Opinion: Our children need to learn about Islam

Linda K. Wertheimer is a veteran journalist, former education editor of the Boston Globe, and the author of a new book, Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age Of Intolerance.  She appeared at the recent AJC Decatur Book Festival.

In this piece, she discusses the controversies around the country, including Georgia’s Walton County, related to teaching students about Islam. Parents in Walton created a Georgia’s Islamic Curriculum” Facebook page to air their complaints about what their children were learning.

The Georgia Department of Education requires schools to teach about Islam and other religions under the rationale that it helps students make sense of world events. Georgia middle school students are expected to be able to describe the cultures of the Middle East and compare and contrast Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In teaching about Islam, Walton is following the state guidelines.

With that background, here is Wertheimer’s piece.

By Linda K. Wertheimer

The recent controversy in Walton County, Georgia, over lessons on Islam is small potatoes compared to other uproars around the country.

In Walton County, a few parents objected after seeing seventh-graders’ homework about Islam. They complained their children were learning that Allah is the same God that Jews and Christians worship. Their complaints were unfounded, given that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. The school system’s spokeswoman commented that the parents’ main issue seemed to be they didn’t want their children learning about Islam period.

A class exercise about world religions. The fill-in-the-blank sentence especially came under concern from some parents. (AJC)

A class exercise about world religions. The fill-in-the-blank sentence especially came under concern from some local parents. (AJC)

I could substitute at least a half dozen other towns and cities for Walton County and tell a similar story based on my research for a book about schools’ efforts to teach about world religions. In every instance, Islam has been the flash point, though usually over bigger issues than sentences on a worksheet. Schools have been teaching about the world’s religions as part of social studies and geography lessons for a decade or more because state standards wisely called for such instruction.

Our education system has begun to heed the wisdom Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark gave in the 1963 Abington v. Schempp ruling banning teacher-led prayer: “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

But Clark could not have predicted the anti-Muslim sentiment that would grow in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in America and color reaction to anything involving Islam. In Lumberton, Texas, a small town on the border of Louisiana, a world geography teacher faced ire after she let students try on a burka and other Muslim garb as part of a dress-up exercise on clothing of the Middle East and other countries. Teacher Sharon Peters had used the clothing for 15 years with the intention of opening students’ minds to the world around them. “I want you to put it in front of your face so you can see how others in the world live,” she would say as she passed around a black filmy veil some Muslim women wore to cover their face.

But during a February 2013 class, a student took a photo of five of her peers posing in the clothing, including a blue burka from Afghanistan. The photo went viral. Strangers sent emails accusing Peters and the school system of corrupting children and attempting to convert them to Islam. Conservative blogs and local and national television stations picked up the story. About 100 people crowded into the tiny school system’s board room one night. Some continued the onslaught, saying the school was glorifying oppression of Muslim women and trying to convert unsuspecting teens. Others, including Lumberton’s superintendent, stood by the teacher. A student told the audience that he was definitely not a victim of indoctrination and that his teacher had taught him not to disrespect anyone out of ignorance.

 In Tampa, Florida, in 2011, a guest speaker gave a talk about Islam to world history and comparative religion classes at a high school. One parent initially objected to the speaker because he came from a Muslim civil rights organization, and soon, his protest was joined by heads of various organizations, including the Florida Family Association, and national blogger and author Pamela Geller, described as the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over six months of school board meetings, speaker after speaker called for the need to the school system to establish guidelines on guest speakers on religion, an idea the board addressed. Like some parents in Walton County, some opponents in Tampa also argued that Christianity had been shoved aside. In both cases, teachers were teaching about Christianity as part of history.

Because of field trips, because of words on a bulletin board display, and because of passages in textbooks, similar issues have also arisen in Wellesley, Mass., Wichita, Kansas, and across the state of Tennessee and elsewhere in Texas. The underlying theme of the opposition always has a familiar ring. Opponents see Islam as something to fear, and many believe that particular religion has no place in a lesson plan.

But schoolchildren must learn about the diversity of religion in our country and world. All of us should because education can make us better equipped to discuss crises when religion is in the mix. Education can also dispel stereotypes.

Muslim youths I met around the country told me of frequent teasing and jabs like this one said to a 17-year-old Muslim girl in Lumberton: “Do you have a bomb in your backpack?” The girl wrote an essay for her English class that could serve as advice for those quick to denigrate all followers of one religion: “I judge people individually because ‘bad’ people come from all races and religions. Luckily, good people do, too.”

