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.
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