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Islam 101

National | Some parents are starting to object to the way public schools teach students about Islam

Issue: "The $10 billion gamble," April 6, 2002

Brightly robed Islamic pilgrims endured miles without shade as their camel caravan swayed through the shimmering desert heat. At intervals along their route to Mecca, the travelers slid from their mounts to exchange greetings with other Bedouin caravans, or to purchase figs and dates from beckoning merchants at outdoor bazaars.

And they did all that before the recess bell rang.

The pilgrims in this caravan wore sneakers under their robes. They were 7th-graders at Excelsior School in Byron, Calif., who participated last fall in a three-week social studies unit on Islam that raised a furor among some Christian conservatives. Since Sept. 11, teaching about Islam in public-school classrooms has sparked a variety of reactions around the nation-from academic attempts to help teach Islam "accurately" to parental charges of public-school proselytizing.

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In Bangor, Maine, administrators at Old Town High School last month suspended Stephen Jones, a University of Maine masters-level student teacher. Administrators asked Mr. Jones to stop teaching a social-studies class after his supervisor said parents complained that Mr. Jones's teaching on Islam "had a strong religious angle" and that he was "bashing Christianity," the Bangor Daily News reported.

Also in March, the University of Texas in Austin (UT) invited 210 public-school educators to a conference called "Strategies for Teaching about Islam in the K-12 Classroom." The program, put on by several UT cultural studies departments and funded in part by federal grants, irked at least one Texas middle-school principal who wondered why UT offered teachers training about Islam but not about Christianity or Judaism. UT outreach coordinator Christopher Rose told WORLD his department has presented teacher workshops that combine presentations on several world religions, including Christianity and Judaism. But Mr. Rose said that since his program teaches about religion in the context of foreign cultures, federal funding parameters prevent workshop presenters from teaching about "Protestant Christianity as practiced in the United States."

Islam-in-the-classroom controversies first caught national attention in the Golden State. The Byron, Calif., fracas-reported by media outlets from The Washington Times to the Christian Broadcasting Network-surfaced when Elizabeth Leming, a 7th-grade science teacher at Excelsior School, read social studies handouts her son Joseph brought home. The material came from a supplemental teaching unit on Islam published by Interact, a curriculum developer in Carlsbad, Calif.

Joseph and his classmates were to "become Muslims," members of caravans making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The cultural part of the unit seemed kind of fun: Eating authentic Middle Eastern food, dressing in costume, racing against other classroom caravans. But Mrs. Leming, who attends an Assemblies of God church, objected to unit elements that seemed more about becoming a good Muslim than about Islamic history.

For example, children were required to memorize Islamic proverbs and analyze verses from the Quran. But the Interact unit didn't qualify the verses as applicable only to Islamic beliefs. Instead it directed students to "explain what the verse means in relationship to life, today." In another activity, students fasted through one school lunch or snack to simulate Ramadan, an Islamic holy month.

Mrs. Leming points out, "I don't think we could stage a Passover meal or a Seder, or simulate a Christian missionary journey, and get away with it."

Media reports that students were taught to pray to Allah appear to be unfounded. WORLD obtained a copy of the Interact unit; at least twice it instructs students not to pray, though it does include considerable detail about how faithful Muslims do the job. Also, reports of simulated jihad may have been exaggerated: Though the word jihad was used in a dice game, it was not in the context of killing or converting, said Byron superintendent Peggy Green. Instead, rival student caravans staged dice "roll-offs" in which they earned points to speed them on their way to Mecca.

The 7th-grade social-studies textbook used at Excelsior School has sparked an Islam controversy of its own. Assisted by the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), parent Jen Schroeder in January filed a complaint with California's San Luis Coastal Unified School District over Across the Centuries (Houghton-Mifflin). The book, which covers the millennia between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, omits historical detail unflattering to Islam such as Muslims' subjugation of Christians, Jews, and women. The book also skips over the foundational Islamic belief that any land that is not dar al-Islam-land where Islamic law prevails-is fair territory for holy war.

The textbook does feature some solid material on Christianity such as lengthy sections on the Reformation. The teacher's edition suggests exercises in which students are asked to name tenets of Christianity, expound on Martin Luther's 95 theses, and imagine themselves as Christian missionaries. But the book's critics, including PJI head Brad Dacus and Reisterstown, Md., pastor John Aldrich, say there are serious errors that need correcting, perhaps via supplemental texts. For example, the book asserts that the god of Islam is "the same God of other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity," and that the message revealed through Muhammad was "the same basic message" of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

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