Reader Comments 0

65 comments
MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Some people receive spiritual nourishment from Islam, just as some people receive spiritual nourishment from Christianity or Buddhism.  The underlying purpose of religions is spiritual development, not simply the learning of facts.

The teachings OF Islam do have a place, especially if one chooses to study them on one's own, in any democracy, including our own.  That choice, without punishment or prejudice, is what makes this nation a democracy.

Islam is not "poison." Some people can be "poisonous" regardless of what religious affiliation they claim for themselves.


Ilpalazzo
Ilpalazzo

I agree with others, teaching about Islam, primarily which empires housed it, but the teachings OF Islam have no place in a democratic nation. And at that young age, it'll likely confuse children since it'll only gloss the nice parts and not talk about the bad parts. A lot of people like Star Wars, should schools teach the Jedi order code? 


I guess the proper analogy is if you teach kids about poison, should you also have them drink poison so they know what it does?

Astropig
Astropig

I don't have a problem with teaching about Islam. When they start teaching Islam, it becomes problematic.


Just describing the basic outlines of what a religion believes and it's origins shouldn't threaten anyone. I think that a lot of folks draw the line when the teacher starts expressing personal beliefs that deviate from the curriculum (which would be pretty easy to do, given world events).

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

@Astropig  I agree, as long as the course teaches about all religions, or at least the major religions in the US. Teaching only about Islam becomes problematic.

Astropig
Astropig

@BurroughstonBroch @Astropig


One things that embarrasses me when I travel internationally is the ignorance of other Americans about other countries cultures,beliefs and history. Some of the comments are inane (usually after having a couple of those little airplane bottles of hooch) and reveal an alarming ignorance.It seems to me that teaching the basics about the major worldwide religions and their customs would be perfectly okay if there was balance and scholarship that informed without proselytizing .

bu2
bu2

Not many people object to the teaching of Greek or Norse mythology.


I think its simply the fear of indoctrination as schools have done on other issues.  But its really taught in a pretty basic manner.  And as said below, they cover Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as well.

Astropig
Astropig

@bu2


Agree wholeheartedly. Students should be made aware of the basic tenets of these faiths as they fit into world events and history. The politics and doctrinal questions should be left at the door.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

It isn't just children who need to learn about Islam; from some of the posts here, it seems that many adults do too. 


And I will include college professors in that statement. A few years ago at the university where I taught a Full Professor brought a lawsuit down on the university when she asked a Middle Eastern student in class who was wearing hijab if she had a bomb concealed...thought she was being funny. It fit a pattern of discrimination by that professor, and the student's case was taken up by a local Islamic organization. Big mess for the University.

redweather
redweather

@OriginalProf @redweather A little online research confirms that it was at GSU and things got pretty ugly.  Although I have little use for organized religion, I hope the offending tenured professor was disciplined. 

Ilpalazzo
Ilpalazzo

@OriginalProf So in short, the double standard. Don't discriminate against theologians who believe they have their own discriminations approved by God.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Ilpalazzo @OriginalProf 

Say what? The comment by the professor was bigoted and also an unprofessional treatment of a student. It was intended to ridicule the student because of her religion, and that has no place in the university classroom.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

The main antidotes for ignorance and fear must continue to be knowledge and love.

Some of my best friends are a lovely Persian family who are Iranian-Americans who have been in this nation for at least 35 years.

Ilpalazzo
Ilpalazzo

@MaryElizabethSings Will they stay your friends when the power goes out? Think they'd be like the 'friends' in Kenya who abandoned their kafir 'friends' when the mall was taken over. Just say their little group chant and free to go, leaving 'friends' behind to be kidnapped by the 'radicals'.


Also - 35 years? Well gee,, Iranian you say? Geee.... sounds like they left town with the overthrow of the Shah

popcornular
popcornular

@MaryElizabethSings

Some of my best friends are a lovely Persian family

A lot of bigots say stuff like, 'Some of my best friends are Black'. 

Caius
Caius

People believe what they choose to believe.  And if they do do not have a reason for their belief they simply make up a reason.  Then they feel warm and fuzzy.

Knowledge makes way to many people uncomfortable.  So they choose to remain ignorant and desire their children to be as ignorant as they are.  Then they feel warm and fuzzy.




