On Friday, December 11, schools in Augusta County, Virginia, were closed over safety concerns. Though no credible threats had been made, the sheer volume and tone of parents’ complaints about a specific lesson plan on calligraphy had prompted the closure. Irate that their sons and daughters would dare be taught anything Islamic, a group of parents had a town hall meeting at a local church where they strongly voiced their opinions and displeasure over the ordeal. The mother who brought this issue to light said that she feared the school was trying to indoctrinate her child into the Islamic faith. “I am a Christian,” she made clear, “and I want to stand behind Christ.” According to Politico the county voted 71 percent Republican in the 2014 midterm election, so there shouldn’t be any surprise over the conservative outcry that mimics the narrative from the GOP presidential field.
The progressive liberal response was nothing short of predictable as well, as many liberals made public apologies to the world on behalf of their fellow Americans who pressured the school into closing. The class, they said, was simply studying calligraphy and parents lost their minds over it because it was Islamic in nature. This decision to shut down the school has fallen on the heels of the San Bernardino shooting, the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. Nevertheless, people on the liberal side of the story have taken to saying that America has become severely intolerant and that xenophobic people like Donald Trump and Pamela Geller have unfairly dominated the discourse in that arena with their bigotry.
Let’s all take a step back, shall we? The calligraphy in question was the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith. Translated, it says: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger.” If the teacher had wanted to strictly teach calligraphy, there is a trove of secular Arabic poetry from which she could have selected. But clearly this was not a secular endeavor. Religion and public schools can be a tricky issue. For example, using the Bible as a source of literature is permitted, but only if it doesn’t push faith in the process. This exercise took a step beyond that. The shahada is a sacred proclamation of faith and is what practicing Muslim fathers say to their newborn sons and daughters. It is even supposed to be the last thing one says before dying. It’s doubtful that the teacher’s intentions were to promote faith in what should otherwise be a secular environment, as calligraphy is an exercise in writing aesthetically, but the content here does matter. A fair number of liberal parents would be equally upset if their child came home and notified them that their teacher had made them write out the Lord’s Prayer as an exercise—as they ought to be. However, we would scarcely hear a peep from conservatives in that hypothetical situation. What changes?
This is what I call right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. Religious conservatives like to push religion as long as it’s their brand. Think along the lines of Texans introducing Moses as a historical figure in textbooks and putting creationism into the curriculum, while excluding any other brand of faith. What these parents did in closing the school seems to have been motivated by simple bigotry—denying someone solely on the basis that they are different. However, for secular purposes they would be right to deny Muslims the ability to introduce theology into the classroom. Right, for the wrong reasons. Some liberals, on the other hand, see a problem with denying Islamic calligraphy on the basis that there has been an insurgence of intolerance of late, and Muslims in America are a minority group that needs protection. Wrong, for the right reasons. Had the issue been the promotion of Christianity, easily the narratives would have switched 180 degrees.
This smaller story is a symptom of a much larger problem in our discourse lately. The problem here is that we can’t apply a set of standards to one group differently than we do for another group. It makes the jobs of reformers like Maajid Nawaz truly difficult. The hard right criticizes him saying he is untrustworthy and is likely practicing taqiyya, the denial of one’s faith in situations of fear of persecution, to deceive Westerners. The hard left criticizes him saying he is an “Uncle Tom,” a bigot in disguise who only says what he needs to in order to sell books and is quite possibly in the pockets of neocons trying to push another war. In reality, he sees legitimate problems with the way some practice Islam, in exactly the same way a great many humanists see issues with Christianity. Nawaz honestly seeks reformation while making distinctions between Islam the faith, and Islamism, the application of the religion for political and social gain.
Indeed, Nawaz has paid his dues, and once knew the inside of an Egyptian jail cell for being an Islamist jihadist himself. After deep introspection, he made it out of his radicalized state to realize he’d been sold a lie. He now dedicates his life at his organization, Quilliam, to fighting the extremism he once helped to sow, and yet he faces severe obstacles on either end of the spectrum. Meanwhile nothing gets solved, and more violence follows. It’s time that we had a resurgence of being right for the right reasons so that we can all have the honest discussion that this issue deserves.