Parents in Southern Indiana are upset by a middle school worksheet's portrayal of "Sharia law," which they say casts the Islamic code in a positive light while ignoring human rights violations and the oppression of women.
"The way that the worksheet is left would be like describing how effective Hitler was at nationalizing Germany and creating patriotism but leaving out that he slaughtered 6 million Jews," said Dean Hohl, one of several parents who spoke out against the assignment at a recent New Albany-Floyd County school board meeting.
He added: "I'm just not OK with my daughter – or any child that age – leaving class with the understanding that anything about Sharia law is OK."
The worksheet, assigned to seventh-graders at Highland Hills Middle School, presents a passage written by a fictional 20-year-old Saudi woman named Ahlima, who feels "very fortunate" to live under Sharia law in Saudi Arabia. She writes about how she will soon become a man's second wife and explains her modest dress: "I understand that some foreigners see our dress as a way of keeping women from being equal, but ... I find Western women's clothing to be horribly immodest."
"That document by itself, it's almost propaganda," said Jon Baker, whose daughter also received the worksheet. "If you read that, you would think everything's wonderful in that world."
Bill Briscoe, a spokesman for the district, said the curriculum is being reviewed in light of the complaints, per district policy.
The same worksheet, created by InspirEd Educators Inc., caused a controversy when it was used at a middle school in Smyrna, Ga., in 2011. Sharon Coletti, the creator of the worksheet and president of InspirEd Educators, said she received death threats and was accused of "indoctrinating" children at the time.
Coletti, who is a Christian and longtime educator, said in an interview with the Courier-Journal that she wasn't trying to indoctrinate anyone. She said she was just trying to create a lesson that was more engaging than dry, expository text pulled from a textbook.
"If I can shape something so that kids have to decide for themselves, once I get them involved in the situation, they never forget it," she said.
She added later: "I want (students) to be patriotic. I want them to be problem-solvers." But she said that she will remove the worksheet from the curriculum going forward because of unwanted media attention.
Hohl said his daughter told him that the purpose of the assignment at Highland Hills was to help students identify stereotypes. He said he travels often for work to Malaysia, where Sharia courts play a role in the judicial system, according to the CIA World Factbook. Hohl said he doesn't have a problem with Islam but with extremism, and he wants his daughter to understand the difference between "moderate Muslims" and extremists.
"Let's tell the whole truth," he said. "Let's help people understand what's really happening and what the rest of the world is like so when they are interacting with the rest of their global peer group, we can reduce the likelihood of conflict and misunderstanding."
Indiana University professor Asma Afsaruddin, who teaches in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, said there is often a misunderstanding of Sharia by non-Muslims, which could be contributing to the concerns felt by the parents protesting the worksheet. The Sharia is not in itself law, she said. Rather, it is a broad ethical code based on the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, from which people can derive legal rules.
She added that interpretation of the Sharia can change over time and so can the rules derived from it – just as attitudes and laws about slavery in the United States did. "Notions of democracy and women's rights and human rights are actually now being derived from the Sharia in Muslim-majority societies."
But when the Sharia is mentioned in Western media, she said, it tends to focus on "gross abuses of religious principles," like stoning as a response to adultery or honor killings, which Afsaruddin said "actually have no religious basis whatsoever" but are instead "cultural practices that pre-date Islam." This contributes to fears which she feels are unjustified.
"For the majority of Muslim men and women, the Sharia is a very positive concept because they understand what the Sharia means," she said.
Coletti said she developed the original lesson nearly 20 years ago to fulfill state social studies standards requiring middle school students to learn about culture in the Middle East. Ahlima, the character in the lesson, is based on an interview she saw on an interview in a news program with a woman who held many of the same ideas about Sharia law, she said.
Initially, the curriculum was two consecutive activities – one focusing on Ahlima and one focusing on an Israeli woman of a similar age who served in the army and wanted to attend college. Coletti said she later combined the two lessons for clarity.
She said that despite the change, the goal of the assignment was the same: to help students think for themselves and arrive at the conclusion that the Israeli has more rights and freedoms than the Saudi woman of the same age. If they don't arrive at that conclusion, she said, the teacher is expected to help the student understand.
Coletti said the assignment is the only one that has ever caused a stir.