A controversy brewing in Chatham, NJ, began with a simple cartoon shown to students that taught the five pillars of Islam: “The first pillar means to believe in God. And he is the only God. And the prophet Mohammed peace be upon him is his messenger.”
A homework assignment followed in which two mothers said their children had to fill in the blanks of this sentence about Islamic belief systems: “There is no god but BLANK and BLANK is his messenger.”
The mothers, Libby Hilsenrath and Nancy Gayer, first complained at a sparsely attended school board meeting in February that their children were being indoctrinated in Islam. Unsatisfied with how the district handled their complaints, they then appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and alleged that the district was suppressing discussion about Christianity while proselytizing Islam. They added that they were called bigots by community members after first raising the issue.
A heavily attended school board meeting followed, in which district officials explained that teaching Islam by 8th grade — along with other major world religions, from Christianity to Sikhism — is required by state law. The reason is it’s important for students to differentiate between religions in an educational, not devotional, way.
But that did not quell the controversy. In recent days the mothers have hired attorneys from a conservative law center to represent them. Neither the attorneys nor the mothers answered questions about whether they plan to sue.
Superintendent Michael LaSusa told WNYC on Friday afternoon that he had just received a package with Nazi imagery all over it, but mostly there’s been a groundswell of support from the community in the face of the unexpected controversy.
The Chatham story has been extensively covered in conservative media like Breitbart, the far-right World Net Daily, and most prominently on Fox News. But it is has received little coverage in the mainstream press. The coverage on conservative outlets includes false allegations like Christianity is banned from being taught, and it often does not include comment from the district officials themselves.
Since September 11 there has been a series of controversies involving Islam and Muslims — some would say contrived, faux controversies — that have lit fires on right-wing media. More recently, those controversies have centered on schools.
Just a few weeks ago in South Carolina, parents complained to the local news about sixth graders who learned about Islam in school — even though like New Jersey, teaching Islam is actually a mandated part of the South Carolina curriculum. In Florida, the anti-Islam group ACT for America is petitioning a school district to include the alleged “horrific” acts of the prophet Mohammed in the curriculum. And in Texas, the state attorney general has raised questions about a room at the school that Muslim students use to pray.
The mainstream news rarely covers these controversies, and therefore half of America doesn’t even know the concerns exist. The Chatham case has so far been one of those incidents, revealing growing cultural and political divides in the country.