Response to geography homework on Islam shuts down schools

A homework assignment on comparative religion for a geography class has led to the closure of multiple schools in Virginia, USA. The assignment, taken from a standard set of recommended exercises by the teacher, asked students to copy an item of Arabic calligraphy which expressed the Islamic declaration of faith. In response social media has exploded and the school has been receiving threats with tens of thousands of emails and Facebook posts which “posed a risk of harm to school officials”. The teacher concerned is now fearful for herself and her family.

Learning about other religions is a positive experience, and this knowledge needs to be shared in schools. Participating in religious practice, however, should always be optional. Expressing declarations of faith, whether it is saying prayers or copying text, goes beyond observation and learning about the faith of others.

The educational resources in this case were problematic, and the county school system was right to decide that a “different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future”. We hope they will use this different example for the copying exercise, while still presenting the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) and educating students on its meaning. This is particularly important today as extremist groups try to make the symbol their own, misrepresenting both this symbol of Islam and Islam itself.

OHPI’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, noted that “the response on social media to this mistake, particularly on Facebook, has highlighted the growing tension which anti-Muslim online groups are creating. Had the issue of religious indoctrination through the school system instead involved a Muslim or Jewish child being told to participate in a passion play for Christmas, there would have likely been almost no social media response.”

The anti-Muslim sentiment expressed over this homework largely reflects the idea that Muslims are a cultural threat to western values in general and to Christian values in particular. Mel Robbins has suggested it is lack of strength in their own faith and identity which is causing such a strong reaction.

The latest research from the Online Hate Prevention Institute indicates that when online content presenting Muslims as a cultural threat is reported to Facebook, there is only an 18% chance the content will then be remove. A recent statement by Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to Muslim users of Facebook said that the platform “will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you”. With 82% of reports being rejected, Facebook itself can do a lot more to address this issue, starting with more effective responses to users complaints.

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