Latest Disputes over Lessons on Islam Show Need to Better Inform Parents

Learning the names of houses of worship
Learning the names of houses of worship

Some Tennessee lawmakers and parents are in a tizzy because they believe seventh-graders are spending too much time learning about Islam as part of social studies.

A Tennessee lawmaker leading the charge has spewed an all-too common refrain, saying the state’s schools were leaning toward indoctrination because they emphasized learning about Islam more than about Christianity. The lawmaker last week upped the ante and proposed a bill prohibiting Tennessee public school courses from including “religious doctrine” until students are at least in 10th grade. What the lawmaker means by religious doctrine is fuzzy. But she’s a part of a statewide movement of parents and groups taking aim at lessons on Islam. A Christian organization joined the fray by submitting a public records request to every school district in the state asking for curriculum that included Islam.

It would be easy for some people to brush this off as anti-Muslim rhetoric, given previous high-profile controversies in Tennessee like nasty opposition to the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro. But this outcry over instruction about Islam is also brewing in Walton County, Georgia, in a suburban Atlanta school system where some parents objected to simply seeing Islam mentioned in seventh-graders’ homework. And it has happened with variations on the theme in Wellesley, Mass., in suburban Boston; Wichita, Kansas; Tampa, Florida; and Lumberton, Texas. I reported on conflicts in those towns and cities as part of research for a book on schools’ efforts to teach about the world’s religions.

Teaching about religion, and not only Islam, has become an increasingly thorny topic for public schools.

In Wichita, in August 2013, a set of parents and a state lawmaker objected to an elementary school’s bulletin board display because it said, “The Five Pillars of Islam.” Opponents to the bulletin board, set up for fourth-graders studying the spread of Islam, questioned how the school could teach about the five pillars and exclude the sixth, which they claimed was jihad and a Muslim obligation to kill all infidels. Traditionally, Muslims refer to five pillars or five basic obligations of their faith, including daily prayers and fasting on Ramadan. Jihad is not on that list.



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