Muslim leader's classroom visit sparks controversy

4:59 PM, Jan 12, 2012   |    comments
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Hassan Shibly

 

 

 

Tampa, Florida - Hassan Shibly, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, says he has one goal when speaking before a group: "We hope by clearing up these misconceptions, we can build a healthier, safer community."

Shibly says that was his goal when speaking to students in a history class at Steinbrenner High School on November 29.

"The students are curious. They had heard so much negativity about Islam," Shibly says. "We tell them Islam condemns terrorism, that there's no room for terrorist in Islam... they asked good questions, hard questions, tough questions. We had a good dialogue and conversation."

Shibly has received letters from students, thanking him for his visit.

But that visit generated close to 4,000 emails to the school district, mostly opposing Shibly's visit. School district officials say more than 3,500 of the emails are a standard letter, and less than half (1,672) are unique email addresses.

District officials say the letter is apparently generated by the Florida Family Association, led by David Caton. He says he's not opposed to students learning about Islam, but to CAIR being the representative.

"I'm opposed to CAIR presenting Islam in the schools. CAIR should not be a vehicle of education for schools, given their track record their representations they have made throughout the country with regards to being apologetic for terrorists. This is outrageous," says Caton.

Some emails support the teacher's choice for a speaker, calling Caton the "extremist" and referring to those who think like him "bigoted followers."

"It's very clear Caton has a not a hidden agenda, but an open anti-Muslim agenda. He hates Islam. He hates Muslim," says Shibly.

Caton's Florida Family Association is the same group that made headlines last month when it attacked the TLC reality show "All American Muslim" and successfully got Lowe's to pull its advertising from the program.  

The lesson on Islam is part of the Sunshine State Standards. It's a guide for teachers on what kids should be learning. The standards include lessons on Judaism and Christianity as part of a class on World History and Religions.

Hillsborough School district officials say it's up to the teacher to pick the speakers for her class.

"We trust the judgment of the classroom teacher to make a wise choice in not only picking a speaker, but in deciding the learning activity students will be engaged in or how they are going to be tested," says Dennis Holt, Supervisor of High School Social Studies for the Hillsborough School District.

Holt says a teacher will pick a speaker based on the students' needs. "Does the content the speaker bring appropriate to the lesson? Is it something that will extend student knowledge deepens their understanding of a topic as was this case?" explains Holt.  

But was Shibly a good choice? Holt says, "I believe the teacher would say yes."

Holt says the speaker is given instructions by the teacher on what topics to discuss related to the classroom studies. Holt says the teacher stays in the classroom to monitor the conversation and make sure the speaker stays on topic and does not preach to the students.

"If that was happening, that's the point the teacher would step in and end the conversation," says Holt. 

Caton says the school district is walking a fine legal line. He says, "If the school district allows Islam to be taught in the schools they are obligated under the law to all faiths to present equal time on their faiths."

District officials say students do hear from speakers of other faiths when studying subjects such as World History and Religions.

CAIR's executive director's message to students and the community, "We have a lot more in common than divides us. We should love and respect each other as Americans. We all have the same hopes, same fears, we need to be united as a community despite our differences and respect each other despite our differences."

Isabel Mascarenas

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