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.” 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.
 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.