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When a school assigned homework on Islam, it drew so many threats the district shut down

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A high school world geography teacher in Augusta County, Virginia, gave her students what seemed like a standard assignment: a worksheet on Islam as part of a curriculum on world religions.

The backlash was so fierce that schools in the county, which is just west of Charlottesville, are closed today after a barrage of threatening phone calls and emails from people angry about the homework assignment.

The worksheet asked students to try to copy the shahada — the statement that "there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah," the pillar of Muslim faith — in order to understand the complexity of Arabic calligraphy.

The ensuing fury is so over the top it almost seems like satire. Parents argued that the teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, was trying to convert students to Islam. One parent said she "gave up the Lord's time and gave to Mohammed." The local newspaper noted, ominously, that "students were also reportedly shown copies of the Quran."

Then, after parents objected, the threats to the school district started rolling in. The whole episode is a perfect summary of growing Islamophobia within the US and the lack of understanding that drives it — a problem that the world geography curriculum was trying to correct.

Parents argued that students were being forced to convert to Islam

The homework assignment. (WHSV via CNN)

Understanding religion and language is a key part of the world geography curriculum, required by Virginia state standards. The point of the worksheet was to give students a feel for what Arabic calligraphy looks like, and to show how it's interwoven with Muslim beliefs.

The phrase students were asked to copy is crucial — taking shahada is the only official step in conversion to Islam. But you have to mean what you're saying. You cannot accidentally end up a Muslim while trying to copy some difficult calligraphy in a language you don't speak as part of a homework assignment.

Parents in Staunton, Virginia, thought otherwise, the News Leader reported. One complained that a teacher would be fired if students had to copy out a passage from the Bible. The district superintendent was reduced to defending the notion of studying world religions at all:

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.

In the end, though, the district said in a statement that students in the future would copy Arabic calligraphy that didn't have religious relevance. (Copying calligraphy might not really be the most enlightening way to learn about another culture or religion, but that's a separate issue.)

Then it got worse. The district "began receiving voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area," a statement posted Thursday on its website reads. The sheriff and school superintendent decided to cancel school Friday as a precaution.

The outrage became a perfect storm of fear

On Tuesday, Los Angeles' school district canceled school over threats that purported to be from Muslim terrorists but that turned out to be a hoax. Two days later, school was canceled in small-town Virginia due to threats from people who hate and fear Muslims.

Closing schools in Los Angeles now seems like an overreaction, and doing so in Virginia probably is too; the district said it hadn't received any specific threats but was alarmed by the "tone and content" of the emails, as well as how many there were.

But both episodes, taken together, show how strong and irrational fear of Muslims have become. Officials in a small Virginia school district have now learned the same lesson that many people who write about Islam on the Internet already know: threats of violence from people who fear Muslims are more prevalent than threats from actual Muslims. As my colleagues Max Fisher and Amanda Taub wrote in January, after the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

There was a wide assumption that publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons [which were seen as grievously offensive to Islam] in the United States would produce a barrage of threats from Muslims; those threats have so far not materialized, for us at least, which perhaps speaks to the readiness with which many will assume the worst of Muslims.

Meanwhile, there has been next to no discussion of the threats of violence from Islamophobes, though in our experience those threats are rampant. That distance between the kinds of threats we are supposed to have received and the threats we actually did is a reminder of how easy it can be to misjudge our own society and its problems.

Distrust and fear of Muslims, fanned by the media and by presidential campaigns, is translating into threats of real, concrete violence against Muslims in America — and, it now seems, against a rural school district that was trying to do its job by teaching students about the religions of the world.