Islamic Calligraphy Assignments

Officials in a Virginia county have closed all local schools following a backlash over one teacher’s homework assignment on Islamic calligraphy. As News Leader reported, world geography teacher Cheryl LaPorte this week asked her students at Riverheads High School to copy an Islamic statement of faith, or shahada, to understand firsthand the artistic complexity of calligraphy. Translated from Arabic, the oath reads, “There is no God but Allah. Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” Upon learning of the assignment, some upset parents accused LaPorte of indoctrinating their students and contacted the school, demanding the administration fire her. As the news spread, emails and calls came in from beyond the county, leading to a complete shutdown “based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution,” says a release issued today. It also clarifies that the community faces no specific threat.

According to News Leader, many of the outraged parents — who are Christian — said LaPorte was “violating children’s religious beliefs.” LaPorte, however, did not personally draft the one-page lesson, which came from a workbook titled “World Religions,” published by Teacher Created Materials, Inc. in 1995. The lesson introduces calligraphy as an art form before inviting students to practice it, in order to give them “an idea of [its] artistic complexity.”

On Tuesday night, over 100 people gathered at a forum at a local church to protest the assignment. The organizer, outraged parent Kimberly Herndon, led the discussion, noting that she wanted to take the case as far as the Supreme Court.

“If my truth cannot be spoken in schools, I don’t want false doctrine spoken in schools,” she said. “That’s what keeps it even across the board.

“[LaPorte] gave up the Lord’s time,” she continued. “She gave it up and gave it to Mohammed.”

Virginia’s Department of Education and Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond reviewed the assignment and found that it remains within state standards. In a statement, Bond reiterated that the directions only asked students to write the calligraphy for comprehension purposes:

When they study a geographic region, students study the religion and written language of the region. Consequently, students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, among others … The students were presented with the statement to demonstrate the complex artistry of the written language used in the Middle East, and were asked to attempt to copy it in order to give the students an idea of the artistic complexity of the calligraphy. … The students in the class will engage in similar calligraphy and drawing assignments when they study China, its unique written language and the yin and yang (a traditional symbol in Taoism and Confucianism).

LaPorte still has her job, but the school is arranging a board meeting on January 7 to host further discussions. Meanwhile, a group on Facebook called “SUPPORT LAPORTE” has emerged in solidarity with the teacher; on its page, students, alumni, parents, and others beyond the immediate community are posting messages of support. This morning, LaPorte’s daughter, Kacey LaPorte Bunch, posted:

My mother wanted me to share the following message with you:
‘I have been humbled by the love and support I have received from so many wonderful people. Thank you all, and please know you put the HAPPY back in my holidays.’
Mrs.LaPorte

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Richard Newton began our series, “Words to Mean By,” with a look at the inner workings of truth-making. Our next installment is a case study in the seemingly volatile nature of a text deemed “religious.” In the example below, parents at an American public high school balk at the secular study of Islamic calligraphy because the writing’s legacy is sacred for Muslims. Emily Egolf helps us think through the dispute.

On Thursday, December 17, 2015, Cheryl LaPorte assigned her world geography class at Riverheads High School an assignment involving Islamic calligraphy. The students were asked to copy a religious statement in calligraphy to gain appreciation for its artistic complexity. The statement was the Shahada, an Islamic statement of faith. “The illustrative classical Arabic phrase was the basic statement in Islam. It translates to: ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.’” This use of scripture in a public school resulted in a range of emotions – anger toward the instructor, fear of violence, and opposition of religious teaching.

 

The assignment was used for many years prior to this backlash, but never before had a student or parents expressed any dissatisfaction. Ms. LaPorte didn’t create the assignment; it was included in the textbook the school purchased for the world religions class. Despite this knowledge, members of the community spoke strongly against the high school teacher. “Messages called for firing the teacher and putting ‘her head on a stake.’ Photos of beheaded bodies also were sent to the Riverheads principal.” To put it lightly, people were angry about religious writings being allowed in school curriculum. This represents some of the effects of religious writings.

These expressions of hatred, violence, and anger led the school district to assess the risk of opening schools the following day. When you review the video attached to the article, there is a Christian woman talking about her views on Islam. She believes that Ms. LaPorte and the staff at Riverheads High School were attempting to influence and convert the religious beliefs of her child. “The county school system reacted. It removed the Shahada from world religion instruction. A different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future.” The issue lied in the genre and content of the calligraphy. “Genre refers to the style, form, or content of literature.”[1] Religion, as a genre, stirs emotions within people.

Of all of the emotions and actions that sacred writing can provoke, violence is the most destructive and harmful. The day following the calligraphy assignment, every school in the county remained closed, due to warnings of violence. There were two forms of violence that the school feared; violence from Muslims and violence from community members offended by the Islamic statement of faith.

Due to radical Islamic terrorism, there is a fear of the entire group of people. Following the uproar of community members speaking against the religion, the police feared retaliation. “Anything to do with Islam or Muslims somehow becomes controversial, and you get this knee-jerk reaction based on misinformation, stereotypes, bias, and it’s really reaching frightening proportions.” People who share religious beliefs are often associated together and unfortunately, the majority of followers are punished for the mistakes of the minority.

Not all of the reactions to the Arabic calligraphy were negative. On the internet, there were multiple community members that supported Ms. LaPorte and the teaching of world religions in public schools.

In conclusion, this article is a direct example of the effects sacred words, stories, writings, and books have on people. Emotions are a reaction to religion and in this circumstance there was anger toward the instructor, fear of retaliation, and a direct opposition to religious teachings. The expression of the calligraphy was intended to create artistic appreciation, but the effects were far from appreciation. This is an example of discourse and how one expression can result in various effects.

[1] Karl N. Jacobson and Rolf A. Jacobson, “Sacred Words, Stories, Writings, and Books,” in Introduction to Religious Studies, ed. Paul O. Myhre (Anslem Academic, Christian Brothers Publications, 2009), 55.

Emily Egolf ’19 is a first-year student at Elizabethtown College. She is a Business Administration major—concentrating in management—as well as a Human Services minor.

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