If you follow the national news, you probably know that the state of Tennessee is involved in yet another battle over the role of Islam in the public square. There are some people here in my state who truly want to see Islam go away and who seem to think that the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty applies to some religious believers, but not others.
However, when one of these battles begins it is important for news consumers to ask a few basic questions about the coverage. Let's assume that we are talking about another battle about Islam and conservative forms of Christianity.
(1) Does the coverage assume that all of the people in each camp believe exactly the same things? Is there only one approach to Islam presented? Does the coverage assume that all evangelicals take the same approach to Islam?
(2) When reading about critics of Islam, are we reading their actual criticisms or only views that are being attributed to them by others? On the other side, are Muslims involved in the conflict allowed to describe their own beliefs in their own language?
In other words, are the journalists covering a debate or are they quoting the participants in the debate that fit a certain template of what the debate is about?
The current debate in Tennessee focuses on questions about what students in public schools should be taught about Islam and when they should be taught this material. Here is a typical description of what the fight is about, drawn from a new piece in The Tennessean. The lede focuses on a bill proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt that would forbid the teaching of religious doctrine in Tennessee schools until the 10th grade.
Some parents complained after students were reportedly asked to write down "Allah is the only god" and memorize the five pillars of Islam. The complaints prompted statements from U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Butt and other conservative lawmakers blasting districts for possible indoctrination.
"Oftentimes, young children may feel conflicted with what they are taught at home versus what they learn at school. Our parents send their children to school to learn, not be indoctrinated," Butt wrote on a personal blog used for releases and fundraising.
Obviously, it is very important for this story to describe to readers what critics of the educational establishment -- that would be parents, first of all -- are actually claiming is happening in classrooms. At that point, reporters need to offer the responses of educators. In other words, readers need to hear voices on both sides about the evidence at the heart of the debate.
In an earlier Tennessean story, there is this additional information from the point of view of school authorities, discussing classes in which students memorize and recite the five pillars of Islam and similar materials.
Both are basic tenets of the Islamic religion, and simply learning them or repeating them doesn't make anyone Muslim, said Paul Galloway, executive director of advocacy organization American Center for Outreach.
"To learn what the first pillar is has nothing to do with indoctrination. You can't trick someone into being a Muslim," said Galloway, who is Muslim. ...
He noted there is a difference between teaching students about religion and proselytizing, and argued no one is in favor of public schools trying to convert children to any particular religion.
This is obviously an essential point of view in these news reports.
However, what do the parents who have been making the complaints actually say? What are the specific lessons and actions in the classroom that most concern them? You can see shadows of their complaints in the Galloway quote stating that "repeating" certain phrases "doesn't make anyone Muslim."
However, it is interesting to note that a simple search of the newspaper's site yields no references to this term -- "Shahadah (or Shahada)." And what, precisely, is the "Shahadah"? Here is the top of a BBC explainer about this term:
"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
This is the basic statement of the Islamic faith: anyone who cannot recite this wholeheartedly is not a Muslim. When a Muslim recites this they proclaim:
* That Allah is the only God, and that Muhammad is his prophet
* That they personally accept this as true
* That they will obey all the commitments of Islam in their life
The Shahadah is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. ... Reciting this statement three times in front of witnesses is all that anyone need do to become a Muslim.
It is, of course, crucial to know that millions of traditional Muslims believe that these recitations of the Shahadah -- when used as a conversion prayer -- should be sincere and voluntary.
At the same time, it's crucial to note that millions of Muslims disagree with that "voluntary" part, including the leaders of Boko Haram in Nigeria, to cite one newsworthy example. Also, it's safe to assume that many parents in Tennessee have heard of the Islamic State.
So, again, let me ask this journalistic question: What are these Tennessee parents concerned about in this case? What, in their words, is happening with their children that worries them?
Again, journalists do NOT need to assume that these parents are right, in order to accurately quote these statements noting their concerns. The goal is to report both sides of the debate. Correct?
Here is a summary of the complaints -- from the viewpoint of school critics -- found on the website of the American Center for Law and Justice:
For the last several years, parents from across the country have contacted the ACLJ -- from California to Maine -- concerned about the teaching of Islam in their local schools. It seems that many schools may be going well beyond simply teaching about a religion. From disparate treatment of religions, to distortion of truth, the teaching of Islam seems entrenched with problems.
Students in Tennessee and Georgia were told to recite the Five Pillars of Islam -- the Islamic conversion creed -- while not learning about Christianity or Judaism. Some schools in Georgia reportedly went as far as to tell students that Allah is the same Godworshipped by Christians. And at least one Tennessee middle school -- where Islam was covered for over three weeks -- students were told to write “Allah is the only God,” while the lesson on Christianity was skipped in its entirety. ...
Almost 7,000 Tennessee citizens have contacted us expressing their opposition to this egregious practice.
So let's look at this question in reverse.
Would Muslim parents in Tennessee or anywhere else have a right to be concerned if, in public-school lessons about evangelical Christianity, their children were asked to memorize and publicly recite (or write) the following?
“Jesus, I now realize I have sinned against you. Please forgive me of my sin. Please come into my life and change my heart. I want you to be my Savior. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.”
Or how about, in studies of ancient Christianity, they were asked to memorize and publicly recite this:
I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages;
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father through Whom all things were made.
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And He rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come. Amen.
Would Muslim parents -- or parents from any other religious perspective -- have a right to be concerned about these activities? Would it be important to include their voices in a news story about this controversy?