New Clash over Religion in Schools: Communities Face Backlash for Lessons on Islam
By Linda K. Wertheimer | August 25, 2015
Many of the speakers wore red shirts in solidarity. Dozens of them took turns standing at the microphone to lash out at the members of the school board in front of them. The offense? A Tampa high school had dared to allow an imam and head of a Muslim civil rights group to deliver a lesson on Islam to students.
People in the crowded boardroom whooped and applauded when a speaker said the school system needed to protect children from a group that advocated hate and violence. And others cheered when another protester accused the school system of wasting students’ time on a subject that shouldn’t be allowed when Christianity had been kicked out of the schools. It was February 28, 2012, and the Hillsborough County School Board found itself in the middle of a battle over religion in the public schools, the kind of clash that has surfaced in numerous school systems around the country in recent years.
The Tampa controversy dragged on for months, and speakers at board meetings ranged from supportive to hateful. At a late March 2012 meeting, a woman was frank about her distaste about Islam. “It is not tolerance when we make deals with the devil … There is no talk of Hindus and any other religions because the other religions don’t teach hate, they don’t teach that God is ashamed of women, that they need to be covered up like pigs in a blanket,” she said, and later added, “They are a religion of Jihad, and in the Koran, they teach it’s okay to lie to the enemy, and guess what, any religion that is not Islam is the enemy. Coexist? Please.”
This is a new, yet again ugly chapter in America’s history with religion in public education. In the past, debate centered on religiosity and such issues as the legality of teachers leading students in prayer and Bible verses. The Supreme Court tried to settle that dispute a little more than 50 years ago in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp case. No longer could educators start the day with the Lord’s Prayer or a recitation of Bible verses, a common practice until the court ruling. Schools had to strictly follow that line separating church and state by not promoting one religion over another. The ruling, while emphasizing that separation, also urged educators to teach about comparative religion, given religion’s role in history. In response to state curriculum standards set in the 1990s through the early 2000s, many schools have incorporated lessons about Islam in history classes. They also teach about Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and in some cases, Sikhism. But Islam has been the flash point for controversy in public schools as tensions in the Middle East and fears of radical Islamic groups, such as ISIS or ISIL, increase. Disputes over lessons on Islam have flared around the nation, in Tampa and other Florida cities; Wichita, Kansas; Lumberton, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; and in Wellesley and Revere, Massachusetts. Sometimes, a field trip to a mosque caused the stir. In other cases, just seeing the mention of Islam in a child’s homework led to a parental complaint. Parents and policymakers, namely in Texas and Florida, also have taken aim at social studies textbooks, charging that Islam was treated more kindly than Christianity and other religions. Educators have countered that such claims were bogus.
The reaction to a Muslim speaker’s presence at Steinbrenner High near Tampa illustrates the layers of the debate today over teaching about Islam. Kelly Miliziano, the chair of the history department at Steinbrenner High School, had invited Hassan Shibly, the executive director of CAIR-Florida (a state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations), to speak to the school’s world history classes and its elective comparative religion class. Steinbrenner, based in the Tampa suburb of Lutz, had been using guest speakers to talk about different religions for years. Miliziano and her colleagues invited people of various faiths, but were particularly intent on inviting a Muslim because the school had so few Muslim students. Shibly, an imam who frequently gave sermons at area mosques and also gave public talks on Islam to community groups, came to Steinbrenner at the recommendation of a local imam. He came with a controversial history partly because he led CAIR-Florida. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights organization that represents Muslims dealing with bullying and various civil rights issues. But at the national level, CAIR has been in the news many times because of battles with the U.S. Justice Department over its characterization of the association. In 2007, the Justice Department named CAIR, along with more than 300 organizations and individuals, as an unindicted co-conspirator in a trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas-based charity accused of funneling millions of donated money to Hamas. The government shut down Holy Land in 2001, and a federal judge later ruled that the foundation had financed Hamas and thus supported terrorism. CAIR was never convicted of anything, but remained a target of anti-Muslim groups.
