A firestorm in the blogosphere, ignited by a Cobb middle school's' use of curriculum materials defending Islamic precepts, has brought threats against a Roswell curriculum publisher.
The assignment by a teacher at Campbell Middle School, which asked students to write on the issue of dress codes, included a fictional two-page letter ostensibly written by a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian woman. In it, the character writes approvingly of wearing the Islamic veil -- and of her fiance's multiple wives and the law of Sharia.
A week-old debate over the "letter from Ahlima" escalated Tuesday night when officials of InspirEd Educators filed an incident report with Roswell police citing "terroristic threats."
The mushrooming controversy illustrates the influence of web-based commentators, as well as the minefield educators must walk on matters involving religion, particularly when that religion is Islam.
Last week, Cobb parent Hal Medlin complained about the letter from Ahlima to the school and to Channel 2 Action News and other media. The issue was taken up by conservative blogger Pamela Geller, among others. On her Atlas Shrugs web site, Geller said Cobb schools were guilty of "insidious subversion," "Islamizing public schools," and "shilling for jihad."
Medlin said that, in an assignment on dress codes, the letter from Ahlima seemed badly out of context. "Trying to relate this to school uniforms, which was the context they put it into, didn't make much sense to me," he told WSB reporter Tom Regan, adding that the letter was "slanted positively" toward Islam.
A company official defended the material to the Marietta Daily Journal, saying "It's important for kids to have some empathy for other people in the world. Some people think we're trying to teach their children to be Muslims, and that could not be more ridiculous."
But Daily Journal columnist Laura Armstrong was unpersuaded. The letter "promotes a rosy and incomplete picture of life as an Islamic woman to our impressionable seventh-graders," Armstrong wrote.
Wednesday, InspirEd Educators released a statement saying it "has received what the police have classified as hate email and phone calls, and the company and its staff have been threatened and discussed with threatening language on various websites and blogs."
The letter from Ahlima is part of a 358-page unit for use during a two-week segment that Georgia middle schoolers devote to the Middle East. It is paired with a letter from a fictional Israeli woman discussing her own lifestyle. It is part of the "resource materials" offered to local schools by the state Department of Education, from a vendor approved by the state.
But State School Superintendent John Barge said "I don't agree with this lesson, I'll be up front with you." Despite state approval of the vendor, the material might not have been reviewed by the state, Barge said. "I honestly don't have the staff here to do that," he added. "The reality is with budget cuts here, I have one social studies studies specialist for the entire state of Georgia."
Henry County schools also used the material last year, and listed it on its website, but subsequently removed it. "We have made sure that it is not being used this year for any lesson plans," said Henry spokesman J.D. Hardin.
Used in a context of discussion of the school dress code, the InspirEd Educators material was out of place, and appeared unbalanced, said Dale Gaddis, Cobb's area assistant superintendent. But as to whether Cobb is "indoctrinating American youth with Islamic propaganda" (as is charged by a website called Creeping Sharia), Gaddis pleads not guilty. "Our responsibility is to provide information in a balanced manner; not to endorse, defend or not defend."
Cobb schools are tasked with teaching Middle Eastern cultures, and to do so requires discussing the religions that formed those cultures, said Gaddis. "We talk about those things, not in a judgmental nature," he said. "We present the facts."
Cobb spokesman Jay Dillon said the system had only received one complaint about the Ahlima letter.
The difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion is a difficult concept to grasp, said Gordon D. Newby, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies at Emory University. A consultant on social studies textbooks for secondary schools, Newby said "it's the duty, it seems to me, of our public schools to talk about the multiple cultures and religions in America." But, he added, religion will always be a hot-button item.
That's all the more reason to educate children on such topics, said Lisa Adeli, outreach coordinator at the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and a member of the national organization of social studies teachers. "If you don't teach about critical thinking and controversial issues in the classroom you're really not preparing kids to be a citizen in a democratic country," she said.