RichardKPE
RichardKPE

This opinion is largely useless.  The reality is that people (for the most part) don't care about information nearly as much as their own opinion, and they'll go to great lengths to have that opinion reinforced.  It's why Republicans don't watch MSNBC and Democrats don't watch Fox News. 

Hillary's Emails
Hillary's Emails

When it comes to assigning blame for any reluctance to teach about God and Islam, can liberals really be as determined to feign amnesia over their actions—as they are to attack Christians and Christianity?

Their own constant denigration (not mere "teasing and jabs") of Christian belief is the very example of biased stereotypes they're in search of here. 

Parents & taxpayers
Parents & taxpayers

@Hillary's Emails 

See much media interest in the Oregon murderer's targeting of Christians? 

Now try to imagine the non-stop outrage which would be expressed here and across the media if he'd targeted Muslims instead.

redweather
redweather

@Parents & taxpayers @Hillary's Emails Never mind. I see that at least one story at the Washington Post reports that the shooter asked asked his victims if they were Christains and shot them in the head if they said yes. If they didn't answer he shot them in the legs.

Parents & taxpayers
Parents & taxpayers

@Hillary's Emails 

The Southern Poverty Law Center is anything but a credible source, by the way. Under its current leadership slander is the preferred tool used to silence opposition to the liberal agenda.

Bill66
Bill66

It's a cult, not a religion.

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

Whether or not schools should be teaching religion is, in my opinion, irrelevant. 


The shock expressed by parents over this issue is evidence of the apathy of parents in Georgia.  The teaching of world religions (basics only) has been part of the Middle School Social Studies curriculum for the last 10+ years.  Yet, parents act as if this is "news to them" when the standards are published on local school system websites as well as the state DOE.





redweather
redweather

@Looking4truth That's why we shouldn't teach religion to school children. Many of their parents are complete idiots when it comes to the subject.  

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

@popcornular @redweather  Religion, to my knowledge, is not taught in the elementary grades. It is introduced as part of the Europe unit in 6th grade and taught again as part of 7th grade Middle Eastern studies.  Because of the structure of middle schools, most teachers in usually have more intensive subject area training than an Elementary school teacher. 

popcornular
popcornular

@redweather

The parents may be idiots, but at least the educators are brilliant. Who wouldn't want a dingy Elementary Ed major teaching their child about religion?

Ilpalazzo
Ilpalazzo

@Looking4truth @popcornular @redweather and how many of us are thinking back of our days in school pre-common core? I don't know about you, but Islam was given the Voldemort treatment and not named much at all when I was in school.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Yep, Islam is all fun and games until the killing and raping starts.  Many European countries, which have opened their borders to Muslim immigrants, have seen an exponential increase in rapes.  And here, we have an Islamic cleric declaring it is okay to "capture and have sex" with non-believers. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/apr/3/islamic-cleric-decrees-it-ok-syrian-rebels-rape-wo/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS

I'm sure those middle schoolers who dressed up in Burkas were taught the real reason muslim women cover their faces - just as I'm sure the author Linda Wertheimer has toured the middle east dressed in western garb.  When she does, maybe she will write another essay defending the beauty of Islam.

I also seem to recall controversy a while back where muslim women wanted to have their drivers license picture taken with their veil on - violates their religion dontchaknow.

I'm all for students learning about the various religions around the world.  Let's just make sure they are told the good and the bad - something that I don't think the politically correct pathogens running the school systems will do.

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

@Lee_CPA2  If you look at the curriculum, it calls for teaching the history and basic beliefs - and only the basics - of each religion - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.  Politics of each religion are not taught in Middle School. 



redweather
redweather

The absolute last thing we should have school children learning about is religion--any religion. 

Ilpalazzo
Ilpalazzo

@Lee_CPA2 @redweather Umm.. history is the actions of man chronicled. Religion is a pamphlet of ideas. You don't have to teach the pamphlet to read about the actions.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

looking forward to when they learn islam says gays should be killed   wont the PC libs have a conundrum then

RichardKPE
RichardKPE

@dcdcdc Judiasm and Christianity say the same thing.  Do some bible study.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

@RichardKPE @dcdcdc try the new testament - you know, the stuff Jesus and his disciples preached.  But of course you won't, because you feel so much better about yourself thinking Christian hate and want to kill.  And you'd never want the actual truth intruding on how good you feel about yourself.

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

To say that all Muslims are terrorists is not true even if most all terrorists are Muslim, and the kids need to know how to identify their enemies if they meet them on the battlefield