Students May Soon Learn Even Less About Islam In Tennessee Public Schools

In a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bias, the Tennessee State Board of Education is poised to approve new social studies standards for middle schoolers that would reduce instruction on Islam.

During a revision process that took place over the summer, members of an educator advisory team made adjustments to a section of the social studies standards for seventh graders titled “Islamic World, 400 A.D./C.E. - 1500s,” according to local newspaper the Kingsport Times News.

Content from this section has been shuffled and reincorporated into other units, a spokesperson for the board told The Huffington Post on Wednesday.

The revision comes several months after parents and legislators raised concerns that seventh grade curriculum on Islam was resulting in religious “indoctrination.” As a result, the board decided to begin an early review of the state standards, which typically happens every six years, reports The Tennessean.

The new standards draft requires students to be able to describe the religion’s origins, founder and basic beliefs. It also asks several questions about the history and cultural context of “Islamic civilization.”

Sara Heyburn, Ed.D., executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, said the revision was “part of our ongoing and comprehensive process to ensure that Tennessee students have the highest academic standards.”

The advisory team that developed the new draft “used not only their own classroom experience and practical expertise, but also the extensive feedback gathered from other teachers, parents, and the public through an initial online review of the current standards earlier this year,” Heyburn told The Huffington Post in a statement on Tuesday. Instruction on Islam will continue, she said, along with that of all the world’s major religions.

“What Tennesseans will see in the revised social studies standards are that they have increased clarity and manageability and are age-appropriate,” Laura Encalade, director of policy and research at the State Board of Education, told Kingsport Times News.

Encalade also told The Tennessean that previous standards that went more in-depth about Islam, as well as Christianity and other religions, have been removed.

The state’s seventh grade instruction on Islam has long been controversial. In October 2015, Beth Burgos, a school board member in Tennessee’s Williamson County, put forth a resolution to make the curriculum and all supplementary educational materials available for parents to review, according to The Tennessean. She also claimed that seventh grade curriculum disproportionately covered Islam more than any other world religion.

But Tim Gaddis, the county’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and assessment, told The Atlantic in December 2015 that seventh grade classrooms covered the entire “Islamic World” unit in just one week. However, in Tennessee, even a one-week review of Islam has inspired fears that the state’s public schools are indoctrinating students with Muslim beliefs. In February, the state House saw fit to pass a bill to prevent “proselytization” in middle school curriculum.

Fear over teaching Islamic history and traditions in schools has become a common trope in America’s increasingly anti-Muslim culture. Recent years have seen student and parent-led uproars over an Arabic calligraphy lesson in Virginia, a worksheet on the basic tenets of Islam in Georgia and a vocabulary lesson that included Islamic themes in North Carolina.

Engy Abdelkader, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative and a researcher on Islamophobia, said objections to curriculum on Islam often cite concerns that not enough time is spent teaching students about terrorism, which Abdelkader said she finds “disturbing.”

“It speaks to how conditioned we’ve become as a society ― violence and terrorism is the only lens through which many of us are comfortable viewing Islam and Muslims,” she told HuffPost on Monday.

The reality is that hate crimes against Muslim Americans are at the highest level they’ve been since the period following the Sept. 11 attacks. This increase is fueled not only by recent terror attacks, but also by anti-Muslim rhetoric in the political arena ― and also perhaps by the fact that so few Americans understand the faith or know someone who is Muslim.

Tennessee’s population is 81 percent Christian and just 1 percent Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. Nearly 80 percent of state is white, and less than 5 percent of residents were born outside of the U.S., according to the state’s census.

The board published a draft of the new social studies standards online on Sept. 15 and invited the public to review and comment until Oct. 28. An appointed committee will consider input from the public and make the final recommendation for new social studies standards to the board early next year. If passed, the new standards will go into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“Now more than ever students need religious literacy,” Abdelkader said. And teaching kids about Islam in school curriculum, she added, “provides that valuable opportunity to promote and enhance greater understanding.”