Fearing “indoctrination,” parents in one US state are succeeding in removing Islam from a school curriculum

Parents fear their kids will know too much about this book.
Parents fear their kids will know too much about this book.
Image: A.M. Ahad/AP Photo
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Most educators agree that studying major religions helps people understand the world. But some parents in the US fear that teaching about Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people, is akin to “indoctrination”—and they want the faith stricken from school curriculums. In recent months, outraged parents in Georgia confronted a local school board over lessons on Islam, while a school district in Virginia was closed for a day due to furor over a lesson on Arabic calligraphy. But in Tennessee, their efforts are succeeding.

The Tennessee State Board of Education published a draft of new state social studies standards for review on Sept. 15. Students currently learn about Islam in their seventh grade social studies curriculum, but the proposed new standards have omitted the section “Islamic World, 400 AD/CE—1500s” from the draft. The sections that touch on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions were left unchanged.

The new draft standards follow a March bill passed by the Tennessee state legislature, which allows local school boards to decide how they want to teach religion. The bill stemmed from a heated debate in Maury County, where parents of seventh grade students were upset that students learned about the Five Pillars of Islam, one of the basic elements of the Muslim faith.

The board of education has said that students will still learn about Islam (including basics, like the Five Pillars), but that the standards have been “streamlined.” Under the proposed standards, the board says students will learn about Islam in the history section titled “Southwest Asia and North Africa: 400-1500s CE.” But previous subjects like the origins of Islam, the life of its founder Muhammad, the differences between Sunnis, Shi’ites and other sects, the connection between Islam and Christianity and Judaism and other subjects will no longer be covered.

“Overall, some of the streamlining was trying to take in account that standards weren’t age-level appropriate or went into too much detail,” Laura Encalade, board of education director of policy and research, told the Tennessean.

Critics of the new standards say they minimize the subject and virtually eliminate it from the curriculum.

Michael Hughes, the chairman of Tennessee’s board of education in Sullivan County, said that parents don’t want Islam covered in school. “They’re in favor of just (taking it out of the standards). I don’t believe they want it taught at all,” he told the Kingsport Times News.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a Boston-based education writer and author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, says that it’s more vital than ever for students to learn about the world’s religions. “It makes it easier to understand history. It helps you understand the crises going on in our world, both past and present. But it also helps us understand the people in our community,” she said.

The new standards are currently under public review. Once finalized, they will be in place for the 2019-20 school year.