The Limits of Tolerance and the Limitlessness of Modern Ignorance

A very curious event occurred in Virginia recently. An entire school district closed its schools in a [perhaps justified] panic because of parental reaction to a calligraphy lesson ???

The students were being taught about Middle Eastern art, and the teacher asked the students to copy by hand the following collection of Arabic letters:

This is certainly an interesting and difficult exercise. The only problem for all concerned is context. All Muslims and some Christians may recognize this as the Shahada, the Muslim creed of faith.

There is no god but Allah.
 Muhammad is the messenger of God.

In the context of a lesson in world religions or world cultures this might not have caused a problem: if the school was made up of families, administrators, and teachers who were not in the midst a panic about Islam as a religion with all of its political ramifications. Many of these parents in Virginia were convinced that the teacher was trying to convert their children to Islam.


In a certain context, these Arabic words uttered as an act of faith in the presence of believing witnesses constitute conversion to Islam. The distinction might have been a little too subtle for these American parents. Never underestimate the power of ignorance and lack of sophistication.

On the other hand, perhaps the teacher should not have been ignorant of the significance of these particular words. In retrospect is was like carrying a lighted candle into a room filled with gas. Candles are lovely, but . . .

Consider for a moment: what would have been the reaction of a group of parents to having their children copy out the following beautiful text in class:

This is from the Old Church Slavonic Christian creed: 

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker
of heaven and earth, and of all that is seen and unseen,and his only Son Jesus...

Imagine the reaction of conservative Jewish parents, atheist parents, conservative Muslim parents, etc. Imagine this lesson taking place in Saudi Arabia.

As educators, we used to be able to count on the informed and the reasonably balanced opinions of our parents and students and on the common sense of our teachers. We used to count on trust.The world has changed.


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