind this, and is this agenda-driven?”
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