According to teachers and students, Shibly delivered a PowerPoint presentation on the basic practices and obligations of Islam and revealed some of his own life as a Muslim. He was just 25, and teachers and students described him as a hip speaker who gave Islam a human face. “He talked about the pillars of Islam, right out of the textbook,” Miliziano says. “Nothing occurred. There was no indoctrination. Even when presented with that, these groups continued to portray it as if it were something different.”
Many opponents did not seem to care what Shibly actually said to students, and instead they argued that Islam should not be taught in school at all. At a January 2012 school board meeting, a woman said she wouldn’t put her child in the Hillsborough County school board system because she feared that it was teaching propaganda promoting Islam. “It’s a threat against our children, ultimately our nation, and our freedom,” a Tampa-area businessman told the board at the same meeting. “CAIR promotes Sharia law. They want to establish a global fundamentalist Islam state.”
Other opponents gave more nuanced reasons for their opposition, saying schools had to be sure they taught about Islam in the most unbiased way and avoided sugarcoating the fact that Islam has a radical element. And then there was the “We’re a Christian nation” stance, the idea that schools in America should pay homage to Christianity only and allow prayer to return. “Today, Christianity in any form is considered to be persona non grata in our public schools. Why then is a radical Muslim organization such as CAIR allowed to come in and explain their belief system?” said a speaker who described herself as a concerned grandmother.
Interestingly, these opponents didn’t say they opposed that schools were now also teaching about Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism and other religions. They tossed all of the darts at Islam.
Pamela Geller, a New York City-based political activist and author, helped grow the controversy from a single parent’s complaint to a national issue. She quickly built opposition to Shibly’s talks at Steinbrenner with a series of blog posts and articles. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, Geller is the anti-Muslim movement’s “most visible and flamboyant figurehead.” She is the author of a book called Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance, and CAIR has been one of her frequent targets. In her opening salvo against Shibly’s visits to history classes, she wrote: “Hamas-linked groups are talking to high school students? Co-conspirators in the largest terror funding trial in our nation’s history? Is that what our public schools are doing with our children – subjecting them to indoctrination and propaganda?” In a January 2012 post, she listed the email addresses and phone numbers for Miliziano and Steinbrenner’s principal and urged readers to “work the phones, demand equal time and a cease and desist from inviting Muslim brotherhood groups to speak to public school students.” Miliziano received numerous hateful voice mails, emails, and a threatening call at her home.
As the controversy escalated, Miliziano began to have self-doubt. “I did wonder, ‘What am I doing? Have I ended my career? I’ve been teaching 27 years. Do I really need this?’ ” she recalled.
David Caton, the Tampa-based head of the Florida Family Association, a Christian conservative group, also accused Shibly of indoctrinating students. Caton had led a statewide campaign to pass a measure to ban the practice of foreign law in the state, a bill that was an attempt to stop Muslims from using sharia law in Florida. That measure never passed, but Caton succeeded in other anti-Muslim activity, persuading the multi-billion dollar retailer Lowe’s to remove its advertisements from a new national cable reality television show about American Muslim families. As part of his campaign against Shibly and CAIR speakers, Caton persuaded his supporters to send thousands of emails to school board members in protest. The school system ultimately passed guidelines requiring administrative approval for guest speakers, but Caton was dissatisfied that the school board left the door open for CAIR speakers to return to schools. In the furor’s oddest turn, he offered a $3,000 reward to anyone providing tips about future speaking presentations by CAIR at Steinbrenner and paid for a billboard to advertise the reward.
Locally, at the Hillsborough County School Board meetings, Terry Kemple became the main face of the opposition. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, Kemple had run for school board several times and lost. In 2012, he would recruit dozens to join him at the meetings to oppose Shibly and CAIR speakers. Each time he had the mike for public comment, he pronounced: “I would like to ask everyone who is here because you don’t want CAIR in the classroom to stand up briefly.” He would state that CAIR had links to terrorism. He distributed flyers, including one headlined: “Parents say NO to HAMAS! In Our Schools.” Pressed further in an interview with me on his views regarding teaching about world religion in school, Kemple emphasized that he believed America was founded primarily by Christians and on Christian ethics.
