Features

Free speech fight

Culture | Public school sparks debate with classroom presentation on Islam

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

High-school social-studies classes aren't usually the stuff of national news, but they don't usually involve this combination: a public-school classroom and a Christian evangelist who lectures on the dangers of Islam.

That unusual mix propelled a Raleigh, N.C., high school into the national spotlight late last month and sparked an acrid debate over the nature of Islam and the limits of free speech in public schools.

The controversy erupted on Feb. 16 when Kamil Solomon, an Egyptian-born Christian, spoke in an Enloe High School social-studies class at a teacher's invitation. Solomon is the founder of Kamil International Ministries Organization (KIMO), a Raleigh-based ministry that teaches Christians how to discuss their faith with Muslims. The ministry also "raises an awareness of the danger of Islam," according to its website.

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In class, Solomon distributed pamphlets that sharply criticized Islam as a false religion and pointed out violent portions of the Quran. The national Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which learned of Solomon's visit through a parent, released a statement calling his materials "hate-filled, inaccurate, and intolerant." An angry parent of a Muslim student compared Solomon with the KKK in the local newspaper. CAIR called on the school to discipline the teacher who invited Solomon to class.

But in a written statement to a local Muslim group, Enloe High principal Beth Cochran said that Solomon's views represented one perspective on Islam, and that the school advocates "the free exchange of ideas." (Michael Evans, spokesman for the local school system, said school officials are still investigating the incident.) An online school board manual includes a section on academic freedom that states teachers have an "obligation to expose students to controversial issues and to help students express their own views on such issues."

Solomon's ideas are too controversial, according to CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. Anyone has the right to disseminate "hate-filled views" to the general public, he said, "but not to a captive audience of young minds." Hooper called Solomon's material "a clear plot to demonize Islam" but declined to point out specific factual errors in the pamphlets.

Solomon declined to comment on his classroom visit at Enloe High, but he told WORLD that he draws his information about Islam directly from the Quran. For instance, one of his pamphlets warns young women to be wary of marrying Muslim men, citing a passage from the Quran that instructs husbands to "beat" their wives if they are disobedient. "The teachings of the Quran abuse women," said Solomon. Hooper declined to discuss the "theological implications" of the passage Solomon cited, but said: "Muslims don't take that as license to beat their wives."

Marc Conaghan, a spokesman for the Raleigh-based Muslim American Public Affairs Council, said Solomon's materials inappropriately promoted Christianity over Islam in a public-school setting and used "taxpayers' money to facilitate" a religious debate.

The literature Solomon distributed in class not only discussed Islam but had a clear evangelistic thrust. A pamphlet discussing the differences between Jesus and Muhammad states, "Please do not be deceived by the Muslim propaganda claiming that Islam is God's final revelation to man given to Muhammad. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." The pamphlet also asks: "What is your decision about Jesus?"

School policy allows only for "secular teaching about religion," according to the board manual. Evans said school officials would examine the religious content of Solomon's materials to determine if it was appropriate for class.

In the meantime, Evans says the school will allow a representative from a Muslim group to visit the classroom and offer a counterpoint to Solomon's presentation. He also says the school continues to field responses from all over the country. Negative and positive reactions have been nearly equal, he says: "It's amazingly divided."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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