Schools shut over Arabic script homework

Students arrive at a school in Los Angeles on Dec 16, 2015.
Students arrive at a school in Los Angeles on Dec 16, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • A homework assignment at a Virginia high school meant to help students appreciate the "artistry" of classical Arabic handwriting sparked an uproar - and even threats of violence - that resulted in the temporary shutdown of an entire school district.

Ms Cheryl LaPorte had asked her students in a world geography class at Riverheads High School to copy a passage known as the Shehada, or declaration of faith in Islam. The worksheet given on Dec 11 said: "This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."

But some parents accused the teacher of trying to convert their children to Islam. The Shehada is recited as part of daily prayer, and translates into "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God".

Speaking the Shehada before witnesses is an important step in a person's conversion to Islam.

The complaints were further fuelled by the teacher inviting her female students to wear a head scarf, as many Muslim women do.

The number of angry calls and e-mail increased sharply as media coverage of the controversy grew over the week.

While there was no specific threat of harm to students, the backlash was enough of a concern to prompt school officials to cancel classes last Friday - keeping all 10,000 of the county's students at home and suspending school sports and other activities this weekend.

"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," Augusta County school officials wrote in a press release.

The incident underlined simmering anti-Islamic sentiment in the US following the shootings in California on Dec 2 by a married Muslim couple who drew inspiration from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Schools shut over Arabic script homework'. Print Edition | Subscribe