By Aref Assaf
Feb. 5, 2018
It was a teachable moment for this Muslim family, to witness the true spirit of empathy and rejection of bias and hatred from our community. A letter from a group calling itself, “Stop Muslim Lessons in Denville Schools,” was mailed from a Maryland post office and made its way to me. When I wrote a post on our town’s Facebook page inquiring about this letter, the response was a unanimous condemnation of the sender, their message and unequivocal support for us.
This story would have been but a passing gossip had it not been for the potential serious consequences if Denville Township schools and residents were to be confronted with a lawsuit like what is unfolding now in Chatham.
Notwithstanding, the people or organizations behind the efforts to ban teaching about Islam and Islamic civilization are run by well-funded national organizations overtaken by conspiracy theories, of Islamic indoctrination, about “creeping” Sharia and bias towards Islam versus other world religions. To these people, American Muslims pose an existential threat to America and its ideals.
As parents and educators, we know the state mandates via the core curriculum that students in 7th and 8th grades and high school learn about world religions and civilizations. Conducted usually by a history teacher, not a religious leader, the segment that deals with Islamic civilization, which spans seven centuries, just barely summarizes the achievements of Muslim followers, leaders, inventors and warriors. In its zenith, Islamic civilization became the centre of a brilliant civilization and of a great scientific, philosophic, and artistic culture.
In the classroom, there is no indoctrination or proselytizing of students. Only a passing reference is made about Islam’s articles of faith. If the claim made by right-wing pundits were true, America would be entirely Muslim by now. Considering the undeniable fact that most Americans know very little about Islam and even fewer have met or spoken to a Muslim, the fear mongering of these bigots is unfounded.
It may be appropriate to be mindful of what the U.S. Supreme Court has opined on this topic. Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion. The Court in Abington v. Schempp 1963, has said, “[i]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering the impact of religions. No one would have learned that it was Muslims who invented Algebra! It is both allowed, if not encouraged, to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. Teaching about religion in no way conflicts with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Several Supreme Court decisions reiterated the point that schools may not advocate or indoctrinate when it comes to matters of faith, but they have every right to offer academic instruction about religion. And consequently, parents lack the right to demand their children are not provided information about world religions.
America is a diverse nation with citizens tracing their roots to many races and religions. Religious literacy is a requirement of good citizenship. It includes “the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.” If anything, when every second word we read or hear is about Islam or Muslims, we need to know more about other cultures and religions not less. The more we know about one another, the less conflict we create in the world as hatred and bigotry often stem from ignorance.
In the case of our town, the “Stop Muslim Lessons” was intended to stir trouble and fester fear mongering. It instead, and thankfully, fostered greater empathy and solidarity with this fellow Muslim. That’s my America.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of the of the American Arab Forum, a Paterson-based a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.