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Is Public Education Promoting Islam or Islamophobia?

December 17, 2015

After listening to a small part of last evenings Republican “debate” and reading Emma Green’s Atlantic article “The Fear of Islam in Tennessee Schools” I am coming to the conclusion that our public schools are falling short of their mission to bring cultures together and to promote tolerance as an over-arching principle.

Ms. Green’s article describes a conflict in Williamson County, a relatively affluent suburban Nashville county school district in Tennessee where two groups of parents have two very different perspectives about the middle school social studies curriculum. One group, whose efforts are supported by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a D.C.-based legal nonprofit founded in 1990 by the evangelist Pat Robertson, believes the schools are inculcating Islamic values in the classroom. How so? Here’s what Carly Carly Gammill, a senior litigator at the ACLJ asserts:

“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. 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?”

Another parent group, Williamson Strong, takes a different view. Described as “…a group of four moms (who) started blogging on a website and Facebook page” Williamson Strong challenged the anti-Islamic indoctrination campaign and found themselves in the cross hairs of litigation and outright hostility:

Two of the founders, Jennifer Smith and Kim Henke, said they’ve been attacked for this and other issues. “We’ve been accused of not being Christian enough, not being Republican enough,” Smith said. And: “working for Obama, working for George Soros,” Henke added. “I’m also a solstice-worshipper—that’s one I’ve gotten, too.”

But the anguish Ms. Smith and Ms. Henke face is nothing compared to the children of Daoud Abudiab, a Muslim parent who has been involved with Williamson Strong, whose children have faced discrimination in every school they’ve attended in Tennessee. As Ms. Green reports:

He and his wife tried homeschooling and co-ops for a while when they were living in Columbia, Tennessee, but “after a year or so, it was: Our kids can’t play together, because we learned in Sunday school that Muslims want to convert or kill everybody,” he said. “Our only choice was really to leave that and come to Williamson County. And now, we’re faced with even public schools where our kids don’t feel welcome.”

Sadly, the debate we heard earlier this week only reinforces the notions of those parents who believe that any religious instruction about Islam is necessarily “indoctrination” and who accept a school environment where Islamic students are shunned from playgroups because “Muslims want to convert of kill everybody”. Religious tolerance is one of the foundations of our country. A school that welcomes a child of Muslim faith is not “promoting Islam”, it is adhering to the country’s foundational belief of religious tolerance. A school that is unwelcoming to a child of Muslim faith or allows children on the playground to act disparagingly toward a child of Muslim faith is undercutting our national heritage and fanning the flames of Islamophobia. When public schools teach about Islam they are not promoting it as a religion: they are helping students gain a broader perspective about the world they are growing up in. When public schools tolerate intolerance toward those who practice in different traditions, they are teaching students the wrong lessons… and in Tennessee it appears that schools are not promoting Islam; they ARE promoting Islamophobia.


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