Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ironic Lack of Parity Regarding the Teaching of "Islam the Straight Path" in Michigan Schools

In 2007, eight years before the above post about Kuyperian principled pluralism and the video clip that illustrates this post,  I received an email from the largest state university in Michigan asking me to promote Teaching about Islam: a workshop for K-12 teachers.

It did strike me as ironic that such a seminar was being offered by a school that likely employs a cadre of professors who make sport of mocking Christian students and/or some of their traditional views on social issues. (All three of my daughters have survived this worldview guantlet in state college classes. A few years ago, on the first day in a large lecture hall, a philosophy professor asked for a show of hands of "the Christians in the room." My daughter's hand rose without hesitation. He pointed her out (seeing no other hands) as a warning and said something like, "Keep your faith to yourself. This is "philosophy" not a religion class." That was day one. Can you imagine him issuing the same warning to a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist student? I cannot. 

Obviously, not  all professors or public school teachers have a disdain for Christianity. My sister, for instance, taught for over twenty-five years in Michigan public schools, but during that career she was told that she could not have a Bible on her desk (even for private personal reading), and one Christmas, early in her career, she was asked to remove a small Precious Moments nativity set from the back corner of the room. No such request came when other religious symbols (e.g. a menorah) were displayed for cultural/educational purposes.  My reason for sharing these anecdotes will become self-evident as you read this post. 

I have chosen not to use the actual names of people or institutions, but the dialogue below is real (cut and pasted). My purpose was not to debate the merits of either Islam or Christianity. I was not even offended that this topic was available to interested teachers. My issue was the lack of parity between this red carpet seminar for Islam compared to the "open season" on Christianity and its December holiday. This lack of parity is the antithesis of "principled pluralism." 

The emails to me are in blue text; my replies to the university are in red text.

First Email with original subject line: 

Subject: Teaching about Islam: a workshop for K-12 teachers

Dear Principal or superintendent.

This notice is to let you know about an exciting FREE 5 day workshop the Asian Studies Center at "State" U is putting on for teachers. The workshop is "Teaching about Islam" and will cover both the present situation (terrorism, women's issues, the Sharia, etc) and the history of Islam with an eye towards helping teachers understand and teach this material in their courses. The workshop will run for 5 days, from June 25 to June 29, each day from 9:00am to 4;00pm .... The seminar will be held in the international Center at "State" U and free parking passes will be issued to participants. In addition to the seminar, teachers will receive a copy of the book Islam the Straight Path by John Esposito as well as other teaching materials. The workshop will taught by Mohammad Hassain Khabil who is completing his doctorate in Islamic Studies at University of Wolverine in May. the workshop flyer and application form are on this website.

[Link to workshop website showed the daily agenda which included: Introduction to Islam; Muhammad: the Prophet of Islam;The Qur’an; Islam after Muhammad;Islamic intellectual history from law to Islamic mysticism;The pillars of Islam, rituals and holidays; Islamic civilization, etc. the Muslim world after the Crusades. Islam and violence; Gender in Islam, and Muslim feminism]

Please let your teachers know about this exciting opportunity State board
CEUs are being arranged for the workshop)

Thank you so much for your assistance
[person's name]

Assistant Director ...[department name]

My reply:
Dear [person's name],

Thank you for the invitation to "State" U's seminar on religious sensitivity toward Islam in the classroom....Participants will be glad to know State Board CEU's will be awarded....

Having read the PDF brochure, I see that the lectures will promote respect for Islam, the Koran, and students whose faith affects how they live. To be on the safe side, however, I'd like to ask some questions before promoting this opportunity to my teachers:

Will this seminar help prevent teachers from belittling the personal religious beliefs of Islamic students? I trust it would discourage teachers from mocking Islamic students for bringing "their parents' religion" with them to college. Will teachers leave this seminar feeling it's their duty to open the minds of Islamic students? Will the required text "Islam the Straight Path" tempt teachers to say that a "narrow way" is only for "narrow minds"? One would hope not, but I've heard such comments made to Christian college students so I thought I should ask.

If the seminar sessions are subtly designed to help teachers poke holes in Islam, or twist the quotations of its prophet, or question the Islamic student's need for "God," daily prayer, etc, I won’t promote it. If anything about this seminar will result in teachers teasing Islamic students or putting them "on the spot" to repeatedly defend their minority beliefs simply because they are not shared by the majority of their peers, that's a poor model for classroom dialogue. If any seminar material could later be used to convey to Islamic students that their "morality" is from an out-dated book and has no place in a tolerant society, How intolerant would that be?

