A Muslim college student and the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Arizona have filed a lawsuit to stop the use of course materials they say falsely teach that the only interpretation of religious texts is that Islam "mandates" terrorism.
Mohamed Sabra, a political science major at Scottsdale Community College, says Muslim students' constitutional rights are being violated because they have to disavow their religion and give incorrect answers to test questions in the school's world politics course or be penalized by having their answers marked as wrong.
The lawsuit, filed June 2 in U.S. District Court, names as defendants Maricopa County Community College District and SCC Professor Nicholas Damask, who teaches the course. SCC is one of 10 colleges in the district.
The suit seeks a declaration that teaching the materials violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says that one religious denomination may not be preferred over another. It also asks for an order that bars teaching the materials unless they are modified so they do not have "the primary effect of disapproving of Islam."
According to the suit, the course includes instruction based on biased perspectives of Islam with no opposing viewpoints. It says a section of the course on terrorism focuses on Islam but does not discuss domestic terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that espouse Christian ideologies.
"There is no place in higher education for the furtherance of false personal biases designed to create hostility against particular religions, regardless of the religions," the suit says.
The suit also says CAIR-AZ had to hire a religious scholar to create a campaign correcting the "Islamophobic information" put out by Damask.
Raees Mohamed, one of Sabra's attorneys, said students are being misled in the introductory class about one of the largest religions in the world. He said Damask uses inaccurate translations of verses from the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture, and teaches misinformation.
"Nowhere does the professor say Islam espouses peaceful views," Mohamed told UPI. "Nowhere in the course does he teach the accepted view of Islam."
District denies claims
Damask could not be reached for comment. The district has said the professor is not at risk of losing his job. Attorney David Garner, who represents MCCCD, said the district denies the suit's claims.
In a response brief filed June 10, MCCCD says schools are not required to delete from the curriculum all materials that may offend any religious sensibility. The quiz questions do not violate the Constitution, the district argues, and the suit's claims undermine First Amendment protections reserved for academic freedom.
The response also says that nowhere in any of the course materials is it stated that Muslims have a theological mandate to kill non-Muslims or that Islam is terrorism. Other statements criticized as offensive have citations to "sourced facts and statistics regarding terrorism by some who profess to believe in Islam," according to the district.
In addition, the district says the issue became moot when Sabra successfully completed the course.
"The possibility that another student might be exposed to the allegedly offending course content is insufficient to avoid dismissal for mootness," the brief says.
Sabra took the 25-question, multiple choice quiz at the center of the case on April 29. He was "shocked and offended" by some of the answer choices because they demonstrated "a clear hostility and disapproval of Islam" while also being factually incorrect, according to the suit.
The suit says Sabra correctly answered the questions based on how Muslims practice their religion but was marked wrong on some of them. Among the answers considered correct by Damask but wrong by Sabra were that Islamic terrorists strive to emulate the prophet Muhammad and contemporary terrorism is Islamic.
That evening, Sabra emailed Damask about his concerns that the questions mischaracterized Islam. He also posted three of the questions that he found objectionable on social media.
The professor replied that the "learning goal" of the quiz was about the motivation of terrorists, not whether something is "right" or "wrong" under Islamic doctrine.
The dispute sparked a heated online discussion about academic freedom after a comedian in Michigan, Abdallah Jasim, saw Sabra's post and posted a TikTok video on April 30 saying the questions were inappropriate. People around the nation and the world on both sides weighed in, flooding SCC with negative comments and threatening messages.
On May 1, after an investigation, Chris Haines, interim SCC president, posted a statement on the school's Facebook and Instagram pages apologizing to Sabra and anyone in the community who was offended. Sabra was not identified by name.
"SCC senior leadership has reviewed the quiz questions and agrees with the student that the content was inaccurate, inappropriate and not reflective of the inclusive nature of our college," the statement says.
Haines said that Damask, who also was not identified by name, would apologize to Sabra. In addition, the student would receive credit for the three questions and they would be permanently removed from any future tests, according to her statement.
Nothing was said about credit for other questions that Sabra says also were inaccurately marked as wrong. The lawsuit lists five questions as a few examples.
'Critcism -- not censorship'
Damask has denied that he said he would apologize and reached out to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that works to protect freedom of speech, religious liberty, freedom of conscience and due process on campus. The organization emailed a letter to Haines on May 7 urging SCC to stop any investigation of Damask and allow him to determine his own course content.
Katlyn Patton, a FIRE program officer, said in an email to UPI that decisions about what the "right" answer is should be made by professors, who are hired because of their expertise in the field.
"That doesn't shield them from criticism about the conclusions they've reached, and criticism -- not censorship -- is the appropriate remedy for speech you view as wrong," Patton said.
On May 11, MCCCD reversed its stand. Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales issued a statement apologizing for the "uneven" way the situation was handled and the lack of consideration for the professor's academic freedom. He said the questions were taken out of context and that the subject they addressed -- the reliance of certain violent groups on religious texts as a justification for their actions -- was within the scope of the course.
"Education at our institution is open to all individuals regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds, and we will not tolerate the exclusion of any person based on what they do or do not believe," Gonzales wrote. "However, we also expect our students and faculty to engage fully with the ideas and perspectives of others, even when they disagree with each other."
Gonzales also announced the formation of the Committee on Academic Freedom to "champion academic freedom education and training" and resolve academic freedom disputes.
In addition, Gonzales said that to avoid another "rush to judgment," the district had hired law firm Perkins Coie to investigate SCC's response to the social media backlash.
The firm concluded that after the TikTok video spurred critical comments, the SCC administration focused on how to placate critics and paid little attention to the exchange between Sabra and Damask and the context of the quiz questions.
The report, released May 26, also says MCCCD policies expressly give faculty members the right to determine curriculum and relevant subject matter for courses and determine student grades.
Damask continues to teach world politics, which is being offered this summer.