"Become a Muslim warrior during the crusades or during an ancient jihad." Thus read the instructions for seventh graders in Islam: A Simulation of Islamic History and Culture, 610-1100, a three-week curriculum produced by Interaction Publishers, Inc. In classrooms across the United States, students who follow its directions find themselves fighting mock battles of jihad against "Christian crusaders" and other assorted "infidels." Upon gaining victory, our mock-Muslim warriors "Praise Allah."
Is this a legal activity in American public schools? Interaction says it merely urges students to "respect Islamic culture" through identification with Islam. But the Thomas More Law Center, a public-interest law firm based in Michigan, disagrees and last week filed a federal lawsuit to prohibit one school district, in Byron, California, from further using the Interaction materials on Islam.
The Interaction unit contains many other controversial elements. It has students adopt a Muslim name ("Abdallah," "Karima," etc.). It has them wear Islamic clothing: For girls this means a long-sleeved dress and the head covered by a scarf. Students unwilling to wear Islamic clothes must sit mutely in the back of the class, seemingly punished for remaining Westerners.
Interaction calls for many Islamic activities: taking off shoes, washing hands, sitting on prayer rugs, and practicing Arabic calligraphy.
Students study the Koran, recite from it, design a title page for it, and write verses of it on a banner. They act out Islam's Five Pillars of Faith, including giving zakat (Islamic alms) and going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. They also build a replica of the "sacred Kaaba" in Mecca or another holy building.
It goes on. Seventh graders adopt the speech of pious believers, greeting each other with "assalam aleikoom, fellow Muslims" and using phrases such as "God willing" and "Allah has power over all things."
They pronounce the militant Islamic war-cry, Allahu akbar ("God is great.") They must even adopt Muslim mannerisms: "Try a typical Muslim gesture where the right hand moves solemnly... across the heart to express sincerity."
In the same pious spirit, the curriculum presents matters of Islamic faith as historical fact. The Kaaba, "originally built by Adam," it announces, "was later rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ismail." Really? That is Islamic belief, not verifiable history. In the year 610, Interaction goes on, "while Prophet Muhammad meditated in a cave ... the angel Gabriel visited him" and revealed to him God's Message" (yes, that's Message with a capital "M.") The curriculum sometimes lapses into referring to "we" Muslims and even prompts students to ask if they should "worship Prophet Muhammad, God, or both."
The Thomas More Law Center is absolutely correct: This simulation blatantly contradicts Supreme Court rulings which permit public schools to teach about religion on condition that they do not promote it. Interaction openly promotes the Islamic faith, contrary to what a public school should do. As Richard Thompson of the center notes, the Byron school district "crossed way over the constitutional line when it coerced impressionable 12-year-olds to engage in particular religious rituals and worship, simulated or not."
Islam: A Simulation serves as a recruitment tool for Islam, for children adopting a Muslim persona during several weeks amounts to an invitation to them to convert to Islam. (One can't but wonder did John Walker Lindh take this course?) The educational establishment permits this infraction due to an impulse to privilege non-Western cultures over Western ones. It never, for example, would permit Christianity to be promoted in like fashion ("Become a Christian warrior during the crusades," for example.)
Militant Islamic lobbying groups want Islam taught as the true religion, not as an academic subject. They take advantage of this indulgence, exerting pressure on school systems and on textbook writers. Not surprisingly, Interaction Publishers thanks two militant Islamic organizations by name (the Islamic Education and Information Center and the Council on Islamic Education) for their "many suggestions."
Americans and other Westerners face a choice: They can insist that Islam, like other religions, be taught in schools objectively. Or, as is increasingly the case, they can permit true believers to design instruction materials about Islam that serve as a mechanism for proselytizing. The answer will substantially affect the future course of militant Islam in the West.
Dec. 11, 2003 update: The Thomas More Law Center has failed in its court case; on this, see "Courts: Okay to Proselytize for Islam in California Schools."
Sep. 4, 2004 update: For a review of INTO ISLAM: An Introduction to the History of Islam, a derivative of the above curriculum manual, see William J. Bennetta, Another Manual, Another Fraud.
Dec. 27, 2006 update: It appears that students are on their own initiative taking up Muslim ways. WHSV-TV reports that at Spotswood High School in Penn Laird, Virginia, Casey Morris has begun a research project into Islam: he will wear traditional Muslim clothing and pray five times a day. In addition, Morris says, he will be going without pork for 30 days. "That's going to be rough but we'll make do."