Augusta County Schools Close After Controversy Over ‘There Is No God But Allah’ Islamic Calligraphy Lesson

Schools in Augusta County, Virginia, will close on Friday as a safety precaution following an angry backlash that flooded in through social media, phone calls, and email over an Islamic calligraphy assignment handed out by a teacher at the Riverheads High School.

According to an official statement posted to the website of the Augusta County Public Schools, “While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015. All extra-curricular activities are likewise cancelled for tonight, Thursday, December 17, through the weekend.”

The school district explained that the decision to close the schools was based on the recommendation of law enforcement officials after parental objection to an assignment handed out to students — as part of the world geography curriculum — sparked a flood of angry and threatening responses through social media, phone calls, and emails.

During a world geography lesson on Friday, December 11 at the Riverheads High School, the teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, asked her students to practice writing Arabic calligraphy. The school authorities said the purpose of asking students to copy Arabic calligraphy was to deepen their appreciation of the “artistic complexity” of the writing.

The calligraphic text that the students were asked to practice was a statement of the Muslim faith known as the shahada, “lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh,” which translates, “There is no god but Allah (God), and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah (God).”

The teacher also reportedly showed students copies of the Koran and asked female students to practice tying the Islamic scarf.

But some students objected to the assignment and reported to their parents who expressed “outrage.” According to school authorities, negative media coverage spread the story on social media, resulting in the school district receiving a flood of angry and threatening phone calls and emails.

Following an angry backlash from parents, the school authorities convened a meeting on Tuesday. The Staunton News Leader reports that about 100 parents attended the meeting held at the Good News Ministries church in Greenville, near Riverheads High School. There was high security at the meeting with police, requiring attendees to show photo identification and allowing no one to enter with a bag.

Some parents called for the teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, to be fired, saying that requiring students to copy an Islamic statement of faith was unacceptable. Some alleged double standards, saying that if the use of the Bible in schools was restricted, then students shouldn’t be required to copy Koranic texts.

According to Kimberly Herndon, who led parents in protest against the school assignment, requiring students to write the shahada was “indoctrination” and a violation of the students’ rights of religious freedom.

The Shahada In Calligraphy
The Shahada Declaration Of Islamic Faith At The Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan (Image via Atif Gulzar/Wikimedia Commons)

Herndon and other parents called on the school authorities to fire the teacher Cheryl LaPorte.

“That’s why we need to join together. If my truth cannot be spoken in schools, I don’t want false doctrine spoken in schools. That’s what keeps it even across the board.”

Herdon accused LaPorte of giving “up the Lord’s time” to Muhammad.

“She gave up the Lord’s time. She gave it up and gave it to Mohammed.”

In a statement to the media, Eric Bond, Augusta County Superintendent, defended the assignment, saying it was in line with the official curriculum. He said the lessons in the world geography course were about the geography of different regions of the world, including religious beliefs and written language of different peoples. He said students were only presented with an example of Arabic calligraphy and asked to practice the calligraphy. He noted that the text was not translated for the students nor were they asked to “translate it, recite it or otherwise adopt or pronounce it as a personal belief.”

“Neither these lessons, nor any other lesson in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion, or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief. Each of the lessons attempts objectively to present world religions in a way that is interesting and interactive for students,” the statement by the Augusta County Schools said.

“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 school authorities said the world geography curriculum also covers other world religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Responding to allegations that female students were asked to use the Islamic scarf, the school district explained they were asked to tie the scarf only “as part of interactive lesson about the Islamic concept of modest dress.”

According to the school district, the scarf used was not the actual Islamic hijab.

Parents reportedly admitted that their children were not given the translation of the text. But many Christian parents objected to the fact that their children were not told that they were being asked to write “There is no god but Allah,” a statement of the Muslim faith.

But not all parents opposed the assignment. The Staunton News Leader reports that a comment on Facebook criticized parents objecting to the lesson.

John B. Parker commented, “Are any of you deeply disturbed parents concerned that your child might convert to Islam? Is that the fear here? If you are far enough out of touch with your own child that you think their geography teacher might convert them to Islam against your will, then maybe it’s time to turn off the TV and spend some time with your kids. Besides, if they don’t learn about Islam at school, how will they know who to hate? Writing something on a piece of paper doesn’t make it true. We’re talking about Muslims, not witches.”

But as a way of reaching a compromise, the school district has reportedly said that a “different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used” in future world geography lessons.

While some parents and students have called on the authorities to fire LaPorte, others have supported her, saying that she is a skilled and dedicated teacher.

Anti-Muslim sentiments have peaked in the U.S. following the deadly Paris and San Bernardino attacks.

[Image via Ali Esfandiari/Wikimedia]