On the other hand, if Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil's 5-day lecture series will help teachers see how wrong it is to treat people of faith as if they are less than intelligent, I can support that. The brochure says, "Each teacher will be asked to create a teaching module or lesson plan on Islam…" and that the week "is designed to give classroom teachers a good foundation in Islam and to help them integrate understanding about this often misrepresented religion into their classes."

Sounds reasonable. For far too long, America's irreverent elite have declared open season on “believers.” Thank you, "State" U, for hosting a seminar that denounces misrepresenting people of conviction simply because they believe some things are right and some things are wrong. I'm confident that Dr. Khabil will help foster a respect for the Koran in academia that is often not extended to the Bible.

Speaking of which, please also send me any information you have on seminars that may help college professors develop this same sensitivity to all students of faith. Does "State U" (or Dr Khabil's U of Wolverine) offer seminars that address showing respect for articulate Christian students who when appropriate speak or write about assigned topics from a Christian perspective? When are the dates for that seminar? If possible, I'd like to promote both the Islamic and the Christian sensitivity seminars. If there is no such seminar, that may explain the apparent disconnect between the worthy goals of this seminar for K-12 teachers and the belittling treatment of articulate Christian students in college lecture halls across the land.

Thank you for making this information available to us. I will pass it along to my teachers. The seminar falls on the week of my daughter's wedding, and I cannot attend. I genuinely wish every educator in the state could attend a seminar that promotes the civil treatment of people of faith. We can only hope that the thousands of Michigan teachers who don't attend will not follow the example of those college professors who have zero tolerance for the faith-based worldviews expressed in their classrooms.

Your personal response is welcome. My purpose in responding at length is only to better understand Academia’s treatment of people whose faith is an active part of their formative thinking.
[My name and position here.]

The next day's reply to my questions...
Dear Tom:
Thank you for your letter. The seminar is designed to promote respect and understanding for all persons and to give teachers the tools to understand Islam and to counter the negative views found in our media. Mohammad Khabil is not only an expert in Islamic studies but is a practicing Muslim himself and I have talked to him at length and he is concerned about how Islam is represented in our schools. 
Rest assured that we mutual promote respect and understanding between all religions.
The book we are giving to the teachers is one of the two best introductions to Islam by a noted scholar in the field and it non-biased and non-judgmental and tries to explain Islam from the point of view of those who practise it.

We would welcome any of your teachers into the workshop.
Sincerely, [Name] Assistant Director ...[department name]

My response to clarify the real issue behind my questions:
Dear [person's name],
Thank you for your prompt reply. I hope you're having a nice day in spite of this rain. I admire your eagerness “to give teachers the tools to understand Islam and to counter the negative views found in our media.” ...

We fervently pray that the freedoms enjoyed by Americans—those same freedoms that allow Islamic sensitivity seminars in our schools—will soon be modeled with “Appreciating America’s Religious Foundation” seminars in Islamic schools in the Middle East. Wouldn’t that be great!

Wouldn’t it be great if Mohammad Hassain Khabil's could fly in a non-American-educated female professor from Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan to teach the section on “Muslim feminism”? That would be powerful. Maybe next summer.

I do appreciate the clarification of your seminar's goals, and trust you’ll allow me to clarify my deeper concern. You and I are expressing two different but very worthy topics for discussion among educators. Your topic is “Teaching Islam in our schools.” My topic is "... the realities of unequal opportunity for free religious expression." Let me explain:

As a practicing Muslim, Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil, will be allowed to add personal insights from his faith in each lesson he teaches at your university. On the afternoon tour of the mosque near the campus, he will be free to speak from his personal experience. The K-12 teachers he will be teaching, however, are NOT allowed to do that. As you know they are forbidden to speak of their own faith in the classroom. They could never take their class on a field trip to their church. After attending your seminar, they will be applauded for sharing their Muslim professor’s faith next fall but still scolded if they talk about their own. There's the rub.

I was glad to hear you say that the book “Islam the Straight Path” is “non-biased…and tries to explain Islam from the point of view of those who practice it.” I only wish that one of countless expert Christian educators could come to "State U" and teach a five-day seminar with a non-biased text like “A Case for Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis or “A Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel, each of which “tries to explain [Christianity] from the point of view of those who practice it” (as you put it).

After sharing the textbook, this Christian lecturer could have a session that focuses on the endless negative Christian stereotypes found in the media. (Think about how often you see a “Christian” portrayed as a corrupt preacher or obnoxious Bible-thumper or nut in a film, sit-com, or “reality TV.” The Christians I know are neither Ned Flanders or Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction who recites a paraphrase of  Ezekiel 25:17, each time he kills someone.)

