After a teacher at a Virginia school handed out a standard homework assignment on Islam, such an angry backlash flooded in that it prompted officials to close every single county school as a safety precaution.
While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015, Augusta County Schools said. Extracurricular activities were shut down Thursday afternoon.
And social media exploded over the school lesson — a simple drawing assignment — into a caustic discussion about religion and education.
Officials said the schools were closed out of an “abundance of caution” and there were no specific safety threats.
School administrators say a different lesson will be used in the future.
One week ago, students at Riverheads High School were studying the Middle East and were asked to trace a piece of Arabic calligraphy that translated to: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”.
Some pupils refused the assignment and parents accused the teacher of indoctrination.
Officials with the Augusta County school district were quick to point out that the study of a region’s religion and language are included in geography lessons.
However, anger built up and by Wednesday complaints had become so numerous that the school’s doors were locked and monitored.
When the world geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton rolled around to the subject of major world religions, homework on Islam asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
“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.”
The illustrative classical Arabic phrase was the basic statement in Islam. It translated to: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.“
When students took it home, it was like a spark hitting a powder keg. Some of their parents saw the homework as an attempt to convert their children to Islam.
Calls and emails flooded the school. Some of them demanded the teacher be fired for assigning it.
By Friday, messages – described as profane and hateful – had increased and the decision was made to close the schools.
Officials said that no specific threats were received, but law enforcement officials and the school district board recommended the closure because they were being cautious.
The lesson was intended to illustrate the complexity of the Arabic language, they said, and not meant to promote any religious system.
But future classes will use a different, non-religious example of Arabic.
The decision to close the schools has drawn criticism as well.
It removed the shahada from world religion instruction. “A different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” it said.
And it issued a statement saying no one was trying to convert anyone to any religion.