Wellesley is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Greater Boston area, exhibiting a mixture of upper-class lifestyles and progressive politics typical of such communities. It is best known as the location of Wellesley College, which for years has been a beacon of radical feminism and other ideological orthodoxies. On September 22 The Boston Globe reported the following incident: Robert Meltzer, a lawyer specializing in constitutional law, said that he intended to file a suit in federal court on behalf of a mother whose child was taken on a trip to a downtown mosque. The trip, organized for a group of sixth-grade students by a Wellesley public school, was part of a program to educate children in the values of diversity. The diversity in this instance was both religious and social—the mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center, is located in Roxbury, a largely African-American part of town. Bella Wong, the Wellesley school district superintendent, explained: “Part of it is that we are in a suburb and it was an attractive option to go into the city. It was sort of another added benefit to expose students to diversity.”
This pedagogical intention reached a certain climax when five boys bowed their heads while attending prayers in the mosque. The incident was filmed by a mother who went along on the trip and for whom the lawyer is acting. There is some disagreement concerning her motive. A group wonderfully named Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which had been a vocal critic of the mosque when it opened in 2009, claims that it had asked the mother to film the event. Mr. Meltzer denies this claim. He also said that, bowed heads or not, taking children of this age to a religious service was a violation of their First Amendment rights, because they were too young to consent to the religious message involved: “We view this as a very simple constitutional law case… We believe that a school cannot bring middle-school children to any house of worship. Period.” At the time of writing the issue is pending, while Mr. Meltzer is drafting a letter to the Wellesley town counsel, spelling out “remedies” to avoid his lawsuit. In any case, Ms. Wong has already apologized and promised that in future teachers would be given “clearer guidance” on how to deal with religion in the context of diversity education.
I am not acquainted with any of the people involved in this challenge to the Wellesley school system and thus have no direct knowledge of their overall worldview. But Mr. Meltzer’s understanding of the First Amendment appears to be very close to that of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in an earlier blog entry I characterized as a Kemalist organization: Public space and its institutions must be kept antiseptically clear of any taint of religion. Incidentally this view is aptly caught in an old Jewish joke: On one of the High Holidays Mr. Cohen is attending services in a synagogue which has reserved seats for such occasions. A neighbor of Mr. Cohen rushes to the synagogue to tell him that his wife has had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The neighbor is stopped by an usher who tells him that nobody may enter without a reserved seat. The neighbor protests that this is a matter of life and death, that he absolutely must speak to Mr. Cohen. Thereupon the usher relents. “Alright. You can go in. But don’t let me catch you praying!”.
The Texas State Board of Education is about as far removed ideologically from the ACLU as it is possible to be, but it too is currently embroiled in a debate that touches on Islam, this one involving school textbooks rather than school trips. This relatively obscure agency of state government exercises great power far beyond the borders of Texas. It is the largest single purchaser of textbooks in the country. Publishers would find it expensive to print different textbooks for Texas and for the rest of the country, so they try hard to accommodate the conservative-leaning agency that seeks to protect young Texan minds from outside ideological contamination (sort of saying: “Wellesley, keep your grubby hands off our kids!”) The Board was previously involved in a controversy over biology textbooks, with its more conservative members wanting evolution to be taught alongside its “creationist” critics. (“Creation science” criticizes all forms of Darwinism, and instead promotes the attractively named “young earth theory,” which asserts that the earth is only about six thousand years old, as per Biblical calculations. It seems to me that teaching evolution alongside creationism is roughly equivalent to giving equal time to astronomy and astrology in science classes.) More recently the Board has pushed for the revision of history textbooks, so as to eliminate alleged liberal bias in the presentation of American history.
On September 23 The New York Times reported that some conservative members of the Texas State Board of Education allege that history textbooks used in the state had a pro-Islamic bias. A resolution was filed, demanding that this bias be eliminated. Randy Rives, a member of the school board in Odessa, Texas, is spearheading a campaign backing the resolution. He believes that companies from the Middle East have invested in the American publishing industry and are influencing its products. The resolution claims that the textbooks highlight atrocities committed by Christians (such as the Crusaders) while downplaying violence by Muslims. The resolution is more symbolic than practical: The standards for textbooks on world history have already been approved by the board and will probably not be up for revision several years from now. But the resolution states that the Board would “look to reject future prejudicial social studies submissions that continue to offend Texas law with respect to treatment of the world’s major religious groups”. In other words, publishers are warned. The result may eventually be that middle-school students in Massachusetts will not only be protected from the temptation of bowing their heads in a mosque, but also from reading about religious history in ways that could offend the sensibilities of people in Odessa, Texas.
I am not sure that Islamophobia is a factor in one or both of these episodes. But, at least insofar as Islam is concerned, there is a curious affinity between the views of the ACLU and the Christian Right. It does not bode well for the integration of Muslims into American society, or for the worldwide interaction between the United States and the Islamic world.
What I have written here about creationism should make clear that I find its assertions wildly implausible. I regularly lecture in Texas. I have had conversations with creationists. Some are very nice people (as, indeed, are some members of the ACLU). Some creationists also have a sense of humor, as the following joke demonstrates: A creationist is talking with a Darwinist. The Darwinist says: “My great-great-great grandfather was a worm who, after many million years, crawled from the sea onto dry land”. The creationist replies: “My great-great-great grandfather was called Adam, and he should have stepped on your great-great-great grandfather.”