A local Islamic group filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court against Scottsdale Community College and one of its professors for teaching material that it says condemns Islam.
A student and the Arizona chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed the lawsuit, asking that SCC and professor Nicholas Damask stop teaching the materials in question until they "do not have the primary effect of disapproving of Islam."
The lawsuit comes after the student, Mohamed Sabra, posted three quiz questions from a world politics class to social media last month, igniting a firestorm of online criticism that caused the college's interim President Christina Haines to apologize for the "inaccurate" and "inappropriate" questions.
Haines also said Damask would apologize to the student and remove the questions from his curriculum. Damask pushed back, saying he had no intention of apologizing and that his academic freedom was being threatened.
The chancellor of Maricopa Community College District, of which SCC is a part, stepped in and said the questions posted on social media were taken out of context and fell within the scope of the course. Chancellor Steven Gonzales said he would launch a Committee on Academic Freedom and pursue an investigation into how the controversy was handled.
David Chami, an attorney representing CAIR, said the group filed the lawsuit to prevent Damask from "continuing to poison the minds of students."
"We have enough hate in this country. We have enough divide," he said. "We don't need our professors inflaming those seeds of hatred in students."
Damask told The Arizona Republic Wednesday that he had not yet been served the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
A spokesman for the district said they had not been served the lawsuit and could not yet comment on the allegations.
Controversy sparked by quiz questions
Sabra was enrolled in Damask's online world politics course, which featured lessons on Islamic terrorism.
According to the lawsuit, Damask repeatedly condemned Islam as a religion that definitively teaches terrorism.
In May, Sabra posted screenshots from the quiz to social media, where they were quickly shared through social media by several influencers and Muslim community members.
The quiz included statements such as "Contemporary terrorism is Islamic" and "Terrorism is justified within the context of Jihad in Islam." The quiz also asserted that Islamic terrorists strive to emulate the Prophet Muhammed.
The lawsuit says that Sabra answered the questions based on how Muslims practice their religion, but the answers were marked as incorrect.
"Mr. Sabra was forced to make a decision; either disavow his religion or be punished by getting the answers wrong on the quiz," the lawsuit says.
The district-commissioned investigation details an email exchange between the professor and the student about the quiz questions.
Damask attempted to explain that the goal of the quiz was to discuss the motivation of terrorists, not whether something is right or wrong under Islamic doctrine, according to the report.
"The course may outline these beliefs but that doesn't make it acceptable to teach this misinformation to other student[s] who aren't fully educated," Sabra responded. "Please review the questions I've attached and get back to me ASAP."
By the time Damask responded the next morning, the student had posted the questions on social media, prompting backlash to the school.
The lawsuit says that Damask asserted in his course that peaceful interpretations of Islam were false, quoting Damask's course material as saying, "Contentions that Islam does not promote warfare or violence cannot be supported on either theological or historical grounds."
Damask also presented several statistics that did not contain citations to academic material, according to the lawsuit. One of those statistics cited in the lawsuit compares killings by Islamic terrorists to slayings by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, saying, "Islamic terrorists kill on average more people every 90 days than the number of blacks killed by the Ku Klux Klan in its entire 120+ year history."
Damask never included any discussion of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, militant fascism or neo-conservativism and their "scripture-based terrorism" against minorities in the United States, according to the lawsuit.
"It is an unquestionable fact that the Ku Klux Klan espoused Protestant Christian ideologies to wage terror in the United States in an attempt to create their own nation-state, and even believed that Jesus was the first Klansman," the lawsuit read. "However, none of this material is discussed in any of Defendant Damask's modules, despite its impact on national and international politics."
CAIR said the course's only reading material came from articles written by anti-Islam extremists, including an excerpt from the book "Future Jihad" by Walid Phares.
Phares has served as a commentator on terrorism for Fox News and as an adviser to Mitt Romney and Donald Trump during their presidential campaigns. Phares was a high-ranking official in a religious militia that was responsible for massacres during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, according to an investigation by Mother Jones.
In 2012, the New York Times reported that Phares "regularly warns that Muslims aim to take over American institutions and impose Shariah, a legal code based mainly on the Koran that can involve punishments like cutting off the hands of a thief."
In its lawsuit, CAIR calls Phares "a known Islamophobe who openly promotes anti-Muslim ideologies."
"Don't you think you should have disclosed that to your students or put a disclaimer?" Raees Mohamed,an attorney representing CAIR, said. "What we see is an utter lack of true academic discussion."
Citing academic freedom
After school officials sent the professor a prewritten apology letter to sign, Damask reached out to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) saying his job and academic freedom were threatened.
FIRE wrote a letter to the college about its attempt to force Damask to change his course content and issue an apology. The organization seeks to defend academic freedom, whether for students or faculty.
"SCC's actions in response to Damask are irreconcilable with its constitutional and statutory obligations as a public institution of higher education," the letter read. "SCC cannot abandon its obligations under the First Amendment and Arizona law."
But Mohamed said attorneys aren't arguing against lively discussion and debate on college campuses, or even that the motivations of Islamic terrorists can't be discussed in classes.
Rather, academic freedom cannot be used to cloak anti-Muslim speech and make broad generalizations about the Muslim faith, Mohamed said.
Ahmed Soussi, CAIR's civil rights director, said that past court cases have determined that teachers must have discussions about religions in a secular way, which Damask did not do.
"This is basically Sunday school on SCC's campus," Soussi said. "This isn't just a rogue professor doing this one time. He's basically indoctrinating these people."
The district's recent investigation found that SCC administrators did not follow its procedures for responding to student academic complaints or discrimination complaints when responding to the controversy.
There are two processes school officials could have followed: one related to instructional grievances and another related to discrimination. Both would have required Sabra to file a complaint with school administrators, but he never filed a written grievance with any appropriate administrative officer at the college.
The district's report says there is no policy that permits disciplining faculty members over the contents of their course material, quizzes or exams, and that faculty members have the right to determine curriculum.
The lawsuit says that SCC knew that Damask's module was going to be taught, referencing district policies that require the course syllabus be submitted to the division/department office at the beginning of the semester.
"SCC not only condoned the material but approved of its use in the classroom," the lawsuit says. "Damask has been teaching this class for 24 years and upon information and belief will continue to teach and remain the Department Chair."
Chami said that once the quiz questions came to light, there was no investigation done into the course, or any indication given that the material would be reviewed for accuracy.
Paul Weser, the division chair, reviewed the course material and the quiz with Damask's permission, and he concluded the material and quiz were appropriate to test students' understanding of what certain terrorist groups believe, according to the district's investigation.
Chami said that many college students are teenagers who are exposed to Islam for the first time in Damask's course.
"We can't sit idly by and allow that to happen without standing up and trying to put it down," he said.
Damask is scheduled to teach this course again in a summer semester course that begins June 8, according to the lawsuit.