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Ignorance: the New National Pastime

There are so many times when, in looking at some occurrence in the United States, one throws up one’s hands and says ‘Now I’ve seen everything’. When a 12-year-old Muslim boy is arrested for bringing a home-made clock to school, one says ‘Now I’ve seen everything’. When an arrogant, obnoxious billionaire blowhard is the leader of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination, one says ‘Now I’ve seen everything’. And when so many Democrats seem positively besotted with the notion of nominating for president a woman who distains international law, will quickly sell out human rights to the highest bidder, and brings a trainload of baggage to the campaign trail, one says ‘Now I’ve seen everything’.

We should, however, have long since abandoned this phrase; U.S. citizens are constantly finding new frontiers on the ‘Now I’ve seen everything’ front. The most recent took place in Virginia, and deserves our scrutiny.

At Riverheads High in Staunton, Virginia, as part of a world geography class, there was a section on world religions. As part of this, a teacher showed the Muslim statement of faith, written in Arabic. She asked the students to try to duplicate it. The assignment, under the heading, ‘practicing calligraphy’, read, in part, as follows: “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”

Now, to the untrained eye, this would appear to be a simple, straightforward assignment. But no! To the fearful and fear-mongering right-wing, this was nothing short of indoctrination to Islam. Said the mother of one ninth-grade student: “The sheet she gave out was pure doctrine in its origin. I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian.”

One wonders if that illustrious woman would have objected if, for example, some verses from the Bible proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ were read, while there were Muslims in the room. Would her righteous wrath have been vented on behalf of Muslims who, by her own bizarre logic, would have been being ‘indoctrinated’ into Christianity? One is advised not to spend too much time pondering this particular conundrum.

News of this purported abomination quickly spread, with many people demanding the offending teacher’s head on a silver platter. The response originally was local, but when a school teacher has the effrontery to attempt demonstrating the complexity of calligraphy by using the statement of faith of Islam, in a class devoted to teaching students about world religions, containing the righteous indignation of the most ignorant of the masses is nigh unto impossible.

As those on both sides weighed in, one widely publicized remark on Facebook was this: “This is so WRONG! There is only ONE GOD and HIS NAME is JESUS!” One has difficulty relating this statement to the assignment in question, for a variety of reasons. 1) How does anything about God make an assignment on calligraphy ‘so wrong’? 2) The writer of that statement obviously believes in Jesus Christ as ‘one God’. Does he/she not know that this is an opinion, and that regardless of how deeply held, cherished, etc., it is, it is still just his/her opinion? 3) Did the writer of that statement take even three minutes to familiarize him/herself with what this particular tempest in a teapot was all about?

As a result of the assignment and its most peculiar fallout, all 29 schools in the district, impacting some 10,000 students, were closed for a day, and all weekend extra-curricular activities were cancelled.

This writer is a Christian, active in the religion he embraced in his twenties. He hopes that his local schools are introducing students to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Information about Hinduism and Buddhism should be included. He hopes that these students are learning at least the basics of the Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Baptist religions, along with some knowledge about the differences of Orthodox, Reformed and Conservative Jews. Further, he hopes that students are gaining a basic understanding of Shias and Sunnis. He hopes that these students are being ‘indoctrinated’ to these various and diverse faiths the same way they are being ‘indoctrinated’ to algebra, world history and a foreign language.

When this writer is in conversation with friends of a different faith, they will sometimes refer to that faith. A Catholic may remark on a recent statement by the Pope; a Muslim may refer to an inspiring quotation from the Qur’an. A Lutheran may comment on a statement from a recent synod. This writer is not threatened by these statements; he does not consider that the person speaking them is only interested in converting him to their beliefs. He himself may comment on a statement from a recent General Conference of his religion. The goal is information, in the context of whatever subject is being discussed. The objective is not indoctrination.

Like many people, this writer has deeply held religious convictions. But unlike many people who apparently enjoy making a spectacle of themselves, he also has deep respect for differing beliefs. Martin Luther, Mohammed and John Calvin are people from the past who made great contributions to society. Pope Francis today appears to be leading the Catholic Church in a wonderful new direction. These and other men and women, from today and historically, and representing many religions, are making, or have made, significant contributions to assist mankind. That this writer does not adhere to the tenets of the religions they followed or follow does not diminish his respect for them, or their beliefs.

But an assignment that includes the Islamic statement of faith is far too dangerous for the innocent high-school students of Riverheads High to tackle; better they should be unaware of the realities of Islam; after all, what would it do to their fragile self-identity to learn that FOX news has been lying to them? No, much better to remain in blissful ignorance than to expand one’s mind by learning something new.

This writer should know better. He should know that his imagination cannot equal the alternate reality that is the religious right.  He should not be surprised at the bizarre ravings that seem to be the typical response to mundane events such as homework assignments designed to expand young minds. But apparently he doesn’t; because, once again, when first learning about this non-incident in Virginia, his first thought was ‘Now I’ve heard everything’. He does not look forward to whatever tomorrow might bring.

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Robert Fantina’s latest book is Empire, Racism and Genocide: a History of US Foreign Policy (Red Pill Press).

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