What could have been a healthy discussion about the best way to educate children about religion largely became a political tussle between conservative activists and the majority of the Hillsborough County School Board. One school board member openly supported the anti-Shibly, anti-CAIR camp. The opponents typically focused on the fears many Americans have of Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11. Supporters of Shibly’s appearances spoke up, but often found themselves simply pleading for decency from one human to another. A Baptist minister, for example, stood up and recalled how the United States imprisoned Japanese families during World War II and how it took decades for the country to acknowledge its overreaction. “I thought perhaps we had learned from our mistakes and would never fall into a trap of ostracizing a whole section of our society,” he said. “Now I see groups trying to demonize a whole group of our society because they’re Islamic.” He made a plea for all faiths to work together. So did leaders of area civil rights organization and a Muslim father of four.
Shibly himself also made an appearance at a school board meeting. In February of 2012, right after Kemple gave his latest speech against CAIR, Shibly walked up to the front of the board room, stood at the lectern and wasted no time expressing his frustration. “With everything that’s been said, I’m just waiting for the marshal to jump out at any moment and arrest me,” he said and held out his hands as if to mime getting handcuffed. “My name is Imam Hassan Shibly. From those who know me, from those who know CAIR, they have nothing but good things to say about us. Unfortunately, the reality is there has been so many lies said against us today that I feel like I have to come out and say the world isn’t flat.” Some of his supporters in the school system had hoped Shibly would speak gently, but he was too angry to be meek. Still, he included a plea for understanding, for respect for Muslims simply trying to live productive lives in America. “We cannot let those who are promoting hatred and bigotry raise a flag of victory over our schools. Thank you, and God bless you. God bless America.” Driving home to his wife and children that night, he felt tears come to his eyes for the first time since his visits to Steinbrenner had made news.
Other school districts have fought similar battles. The Wellesley, Massachusetts, school system received a death threat after news broke of a sixth-grade field trip to a mosque. A Wichita, Kansas, elementary school added extra security because of ominous emails in the aftermath of opposition to an almost blank bulletin board display labeled the “Five Pillars of Islam.” A set of parents and a state lawmaker publicly opposed the display, saying the heading should have said six pillars and included a reference to the sixth pillar of jihad. They claimed jihad obligates Muslims to kill infidels, or all non-Muslims, a claim mainstream Muslims steadfastly refute.
In the face of public outcry, school systems have stood by teachers and lessons about Islam taught as part of social studies or geography classes. Miliziano had taught for more than two decades when her school was lambasted for inviting the Muslim speaker. She teaches Advanced Placement World History and touches on religion as it comes up naturally. The course looks at the spread of Islam during history, but rarely covers anything contemporary. Miliziano thought Shibly, as a twenty-something Muslim, could provide a glimpse at how some Muslims live and practice their religion today. She had used guest speakers on different religions for most of her teaching career and never faced a controversy till now. She devotes only three days of instruction to Islam based on the world history curriculum. The students learn about how Islam has spread and how it looks different, depending on the country. If anything, she says, the opponents’ comments affirmed why she and other teachers needed to keep educating students about other religions.
“I’ve gone back and forth in my head, is it CAIR or is it Islam?” Miliziano says. “But if you listen to people who spoke at the school board meeting, they are so derogatory toward people who are Muslim. And they’re talking about people sitting in the audience. They’re talking about people who live and work in our community who are professionals. It’s very clear it’s anti-Muslim. Calling women who were covered up pigs in a blanket, saying ‘those people,’ it was just a low level of discourse.”
Teachers I spoke with around the nation said they did not avoid talking about the negative sides of religion but were careful not to promote stereotypes. At Wellesley Middle School, sixth-grade teacher Jonathan Rabinowitz begins a four-week unit on Islam by asking students what they view as common stereotypes of Muslim. Then, using facts, Rabinowitz dispels many of those stereotypes. He points out that Indonesia, rather than Middle Eastern countries, has the biggest population of Muslims. He and his students talk about the claim that all Muslim women are oppressed and learn that the treatment of women varies by country.
