An Arizona College Must Stop Forcing Its Students to Condemn Islam
By Ahmed Soussi, Esq. & Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Esq.
Imagine this. You’re a Jewish American college student studying political science at a public university in Arizona. While reviewing the syllabus for your upcoming course on World Politics, you notice that a section of the class will focus on “Jewish Terrorism.”
Although this language disturbs and concerns you, you decide to hope for the best. After all, perhaps your professor will tactfully study violence committed by extremists like Yigal Amir, Baruch Goldstein, or members of the Jewish Defense League through an academic lens.
Unfortunately, your hope was misplaced. Your professor spends the entire course attacking Judaism itself. He teaches students that “Jewish terrorists” have correctly interpreted Judaism, that terrorism by Jews “can be traced back to the Prophet Moses himself,” that all modern Jewish scholars support terrorism, and that the only type of global terrorism committed in the world today is “Jewish terrorism.”
The professor also requires you and other students to learn more about Judaism’s purported support for terrorism by reading essays written by David Duke and Richard Spencer.
Finally, your entire grade for the “Jewish Terrorism” section of the course depends on a single multiple choice quiz. One of the quiz questions is, “Where is terrorism encouraged in Jewish law and doctrine?”
The possible answers: a. the Deuteronomy verses, b. the Talmud verses, c. the Moses verses, or d. Judaism does not encourage terrorism.
You obviously select Judaism does not encourage terrorism, which the professor marks as incorrect. You fail the quiz, which harms your grade in the overall course, which harms your overall GPA.
Now you feel both concerned and confused. Your rudimentary understanding of the law had led you to believe that a professor at a public, state-funded college could not use the classroom to declare his own negative interpretation of a religion to be the absolute truth, and then penalize students who refuse to agree with him.
When you share your concern with the leadership of your college, the school recognizes this as a problem, directs the professor to apologize, and publicly promises that bigotry has no place in its classrooms.
You are satisfied with the college’s response and ready to move on, but then the school district intervenes, criticizes the college’s position, and defends the professor in the name of academic freedom.
Validated and liberated, the professor then sits down for an interview with an anti-Semitic hate group. He criticizes Judaism again, admits to teaching students that Judaism mandates terrorism, and promises that he will continue to do so.
A Jewish civil rights group then sues the school, but a federal judge dismisses the lawsuit based on the professor’s false claim that he was merely sharing one perspective about a religion.
If this story sounds both unbelievable and familiar, that’s because it all took place last semester at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona — with one major difference. The real-life student was an American Muslim, and the religion under attack was Islam, not Judaism.
During a World Politics course with a module on “Islamic Terrorism,” Professor Nicholas Damask teaches students that peaceful interpretations of Islam are false: “Contentions that Islam does not promote warfare or violence cannot be supported on either theological or historical grounds.”
Professor Damask also teaches that “there is no non-Islamic international terrorism in the contemporary world,” that Muslim terrorists’ “roots can be traced back to the [Prophet of Islam] himself, in the 7th century,” and that the only true meaning of the religious term jihad is “war against unbelievers.”
Finally, Damask requires students to express agreement with his views in order to pass the final exam. On a multiple-choice examination, students must declare that terrorism is justified in Islam and that “contemporary terrorism” is exclusively “Islamic,” as opposed to “rightwing/fascistic.”
The test also asks, “Where in Islamic law and doctrine is terrorism encouraged?” A Muslim student who selected the option “Islam does not encourage terrorism” was marked incorrect, and failed the test.
Although the college initially criticized the professor’s conduct, the Maricopa County County Community District came to his defense. The professor then participated in an online interview with an anti-Muslim hate group in which he doubled-down on his classroom conduct.
On behalf of the impacted student, the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations then filed a lawsuit against the school for violating the First Amendment.
The district court ruled against the student by relying on the professor’s provably false claim that he merely taught theories about the links between Islam and terrorism without ever teaching such theories as immutable fact. Yesterday, CAIR-Arizona filed an appeal of that ruling because it simply cannot be allowed to stand.
Let’s be clear. Professor Damask has every legal right to espouse his bigoted views outside the classroom. He also has every right to ask tough questions and propose controversial answers inside the classroom, even if he offends some or all of his students.
However, no public school professor has the right to single out a particular religion for condemnation, then declare that his own biased and bigoted interpretation of that religion is the only true interpretation, and then force students to agree with him or risk failing his course.
That’s why our civil rights organization must continue our lawsuit against Scottsdale Community College. This case is not about academic freedom or free speech, which we support. This case is about the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.
By allowing this professor to teach that his biased and bigoted interpretation of Islam is the only accurate and acceptable interpretation, this public college violates the Establishment Clause. By forcing Muslim students to agree with that interpretation, and thereby condemn their own religion in order to pass a class, the school violates the Free Exercise Clause.
Unfortunately, this professor and his supporters seem to understand the Constitution about as well as they understand Islam — not well at all. That’s why we’re going to carry on until, God willing, the school changes course or a court does the right thing.
Just as no public school would ever permit a professor to teach anti-Semitic opinions as fact, and then penalize students for rejecting anti-Semitism, Scottsdale Community College must not permit this professor to penalize students for rejecting anti-Muslim bigotry.
If the school district will not force Professor Damask to follow the law, a federal court must do so — hopefully before the next unsuspecting student sets foot in his classroom.
Ahmed Soussi serves as staff attorney with the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The plaintiffs in this matter are also represented by attorneys: Raees Mohamed of RM Warner PLC and David A. Chami of Price Law Group, PA.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as Deputy Director of the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).