The Christians I know are obviously nothing like that. They are intelligent, caring individuals who strive to follow the teachings of arguably the most influential “teacher” who ever lived. But Hollywood would rather depict modern Christians as the misguided leaders of Salem, Massachusetts, than the brilliant minds behind our Constitution and our judicial system (the very foundations that allow a Mosque to be built near your campus and for Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil to teach our teachers how to teach Islam in our public classrooms).

Conversely, Christian students on college campuses like yours are “put down” mercilessly until they reach the point of sitting mute in class while their professor tears apart their deeply held beliefs.

Do you see the Irony? That is the source of frustration among many administrators. Thank you for not taking this personally, but if the leaders you serve in academia do not see the cause of this valid frustration, it will take far more than five-day seminars to bridge the “religious divide” as we proceed toward these shared goals.

Thank you for your time. I realize I may be addressing the wrong person, but I welcome additional discussion. Perhaps I should direct my thoughts to another department or person. If so, rest assured that your polite response to this and the previous email was appreciated.
Thank you for considering these thoughts,
Third email from "sender"
Dear Tom:

Actually we do have a number of gradute stduents at ["State U"] who are women and practicisng Muslims who we hope to bring into the class share their views as to, for example, why they chose to wear Islamic dress, why their husbands are supporting them in their graduate work towards PH.Ds, what they want for their female children, etc. So we do intend to integrate them (they are from Malaysia and Indonesia) into the class. 

[Note to current readers: I had mentioned bringing in guest female "feminist" speakers from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Knowing that would not happen, she mentions speakers from more moderate Muslim countries in Asia. Understanding the difference between moderate and more radical forms of Islam (those who prefer Sharia law, over the U.S. Constitution, for instance, is important to the current "assimilation/immigration discussion. Now back to her note:]
....There is a great difference between teaching ABOUT religion and giving Religious Education with the view of trying to convert someone. The first belongs in our schools, the second does not. And to teach about religion, one should be able to take one's students to visit ALL places of religion in a community.

Best wishes, [signed by name, Center for Asian Studies]

My final reply with sincere thanks...
Dear [first name],

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I know you are busy and did not intend to have this discussion with an administrator, but it has been helpful to me.

I’m glad there are Muslim female grad students residing in Michigan who can speak on those topics at the seminar. I believe your participants will receive them graciously. The hundreds of thousands of Muslims in our state support our schools, our freedoms, and the fact that America is a “Melting Pot”—we love that about our country—but there are enemies who wish to spill that melting pot. Please encourage Dr. Khabil to reiterate that the vast majority of Muslim populations not residing here also respect America’s freedoms and that THEY TOO denounce those who wish to do us harm.

Thank you for clarifying that "There is a great difference between teaching ABOUT religion and ...trying to convert someone. ...Perhaps you will better understand the frustration not yet addressed if you remember that K-12 teachers are NOT free to teach ABOUT their religion. For instance, on “Ash Wednesday,” a Catholic teacher in a public school can be told to wash off the ashen cross on her forehead even though it’s only there one day a year [case law illustrates this action]. She is not trying to "convert" her class, but she would NOT be free to talk ABOUT the mark she was asked to wash off her forehead. And yet, I think most districts would allow a female Hindu teacher in our K-12 schools to display and talk ABOUT the "bindi" on her forehead. Please don't misunderstand my point. Like you, I think both teachers should be encouraged to bring this dimension to their classroom.

Think of it this way: Your seminar is for K-12 teachers (not comparative religion teachers, just regular K-12 teachers of any grade or subject). Your brochure says you will provide a CD with 30 lesson plans for teaching ABOUT Islam in the classroom. It also mentions “other materials” will be provided. Will any of those lessons make use of the Koran? That would make sense to me, but will the State Board granting the CEUs also grant that teachers be allowed to have a Koran on their podium as they teach "about" it? [That would be interesting because they are not allowed to have a Bible there.] 

Perhaps a new day is dawning that will restore the freedom to talk ABOUT these things. Seminars like this one you have graciously invited us to attend may hasten its arrival. If so, you are indeed promoting a newsworthy event.

I have enjoyed this discussion with you. Thank you for your time.


No further emails followed.
Note: The brochure made it clear that no public funds were being used to provide this five-day workshop (and all its materials).  Typically a workshop of this length and scope and eligible for state mandated Continuing Education Credits ("CEUs") would cost hundreds of dollars.  Any guesses as to the religious orientation of the individual, organization (or country) that paid the tens of thousands of dollars to teach teachers how to teach Islam the Straight Path?

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