Every human heart has a "God-shaped vacuum," Pascal famously said. This month, he might say that a Tennessee curriculum has an Islam-shaped hole -- and so do most mainstream media covering the controversy over it.
Ground Zero is Maury County, where parents of seventh-graders have complained that their children were being forced to learn the basics of Islam in seventh-grade social studies classes.
As part of curricula in history, geography and government, middle school children are required to learn about several religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. But parents were startled this year when a unit on Christianity was skipped in favor of teachings like the Five Pillars of Islam.
Brandee Porterfield, who has a daughter at Spring Hill Middle School, complained to the Columbia Daily Herald:
The mother said she was concerned about her child being taught the “Shahada,” the Muslim profession of faith which was contained in a foldable teaching material.
One of the translations of the creed reads, “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
“I have no problem with the teacher at all. It’s just that yellow foldable seems to be teaching our children religion in schools, and only that religion,” Porterfield said. “From a religion point of view, if the schools are going to be teaching religion in history, they need to teach them all equally.”
Other parents complained that children were told to write and recite the Shahada, which they said amounts to teaching Islam. Parent Brandee Porterfield told the Spring Hill Home Page:
"The teacher approached my daughter before class and was very understanding. My daughter told her she would not recite or write the Shahada or anything saying 'Allah is the only God.' The teacher said she wouldn't have to."
During class time on Tuesday, Porterfield said the teacher verbally asked students about the five pillars, "And the students were reciting the Shahada."
In the Daily Herald, another parent, Joy Ellis, says that her child was "required to write 'Allah is the only God.' ... I didn't have a problem with the history of Islam being taught, but to go so far as to make my child write the Shahada, is unacceptable."
If Ellis is right, that's a serious breach of the First Amendment -- not to mention school ethics. Can you imagine children in public school being told to recite "I believe in Jesus as my personal Savior," as a means of understanding evangelical Christianity?
But were the kids, in fact, so required? If reporters asked school officials, they didn’t tell us. Instead, they report more general statements.
The longest was from Chris Marczak, director of Maury County Schools. His 315-word response says in part:
The assignment covered some sensitive topics that are of importance to Islamic religion and caused some confusion around whether we are asking students to believe in or simply understand the religion. It is our job as a public school system to educate our students on world history in order to be ready to compete in a global society, not to endorse one religion over another or indoctrinate.
But then, Marczak then made it worse: "I encourage you to talk with your children, talk with your teachers, and talk with your principals." That prompted one parent to accuse him of a "political shell game" for setting curriculum at the school board level, then passing on responsibility to principals.
The Columbia Daily Herald helpfully explains that the state sets academic standards and that local districts determine curricula. It also quotes Jan Hanvey, Maury County's middle school supervisor, on when and how Christianity comes up:
The state’s pacing guide says seventh grade social studies begins with the Islamic world, then moves on to studies in ancient Africa. The year ends with the “Age of Exploration,” which is continued in eighth grade.
Christianity is studied during the Age of Exploration section partly because religious persecution is one of the main reasons pilgrims left in search of a new world, Hanvey said.
Hmmm, but that sounds like Christianity will be treated differently than Islam in Maury County. Sounds like Eric Owens of the Daily Caller got it right: "Students will hear about Christians persecuting other Christians in some countries in Western Europe." But Owens may have been the only one who raised that issue -- and if he asked for a response from educators, he doesn’t say.
There’s at least one other hole in the Daily Herald story. It has Hanvey saying that "the curriculum and topics have been covered for at least 31 years." But in his statement, Chris Marczak of Maury County Schools said the standards were just implemented last school year. No media resolved this discrepancy.
And those covering this story don't show much knowledge of the topic. The Spring Hill Home Page mentions "the Shahada, or Five Pillars of Faith in Islam: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage and creed." Then it seems to self-contradict in saying Shahada is the "creed pillar." Someone at the Home Page should have flagged that.
But what looms largest here is the significance of assigning public school children to recite the Shahada. While it's not unanimous, you can find lots of examples that say you convert to Islam by reciting the Shahada. This one, by the Office for Dawah in Rawdah, Saudi Arabia, will suffice:
Becoming a Muslim is a simple and easy process. All that a person has to do is to say a sentence called the Testimony of Faith (Shahada), which is pronounced as:
I testify “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasoolu Allah.”
These Arabic words mean, “There is no true god (deity) but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the Messenger (Prophet) of God.” Once a person says the Testimony of Faith (Shahada) with conviction and understanding its meaning, then he/she has become a Muslim.
If Tennessee's newspeople and educators were unaware of this, they need some education themselves. And they wouldn’t have to go far for it. This website counts at least 19 mosques in Tennessee -- seven just in Nashville, about 30 miles from Spring Hill.
Thumb: Calligraphic representation of the Kalima, the content of the statement of faith known as Shahada. Designer: x5aad via FreeImages.com.