The Ugly Fight Over Arabic in Augusta County
If there was any doubt that Americans haven’t figured out a good way to grapple with Islam, look no further than Augusta County, Virginia. Schools there are closed today after an uproar over an assignment that including copying the Islamic profession of faith.
No one comes out of this looking great. The assignment at Riverheads High School near Staunton—to copy calligraphy reading “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God”—seems well-intentioned but ill-considered. Parents may have been justified in questioning the assignment, but the level of fury isn’t commensurate with the offense, and it’s hard to imagine it happening with any other religion. And it seems like Superintendent Eric Bond, who made the right decision in refusing to fire Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher involved, overreacted by shuttering schools on Friday, especially as there were apparently no specific threats against the system of 10,500 students. (What better evidence for a conspiracy theorist looking for Islam’s creep than the schools closing on the Muslim day of prayer?)
It’s important not to overstate the level of backlash, a temptation that reporters and polemicists alike often indulge in stories like this. While a few parents demanded that LaPorte be fired for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” others rallied around her. “Both the Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it both in line with state standards, as well as not in violation of students’ rights,” *The News Leader *notes. Of course, that being true, it seems a little much to shut down the schools and cancel weekend activities, just over some attention. Students and principles said that while extra security at school this week had been a little weird, the general atmosphere was fairly normal. (There’s a lesson here about students’ resiliency and calm in the face of, and as opposed to, adult hysteria.)
All that said, the assignment could have been better thought-out. It came as part of a geography-class unit on world religions, which also includes Hinduism and Buddhism. And as *The News Leader *points out, LaPorte didn’t come up with the assignment herself—it came from a teacher workbook, raising the question of how many times the task has been assigned without summoning a firestorm. The homework includes a printed calligraphic rendering of the phrase (known as the shahada) and asked students to copy it, to get a sense of the complexity of Arabic calligraphy.
Of all the phrases to choose, though, why this one? Using the profession of faith, an essential part of converting to Islam, feels strange, especially when there are so many other possibilities that could achieve the same task. (The phrase is also on the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS, among other places.) Why not *bismillah al-rahman al-rahim *(in the name of God, the most gracious the most merciful), a far less charged phrase? There’s no reason to believe that LaPorte was trying to indoctrinate her students into Islam, but the choice of phrase just feeds paranoia about it. It may be just another case of conservative political correctness run amok, but there’s also something uncomfortable about using someone’s expression of faith in this impersonal way. It’s hard to imagine a case in which students would be asked to recite the Apostle’s Creed as part of an academic lesson on Christian liturgy.[bingo!]
Personally I’d go for John 3.16 in medieval manuscript style.
How do people come up with these assignments and still be surprised at the reaction? D’oh!