Staunton: A rural Virginia school district canceled classes and a holiday concert after being flooded with angry messages over a school calligraphy lesson that involved copying a Muslim statement of faith in Arabic.
Tens of thousands of emails and Facebook posts have been received, some “threatening and very profane in nature,” said Augusta County Sheriff Randall D. Fisher. No specific threats have been made, though Fisher said he has dedicated an investigator to comb through the messages as a precaution.
Augusta County school officials said in a statement that they canceled the events, including athletics and a fundraiser, as a cautionary measure after consulting law enforcement and the school board.
Anger over the lesson has escalated since a teacher at Riverheads High School gave students an assignment that involved practicing calligraphy and writing a statement in Arabic —the Shahada, a profession of faith recited in Muslims’ daily prayers. It is omnipresent in religious imagery, often appearing on the walls of mosques and in religious art, but also on the flags of groups such as the Islamic State.
As part of a study of the Middle East, a teacher instructed her students to copy a Muslim statement of faith written in Arabic and intended to show the complexity of calligraphy, the school superintendent told the News Leader newspaper.
The statement translated to: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The teacher’s lesson was drawn from instructional material that also includes Judeo-Christian assignments.
At a forum Tuesday, one parent said the assignment promoted a false religious doctrine, while other parents expressed outrage. Some demanded the teacher be fired.
A Facebook group supporting LaPorte had more than 2,000 members on Friday. Many commenters defended LaPorte and the school district.
LaPorte said she had received overwhelming support from former students, colleagues and others in the community.
“All I want now is time for our community to heal,” she said in an email to Reuters.
School officials said the aim of the lesson was to illustrate the complexity of the written Arabic language, not to promote any religious system.
“We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution,” the school district statement said.
“Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” Doug Shifflett, Augusta County’s assistant superintendent for administration, said in a statement.
Advocacy groups have said a spate of anti-Muslim incidents across the U.S. recently can be linked to the mass shooting in California and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians.
In Virginia, authorities charged a man last month with leaving a fake bomb at a mosque, and a sheriff’s deputy had to halt a community meeting on a proposed mosque after a speaker was interrupted several times by residents who denounced Islam.