Hillsborough schools now a battleground over influence of Islam

Published March 26, 2012

TAMPA — In Michigan, police canceled a speech in a high school about Islamic extremism after reports of a death threat to the speaker.

In Washington, parents complained when Muslim leaders reminded school officials about the forthcoming fast of Ramadan and offered to hold a show-and-tell about the holy month.

In Ohio, a tea party event was moved from a school after the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it would promote hate.

In these communities and others, school officials have been caught between organizations trying to guard against Islamic influence and advocates for Muslim rights. Many clashes involve CAIR, which seeks to combat anti-Islamic prejudice.

The new battleground? Hillsborough County.

CAIR's visit in November to Steinbrenner High School and the backlash that followed are catalysts for a workshop the School Board will hold Friday about outside speakers.

In January, school officials stood firmly behind a teacher's decision to invite CAIR executive director Hassan Shibly to talk to history students about Islam.

One month later, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said: "Our principals and our teachers are looking for the opportunity to have speakers come into their classrooms, but feel like they would like some guidelines."

Neither Shibly nor Terry Kemple, one of Tampa's leading critics of CAIR and now a candidate for School Board, was satisfied.

Shibly said school officials gave in to bigotry. Kemple said he wants a policy against visitors with suspected ties to terror — a description Shibly calls a smear.

"Mr. Shibly is entitled to say whatever he wants to say," said Kemple. "But he does not have an inherent right to get into the classroom."

While arguably a lesson in current events, the situation is distressing, said Dennis Holt, district supervisor of secondary social studies. The Steinbrenner teacher came under personal attack.

"The last thing they wanted was for something like this to happen," Holt said. "It has done no one any good. You pause and think about how polarized society can become."

• • •

Allegations about CAIR and Shibly generally fall into two categories.

The first: Shibly and his colleagues, while saying they are emissaries of peace and tolerance, support or are connected to known terror groups. Critics point to the Holy Land Foundation, which was convicted on federal charges of funneling money to Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. CAIR was among other organizations investigated in the inquiry, but not indicted.

The second: Islamic leaders want to subvert the U.S. Constitution and make theirs the dominant world religion.

Stoking both sides are voluminous writings on the Internet. They attack each other's experts.

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To reports about members who are arrested or deported, CAIR says such incidents are akin to a rogue police officer or a fallen teacher. With some 50,000 CAIR employees and supporters, the website says, "it would be illogical and unfair to hold CAIR responsible for the personal activities of all these people."

The organization is so moderate, Shibly said, "Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim extremists have a lot more in common with each other than they do with us."

• • •

At 25, New York-educated Shibly is a lawyer and prayer leader whose family left Syria when he was a child. He said his father was so open-minded that when Christian missionaries came to their door, he would call his son to hear what they had to say.

Visiting Syria at 19, Shibly witnessed the 2006 conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Speaking to his college magazine, he described Hezbollah's relief activities. He said he did not think it was a terror group and that its actions did not merit the Israeli military response.

Those words come back to haunt him, he said, often distorted. "I realized I could either be the American Muslim civil rights advocate or the Middle East foreign policy advocate, but not both."

He had been in Tampa less than a year and already had gotten media attention for a school visit in New York when the Steinbrenner controversy erupted.

Shibly went to the third School Board meeting in which the matter was discussed, along with representatives of civil rights and interfaith organizations.

Russell Meyer, head of the Florida Council of Churches, said prejudice against Muslims is no different from what religious and ethnic minorities have weathered for centuries. "These people, their cultures and their religions have proved to be America's strength," he said.

But while some anti-CAIR speakers described a plot to spread Islam, others said they had nothing against the religion, just the organization.

"This isn't a debate about Islam or any other culture in the schools," said Scott Barrish, a candidate for Hillsborough Clerk of Circuit Court. "It's about screening who comes in to speak about those cultures. That is it."

Kemple later compared the group to the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which defends pedophilia.

"If someone would be a member of NAMBLA, I wouldn't let them in a classroom," he said. "If someone were a member of KKK, I wouldn't let him in a classroom. It's no different."

• • •

Hillsborough is far from alone.

In Friendswood, Texas, CAIR speakers were invited to a junior high school after a bullying incident in 2008. Parents complained. The superintendant apologized, saying the presentation should have been for staff only. And the principal was transferred out of the school.

Last year in Mansfield, Ohio, CAIR and the NAACP objected to a speech at a high school by Usama Dakdok, known for rhetoric that paints Muslims as demons. The event was moved.

Julia Shearson, executive director of CAIR-Cleveland, would not discuss the incident in detail, citing possible legal issues. She said she typically visits schools without controversy, meeting with staff and students.

A Mayflower descendant who converted to Islam as an adult, Shearson said, "I think to some extent in this country we've forgotten who we are. We're supposed to be the land of the free and the brave. We're not supposed to be afraid of each other."

• • •

Dennis Holt has spent a decade as a curriculum supervisor. He said he often helps teachers find speakers, a strategy described in Elia's proposal. He even advises them on what to say or not say in class. "I think people who come in to speak at schools are there for the right reasons," he said.

A teacher is always there to pull the plug if the lesson veers off course.

Elia and the board are fully supportive of teachers, he said; they merely want to boost their confidence and give them cover.

But thorny questions await.

For starters: The workshop is scheduled for 2 p.m. on a Friday, a time when many Muslims gather for weekly prayers.

Elia's policy, now a draft, asks teachers not to invite advocacy groups, a definition that could include Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the PTA. And federal law makes a distinction for religious advocates, said school attorney Tom Gonzalez.

School Board member Stacy White, who has asked hard questions about CAIR since the controversy began, said he wants to focus on broader issues, such as whether guest lecturers need to have academic credentials.

He suggested teachers notify parents before they give a lesson some might find objectionable. "But I don't want to tie the hands of the teachers," he said.

And just what constitutes objectionable? "I'm sure you can tell that I don't have all the answers."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or