Did California Schools ‘Embrace Islam’?

A Northern California middle school became an example of the far right’s fixation on “indoctrination” as a political tactic all the way back in 2001, which went from local-level complaints to being addressed by the Supreme Court — and which presaged what was to come in the following decades.

In this case, Excelsior Middle School in the city of Byron was attacked after it began offering a three-week elective history course focusing on the teachings of Islam. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The teacher, using an instructional guide, told students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.

She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class, had them memorize and recite a passage from the Quran and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during the month of Ramadan. The final exam asked students for a critique of elements of Muslim culture.

The purpose of the class was quickly distorted in posts claiming that the class meant that public schools were “embracing” Islam:

As children return to school this week, following the Christmas break, 7th graders in a growing number of public schools, who are not permitted to wear a cross or speak the name of Jesus, will be required to attend an intensive three week course on Islam; a course in which students are mandated to learn the tenets of Islam, study the important figures of the faith, wear a robe, adopt a Muslim name and stage their own Jihad

Parents filed a lawsuit against the Byron Union School District, claiming that the class violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by sanctioning “overt religious exercises.” That claim was rejected by both a federal judge and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The verdict was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

While that particular attack on a school was averted, it was by no means unique; in 2013 a group of parents in Encinitas, California accused a local elementary school of foisting Hindusim on their children by introducing a 30-minute yoga class into its physical education curriculum.

That type of weaponization has only become more prevalent in the pandemic years, as disinformation campaigns that first organized against COVID-19 safety precautions in 2020 shifted toward pushing followers to attack other institutions they could accuse of “indoctrination,” be it “Critical Race Theory” (often used interchangeably with “woke,” a term misappropriated from African-American Vernacular English) to attack any sort of anti-racism education, or the wave of more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills and laws that right-wing politicians and “news” shows and disinformation organizations have cast as a fight against non-existent “grooming.” These efforts have also spawned their own set of demonstrations.

Update 4/8/2022, 4:05 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag