Misplaced furor over a field trip

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, September 25, 2010

The absurd fear about Muslims in America has come to this:

A sixth-grade class from a public school in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley took a field trip in May to a Boston mosque as part of its course "Enduring Beliefs and the World Today." The class had already attended a gospel music performance, visited a synagogue and met with Hindus -- all trips chaperoned and approved by parents.

During the midday prayer service at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, five boys -- on their own -- emulated the worshipers and got on their knees. One of the mothers videotaped the visit, though all that can be seen is a blurry image of the boys as they stand up across the room. Still, she apparently came with her own agenda.

The tape, released last week by an anti-Islamic group with the Orwellian name Americans for Peace and Tolerance, has caused a firestorm of accusations that impressionable children were being proselytized.

In addition to the depressingly expected outpouring of hate on the Web and radio, the anonymous videotaper is threatening through a lawyer to sue the school. The superintendent has needlessly apologized, and a lot of otherwise open-minded First Amendment and Jewish groups darkly warn that a line between church and state has been crossed.

"It's very important that public schools not put students in a position where they feel obligated or pressured to participate in worship and that they never be subject to proselytizing," Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based education group, told the Boston Globe. "The bottom line is the school fell down in its responsibility."

All because of five curious boys on a sixth-grade field trip? Come on.

I was raised Catholic, have shared in Protestant communions, worn yarmulkes and sung in Jewish services, lit joss sticks and bowed in Buddhist temples, clasped my hands and left donations before Hindu deities, and, yes, have gotten on my knees and put my head on the floor in mosques -- all as attempts at respect and understanding.

No, we can't allow religious proselytizing in public schools, but the gross overreaction -- beyond the haters -- surely has as much or more to do with the fact that the religion involved was Islam. Who wants to bet that the students didn't sing to the gospel music?

Unlike nuts such as the Florida pastor who almost burned a Koran, these new critics, because of their educated mien and seeming rationality, are perhaps more insidiously dangerous to religious tolerance in America, whether intentional or not. They legitimize the hate.

Consider from the past three weeks alone:

Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the liberal New Republic, blogged that "Muslim life is cheap" and "I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment." He later retracted the second comment but stuck by the first. Yet, this weekend Harvard University will honor Peretz, a wealthy investor and former assistant professor, by inaugurating an undergraduate research fund in his name.

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