Teaching Tough Topics: Textbook Fight Riles Tennessee

Usama Dakdok addresses a rally in White County Tennessee. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

Usama Dakdok addresses a rally in White County Tennessee. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

What should school children be taught about Islam?

In Southern states such as Florida and North Carolina, parents claim students are being “indoctrinated” with a sanitized version of the Muslim faith.

One of the fiercest fights so far is going on right now in Tennessee, possibly revealing the playbook for future battles.

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Usama Dakdok, a traveling speaker, addressed an overflow crowd of about 300 people recently at the Christian Life First Assembly of God in the small Middle Tennessee town of Sparta.

Dakdok, using a fire-and-brimstone delivery, preached about the dangers of Islam. The military campaigns of Mohammad, the crusades and the 9/11 are all proof Muslims are violent, says the Egyptian-born Christian.

“If you stand up and you say anything, that means you are an Islamaphobe or you are a bunch of hate mongers or you are not practicing tolerance, “Dakdok says. “That means you’re not good Americans, and that is the end of the story. Tonight we’re going to turn it around. We’re going to throw this book and those who support it into the trashcan.”

Dakdok was referring to the world history textbooks being used by seventh graders in rural White County and many other Tennessee districts.

He claims those books are part of plot, similar to how schools have tricked kids into believing in the Theory of Evolution.

“When you do nothing, you’re going to lose your children,” he says.

The famed Scopes monkey trial on evolution took place only 50 miles down the road from Sparta. And just like that case, this fight over Islam isn’t only about how to educate a few school children or even several classrooms. It’s a demonstration of how hard religious conservatives are willing to fight to keep out ideas they believe are dangerous.

This textbook is used by some Tennessee Schools to teach students about Islam. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

This textbook is used by some Tennessee Schools to teach students about Islam. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

Foes of the textbooks have called for the White County School Board to resign. They’ve threatened to picket businesses.

They’ve even run radio ads calling school board members out by name.

It’s not just White County. Many other districts, including several in suburban Nashville, have been confronted by claims of pro-Islam bias.

Vicki Kirk, Tennessee’s deputy education commissioner, says the study of religion is different from becoming or adopting a belief.

She believes it’s a good idea to teach kids early about Islam.

“We have so many students in Tennessee that rarely go outside the borders of their hometown. Let’s say I wanted to be a missionary. It would be pretty important for me to know a little bit about other cultures if I was going to go live in one,” she says.

But Kirk understands why it’s a sensitive subject. She is a former middle school science teacher.

“I did teach things that some students found objectionable, and I said, you know, we’re going to talk about what science has to say about this. But you have your beliefs, and nobody’s treading on that,” she says.

Education officials have agreed to start revising the standards in January. They hope that’ll take some of the heat off local school districts. A panel of teachers will revise the curriculum. That will lead to a rewrite of the textbooks.

Three weeks after the anti-textbook rally, the White County School Board held its next meeting.

A local sheriff’s deputy stood watch as about 70 people entered. Almost all turned out to be supporters of the textbooks.

Deanna Lack says those who are calling for the books’ removal are acting out of fear.

“I think, we need to not villianize a whole group of people because of the actions of a few,” she says.

The crowd’s support seemed to embolden the school board. One by one, members said they would not send the textbooks back. For that stance, they were given a standing ovation.

School Board Chairman Edd Cantrell was emotional after the meeting.

“Really, I wasn’t expecting that,” Cantrell said. “I expected it to be one side and the other side. In reality, White County is one community. And we don’t need our community split.”

The Southern Education Desk is supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Related: Other stories in the “Teaching Tough Topics” series.

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