Catching up on a few church-state stories from before the holidays, outrage over a calligraphy assignment in a Virginia public school's Geography class became so intense that officials were forced to cancel classes. How can a calligraphy assignment cause that kind of reaction? Because the calligraphy was Arabic, and the passage assigned was a traditional Muslim recitation.
The class was studying a unit on Islamic culture, in keeping with state curriculum standards. The assignment was intended to demonstrate to students the artistic complexities of Arabic writing and art. Parents responded with extreme anger. The Washington Post reports:
Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher said the superintendent and the school board decided to close the 10,000-student school system after district officials and the Riverheads High School teacher who gave the assignment received emails that seemed to increase in volume and vitriol as the week wore on. Most emails and messages assailed the school and the teacher for "indoctrinating" students in Islam, and some referenced violence generally.
Fisher said he saw messages that called for firing the teacher and putting "her head on a stake." Photos of beheaded bodies also were sent to the Riverheads principal. In a news release, the superintendent also said people indicated that they were planning protests at school buildings and that "some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials."
The teacher could have chosen a secular writing to demonstrate the intricacies of Arabic calligraphy, but the religious content was clearly not the purpose of her assignment; the students were not informed of the writing's meaning.
A Washington Post editorial last week rightly criticized the "hysteria" and "feverish response" of some parents and members of the community protesting the assignment. Learning about a language and surrounding cultural practices is surely an appropriate geography lesson and can be accomplished without crossing the church-state barrier into religious indoctrination.
Resisting even that level of global education, as the Post's editorial board argued, smacks of religious prejudice. This story unfortunately is only the latest in a growing controversy over the teaching of elements of Arabic culture in public schools following similar disputes in Tennessee and Georgia. Let's hope this does not continue to grow into a major story in 2016.