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Caton followers take up cause to ban Islamic speaker from school

TAMPA — True to his word, a conservative activist continued his campaign Tuesday protesting a Muslim leader's visit to Hillsborough public schools.

Supporters of David Caton responded with a flood of emails to the Hillsborough County School Board — 2,705 at day's end, according to district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

The speaker, Hassan Shibly, said he was saddened but not surprised at the firestorm.

And, while school officials for the most part have backed Steinbrenner High School teacher Kelly Miliziano completely in her choice of speakers, that feeling is not unanimous.

"I am researching the issue and trying to learn a little bit more," said school board member Stacy White. White has asked the district for details about how speakers are recruited and screened, what input parents have, and whether the Council on American-Islamic Relations, where Shibly is executive director, should be considered a political organization.

Caton's Florida Family Association contends that CAIR and Shibly support extremists, and wants the visits stopped.

The controversy illustrates the challenge of teaching topics as sensitive as the influence of Islam, even though the official state curriculum calls for high school students to learn about the world's major religions.

"Religion in class is a hot enough topic," White said. "But this one also has a political twist."

Member April Griffin, who defended Miliziano's actions, said attempts to satisfy critics would be problematic.

"We're walking a very, very slippery slope if we try to counter the opinions of the speakers that come into our classrooms," she said.

Miliziano has declined to comment. According to Hegarty, Miliziano has invited speakers who represent a multitude of faiths that include Christianity.

Shibly, a 25-year-old lawyer who took over at CAIR last summer, said his program at Steinbrenner was not political, but more of a primer on Islam.

"We've done this presentation dozens of times," he said. "It was great. The students thanked me, shook my hand and said I cleared up some misconceptions they had."

He told them most terrorists are not Muslims and most Muslims are not terrorists. "A lot of them are shocked when they hear that," he said.

And he sympathizes with Miliziano, who is now a target of Caton's movement as well.

"She is a mature, dedicated teacher and I have a lot of respect for her," he said. "She's trying to give the kids the best education possible."

Caton's campaign, Shibly said, is in keeping with others fighting Islamic influence in popular culture. "They actually fear mainstream Muslim leaders more than they fear the extremists," he said.

Interestingly, both Caton and Shibly drew parallels between the Hillsborough controversy and the one surrounding The Learning Channel's reality television show All-American Muslims, which follows the lives of five contemporary U.S. Muslim households. Caton's organization convinced advertisers to leave the show.

"The flavor of this one is not as strong as All-American Muslim," Caton said. "But it's close."

Shibly, in turn, said Florida Family Association objected to the show largely because, rather than exploring Islam's radical tenets, it showed Muslims who were relatable to middle America.

"You're darned if you do and darned if you don't," Shibly said. "And if you don't engage in outreach, people say you are reclusive."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com.

Caton followers take up cause to ban Islamic speaker from school 01/10/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 10:02pm]
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