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?)

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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.

Not that the new compromise seems great either. “Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” the district said in a statement. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Arabic calligraphy is of world-religion interest specifically because it is Islamic. Because Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, it has attained an exalted place in Islam throughout the world, well beyond Arabic-speaking countries. And because many forms of Islam prohibit or discourage figurative imagery, elaborate, beautiful, and highly stylized calligraphic artwork using Qur’anic phrases is a staple wherever Muslims are, around the world. Islamic art is a major chunk of world art, and while it’s inextricable from religion, it’s also a larger, civilizational thing than mere devotion. Using a secular Arabic phrase glosses over all that context.

Think about it this way: Would someone try to teach a class on Western art while excising Christian art as indoctrination? Of course not—in part because they’d have very little to work with in the centuries between Constantine’s conversion and the Renaissance. But Islam is something different, something that many Americans still view as a threat. My colleague Emma Green reported earlier this week on how schools in Tennessee and around the nation are facing intense efforts to roll back even the most academic, detached lessons on Islam. In many of these cases, too, the fight is being led by a small but vocal band of parents who find the act of educating about Islam, a religion with 1.6 billion followers around the world, itself objectionable and dangerous. It’s no coincidence that these battles almost always occur in heavily white, Christian school districts.

The Augusta County assignment was more vulnerable to outcry because of the unwise step of including the shahada. But there’s little question this is about fear of Islam, and not about objections to religion in the public schools. After all, Augusta County schools also offer students the chance to leave school once a week to attend Bible study.