On October 21, hundreds of parents and activists attended a town hall meeting in Sparta, Tennessee, to discuss what they’re calling an Islamic indoctrination of students in public schools. The event was sponsored by Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination (CAII), an activist group who claims there is an Islamic takeover of seventh grade school curricula in White County, Tennessee.
Religious studies of any kind can be complicated in public schools. But these anti-Muslim activists are exploiting this complex issue to further their own prejudice against Muslims. In fact, this attack on curriculum is part of a much larger anti-Muslim campaign being driven, in part, by ACT! for America.
CAII gained notoriety recently after running radio ads calling out school board members who approved the religious studies curriculum. The ad laments that “textbooks used in our seventh grade classes have nearly 50 pages of a positive view of Islam while Christianity is barely mentioned.”
The arguments mirror similar protests seen across the nation over the last couple years. However, like activists in other states where this has been an issue, the Tennessee group’s members don’t actually seem to be concerned about religion in the public classroom, but rather the specific religion that is being focused on (read: not Christianity).
And such rhetoric was on full display at the meeting in Sparta this week.
“I mean it only takes one child to take that book home and say the Five Pillars of the Islamic faith and convert, right?” said Anthony Wright, the chairman of CAII. “What was it in Chattanooga just a couple of months ago, one kid come right out of high school, went and shot five of our military?”
Unsurprisingly, when pressed by a local reporter it seems no one at the meeting could provide any actual evidence of the curriculum and textbooks in question converting students to Islam.
Wright also took issue with textbooks not mentioning 9/11 or terrorist groups like ISIS in relation to Islam.
“We need to be teaching the truth,” said Ed Butler, another CAII supporter. “Like when you say it’s a peaceful religion. It’s not a peaceful religion. You either convert or you die.”
Connection to mainstream Islamophobia
Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination has enlisted the help of more well-established anti-Muslim figures to support their biased interpretation of Islam like Usama Dakdok, a controversial Egyptian Christian minister based in Florida. During the Sparta event, Dakdok gave a nearly two-hour lecture where he wrote-off claims that Muslims had advanced the arts and sciences, Nashville Public Radio reports. He also called the seventh grade textbook in question “propaganda, hogwash and lies.”
Of course, Dakdok should not be considered an authority on religious fairness or balance considering he has made such claims as “every Muslim is a demon” and “we are in war with Islam.” He also has ties to notorious anti-Muslim blogger and activist Robert Spencer.
Also featured at the meeting was Dale Walker, president of the Tennessee Pastors Network.
“The sweeping Islamic infiltration is being deeply embedded into the Bible belt, and it has penetrated our public schools in Tennessee,” Walker said in a press release about the alleged indoctrination happening in White County schools. “Our founding fathers would be appalled.” This assertion of infiltration is a common argument among anti-Muslim spokespersons. It feeds the conception of Muslims being perceived as a foreign threat, rather than as friends, neighbors and community members.
Walker’s association with the group calls into question arguments members may make about the separation of church (mosque?) and state. Walker has previously praised Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was arrested after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Last month, he spoke at a rally alongside Kim’s husband Joe Davis, saying his wife was “going to jail for Jesus Christ.”
A look at Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination’s website reveals they enlisted the help of Tennessee resident Bill French to audit these pro-Islamic materials. French, who goes by the pseudonym Bill Warner, heads the vehemently anti-Muslim Center for the Study of Political Islam. In 2011, he was among several individuals listed in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center detailing the “anti-Muslim inner circle.”
Next month, Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination will be hosting self-described “ex-terrorist” Kamal Saleem on November 3 to discuss “how Islam is infiltrating the Bible Belt!” According to NewsChannel 5 Nashville, the group will also hold another meeting on November 4.
Broader issues facing Tennessee
Similar textbooks debates rooted in anti-Muslim paranoia has also arisen in Williamson County. Both textbook debates come at the heels of a bill – HB 1418 – proposed by Tennessee State Rep. Sheila Butt (R-64) prohibiting public schools from teaching about Islam or so-called “religious doctrine,” until high school. Butt’s bill is intended on curbing the non-existent Islamic indoctrination happening in Tennessee schools.