The Politics of Fearmongering Are Invading Our Schools

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

A rhinoceros is terrorizing my mailbox! He’s down there right now, ramming at it, leaving me no choice but to harness the power of my wrath and indignation to force the government and anybody else who will listen to eradicate this scourge. If you don’t see the rhinoceros, that’s not my problem.

That’s absurd, but no more so than complaining about “Islamic indoctrination” inside Tennessee’s middle schools, and yet we have state legislators doing just that and more with straight faces. The fact that there’s no evidence of children converting after social studies class appears to matter not one bit. The hysteria harnessed last year by right-wing groups like the American Center for Law and Justice was enough to pressure the State Board of Education to speed up a review of social studies standards, particularly targeting a unit on Islam.

Some of the proposed changes regarding key events in Tennessee history proved controversial enough this fall to have triggered an extension to the public review period, but changes involving Islam in world history never became fuel for the same level of outrage. My concern is not over any specific change; all curriculum standards undergo periodic revision, but over the fact that they were made in reaction to bullies engaged in fearmongering.

Islamic indoctrination? Do the flame-throwers hurling those accusations ever leave their TV sets and computer screens? Have they taken a walk around their towns lately? Have they been to the mall? Have they stepped inside any actual schools? Have they noticed all the Christian churches in their neighborhoods? And do they have so little faith in their own religion that they worry it could be toppled by a social studies unit?

A bigger question is how we determine what to teach our children about the world they live in. Islam is a 1,500-year-old religious and cultural tradition, and its history, like all religions, is intertwined with the history of the world, including this country, which has been home for Muslims since before the Constitution was drafted. Thomas Jefferson wrote of religious freedom extending to “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

Terrorism is not the same thing as Islam. It is irresponsible to imply otherwise, to suggest that learning about a religion in history class is the same as indoctrination, or to hint that Islam, apart from all other religions, is inherently evil. It’s particularly irresponsible these days when fear seems to be infecting our brains.

Fear is making us crazy. Here’s a Texas woman explaining to a New York Times correspondent why Islam is incompatible with Christianity: “It’s just a matter of time when someone gives the signal and we’re all going to be beheaded.”

Really? Is this a thing? How many people actually believe this? And it’s not just extreme cases that worry me. After a recent trip to Europe, I had more than one person ask me if I was afraid.

Afraid of what?


No more than driving on I-40!

Any hope that reason might prevail died with the election of Donald Trump, who could not tell our Constitution from a grocery list, and who spews toxic, clueless, cruel, ineffective, and cowardly ideas, like Muslim bans and registries despite the fact that Americans are more likely to be killed by armed toddlers, lawnmowers, or falling out of bed than by Islamic immigrants. Climate change is a threat. No access to health care is a threat. Islam: no threat. But the days of looking to leaders in Washington or Nashville for guidance about how to treat our fellow human beings are over since the Republicans in charge have decided to play the game of using fear to maintain power. Watch out for the rhinoceros! Watch out for the Muslims! Watch out for the immigrants! Watch out for the social studies textbooks!

It is exactly now, at this moment, when the grown-ups in the room need to make sure the educational standards we use to teach our children do not get hijacked by exaggerated fears that happen to bolster a particular political ideology. Tennessee students deserve the opportunity to learn history, world religion, science, and everything else as thoroughly and honestly and accurately as possible and to develop the critical thinking skills they will need to navigate the world as it is. Not a world seen through a lens of propaganda.

Even more crucially since the post-election rise in hate crimes and thugishness, including at least one report out of Halls High School, we have an obligation to be careful. Because if we signal to children that certain groups are so dangerous we can’t even talk about them in history class, what else should we expect but bullying and harassment?

I cannot believe I’m having to write this stuff down. Why is it so easy to imagine “Islamic indoctrination” or “threats” from desperate immigrants and refugees and so hard to imagine peace? These are mean times. And here it is Christmas, which is either the season for Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men or the season of hate and trumped-up fear. But it’s not both.

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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