In Modesto, California, Sherry McIntyre has taught about world religions since 2000, when the school system first began requiring high school freshmen to take a nine-week course on the world’s religions. The students study at least six religions and may cover up to 10, always including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Modesto, which does not allow field trips or guest speakers for the religions course, has never faced controversy in the class. The 9/11 attacks happened a year after the course began, and the teachers stuck to their plan to teach about Islam in December. They teach about Mohammed, his growing up years and the nuts and bolts of the religion. They talk about jihad and describe it as a holy war but also as an internal struggle rather than an external one against others. The teachers use a video of an American Muslim woman to support that point, and the woman explains how to her, jihad is a war within herself to be a good person. But McIntyre does not avoid what students may hear about on the news. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, she explained jihad the way she has for more than a decade, then added her own take. “I really want them to understand that people who are terrorists are awful people, and it’s no big surprise they’re going to drag their religion into the mud with them, and there are people with other religions who screw things up,” she says. People, not the religion, are responsible for the wrongs, she emphasizes. Neither McIntyre or Rabinowitz felt they had to tiptoe around the subject when teaching about Islam. It was just another religion relevant to history lessons.
But other teachers have been more nervous. At Wichita’s Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School, which faced backlash in 2013 for a bulletin board display on Islam, some fourth-grade teachers said they worried every year that someone might object to their lessons on Islam. They followed a prescribed curriculum, created by the Core Knowledge Foundation, and taught about the basics of Islam and how it spread throughout history. They did art projects with the fourth-graders and other activities to bring the religion alive. But these teachers also knew the fears that many people had about Islam. Wendi Turner, who had taught at Minneha for 14 years, said she initially was uncomfortable teaching about Islam because she knew so little about it. A Methodist, Turner grew up in Andover, a town east of Wichita. She trained herself so she became more knowledgeable about Islam. When 9/11 happened, she looked at the few Muslim students in her classroom and realized they were no different than she. “They just pray to a different God,” she said during an interview in the school’s conference room. “They pray to Allah. I pray to God.”
I asked her if she saw Allah as a different God, the very notion mainstream Muslims would like to dispel. Turner said that as a Christian, she saw the Muslim view of God as much different from hers because she attaches the face of Jesus Christ to God. She said, though, that her personal belief did not interfere with her ability to teach about Islam. She put her own religious beliefs aside. The more she learned, the more she realized that the three main world religions had similarities, too. She resented the opposition to the fourth-grade bulletin board display. “Ignorance is stupidity,” Turner says. “I’m not converting children.”
In Tampa, students at Steinbrenner High who heard Hassan Shibly cringed at outsiders’ contention that the speaker had brainwashed them. They thought Shibly was engaging, entertaining, and informative, teen after teen told me. “It really frustrated me that they were attacking this man who I thought did a great job showing us and sharing his religion,” says Rachel Evans, an agnostic who had never met a Muslim before Shibly spoke to her class. She regretted that others turned the presentation into something ugly.
In 2014, Miliziano invited Shibly back. The school’s principal at first said yes, then vetoed the idea, preferring to avoid more brouhaha. She knew that some of the same CAIR opponents still hovered in the background, waiting for a reason to renew debate over how and even whether lessons on Islam should be taught in an American public school.
All Miliziano wanted to do was bring world history alive for her students. Some public speakers, during the heat of the debate, called for schools to let parents know when a speaker was coming when the topic was religion. That way, students could opt out of a talk and do an alternative assignment.
“That’s ridiculous,” Miliziano says. “Then what are you going to do? Are they going to opt out of Chapter 14? Are they going to opt out of studying the Christian crusades? I don’t want to give the idea that they have a choice to attend, that there’s a choice to learn about it. It’s part and parcel of world history.”
Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist from the Boston area, is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press, August 18) from which part of this article was adapted. Find her on Twitter @lindakwert and her website.
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.