Does Rep. Andre Carson Really Want to Turn Public Schools Into Madrassas?

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jul 9, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Does Rep. Andre Carson Really Want to Turn Public Schools Into Madrassas?

by Sheila Musaji

The Islamophobia echo chamber is pushing yet another ridiculous “scandal” or “stealth jihad plot” that doesn’t have much basis in anything at all.  This time their focus is a speech by Rep. Andre Carson (D-Indianapolis IN) who spoke about the merits of faith-based schools at an Islamic conference in Hartford, Connecticut. 

Pamela Geller titled her posting of a selective video clip Muslim Congressman wants public schools to follow curriculum of the Koran and commented “Carson sounds like the Taliban. Does he think girls schools should be gassed as well?”  Robert Spencer also posted a selective video clip with the comment “In madrassas they generally teach only the Qur’an. And sometimes bomb-making.”  And, then this theme was repeated in thousands of postings on Islamophobia echo chamber sites.

See our TAM article Responses to Misrepresentation or Misunderstanding of Arabic and Islamic Terms which includes a discussion about the term “madrassa” which just means “school”.  Here is Justin Elliot’s debunking of the Islamophobic use of this word to frighten the ignorant

The term: madrassa

How it’s used: To refer to a place where Muslim youth are indoctrinated into radicalism and, often, terror

Example: “I am very concerned that the school will be a madrassa, funded by taxpayer dollars. We will in effect be supporting the training of future terrorist cells.” — Opponent of a proposed Arabic-themed New York school

What it actually means: A place where teaching, studying and learning take place. In early centuries, “madrassa” came to refer to a school of higher studies (college or university) where Islamic sciences were taught. Today, the term is also often used more broadly. Like the term “school” in American English, it can refer, for example, to a university, seminary, college as well as primary or secondary school. In recent years, the term has taken on a negative connotation, and for some simplistically equated with militant madrassas or schools in Pakistan and elsewhere. While they certainly exist and are dangerous training grounds, they represent a relatively small number of the institutions/schools that are referred to as madrassas.

As an American mom living in Amman wrote:

Somehow we Americans get lost in the idea that a foreign word may have the same meaning as an English word. Okay, I know that sounds stupid and self-evident, but… if the shoe fits.

I have gotten so tired of hearing about these “madrassas” that are in Afghanistan. Hello! You idiots, madrassa means school in Arabic. How stupid do we sound? Now, if what you mean is a school of radical Islam, then say that. Don’t say madrassa. Because, in fact my daughter attends a madrassa (a school). And so do my nieces and nephews in the US. They all attend school. So, let’s drop the stupid attempt to use foreign words to sound scary.

Haris Zafar appeared on the Laura Ingraham program this week to comment on a discussion about Muslim Congressman Andre Carson’s comments about how the U.S. education system can learn some lessons from Muslim schools.  Here is what he said about Rep. Carson’s comments:

Laura Ingraham:  “Many of the Taliban were educated in madrassas”.  People think - “o.k. we want to radicalize young men to become Islamists.”
Haris Zafar:  “I believe he was saying that Americans can benefit from the experience of American Muslim schools - we can learn from the experience of various private schools. - religious schools have seen some real successes that we can learn from.”

Loonwatch published an article on this manufactured controversy along with the full video:

Controversy was sparked when Indianapolis Democratic Rep. Andre Carson spoke about the merits of faith-based schools at an Islamic conference in Hartford, Connecticut. Right-wing sites such as Fox News, The Blaze, Right Side News and the usual blog suspects ripped four sentences from a 19 minute speech that Carson gave in which he briefly touched on the subject of public vs. faith-based schools.

If you view the totality of Rep. Carson’s speech you see that there isn’t really much in it that is controversial from a purely objective point of view. He praises President Obama, condemns terrorism and couches much of his speech in the language of American exceptionalism with the only difference being that he ties it to the Muslim American experience:

How is this any different from a speech by Christian or Jewish congressmen to audiences that share their faith? Clearly such a speech doesn’t do much to alleviate Islamophobic hostility towards Muslims, since Islamophobes want Muslims to be treated as second class citizens. Heck, a significant chunk of the right doesn’t even believe Islam should be afforded the recognition of “religion.”

Can a Muslim American even hope/dream to be mayor, representative, senator…and, hold your breath–president of the USA? If you’re in the anti-Muslim right the answer is definitely no.

Rep. Carson’s sly remark about imagining a future female Muslim president who wears hijab got quite a few laughs, as it was meant to, but likely sent shivers down the spine of Islamophobes. Don’t fret, there have been Muslim female heads of state who have worn the hijab, in one form or another.

All in all, Carson’s speech really should be viewed as a sign of mainstream Muslim integration, and not one of a threatening Islamization effort. In fact, many might view his glossing over of the issue of drone strikes as the most problematic aspect of his speech.

On the topic that most disturbed the Right, Carson’s brief discussion about the merits of faith-based schools: it seems they got tripped up by Carson’s usage of the word madrassah, which is Arabic for “schools,” and his belief that America must tap into why these schools are excelling.

Clearly Rep. Carson could have chosen his words more carefully, considering how Islamophobes will look for anything to capitalize on and further the myth of “Islamization” and “stealth jihad.” Even though a public speech, in front a large crowd that is being recorded doesn’t fit into the whole “stealthy” narrative.

In any case, Rep. Carson cleared up any lingering doubts about what he meant in the speech in follow up questioning by news reporters. Will the websites and blogs that claimed he wants the Quran to be taught in public schools update their articles? I highly doubt it, they assuredly will use his decontextualized quote any time they want to prove the stealth, Islamic takeover myth:

Carson: Speech to Islamic Circle praised success of all faith-based schools


U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, an Indianapolis Democrat who is one of only two Muslims in Congress, is coming under attack for a speech he gave to the Islamic Circle of North America.

The headline on one blog read: “Rep. Andre Carson: American schools won’t excel until the foundation is the Koran.”

Really? Well, no, Carson didn’t say that. What Carson did say was that schools could learn something about innovation from madrassas, the Islamic religious schools. It is about four sentences in a 19-minute speech, given May 26 in Hartford, Conn., as the group held its annual gathering.

“America will never tap into educational innovation and ingenuity without looking at the model that we have in our madrassas, where innovation is encouraged, where the foundation is the Koran, and that model we are pushing in our schools meets the needs of our students,” he said. “Most of us are visual learners. Some of us are auditory learners, learn by hearing. Many of us are kinetic learners, learn by doing, touching, feeling. I have found, as my wife is a (public school) principal, and we have a five-year-old daughter, Salima, that we need an educational model that is current, that meets the needs of our students. America must understand that she needs Muslims.”

The full speechis about being proud to be a Muslim-American and notes that Muslims have been part of the nation from its inception and have much to offer. The conference’s theme was on addressing Islamophobia.

In an interview, Carson said he has said the same thing talking about faith-based schools to Catholic, Jewish and Christian audiences, noting that something is happening in those schools that could help all schools excel.

“This is a message that I’ve given consistently to Christian groups, Jewish groups,” Carson said. “The question becomes for me, ‘Why are the graduation rates higher at faith-based institutions? What are they doing that we might be able to extract from that?’ That is not an argument saying that we should remove separation of church and state, because I think that is important in the public sector.”

He said he believed faith-based schools, with smaller class sizes, are able to be more experimental and address different kinds of learners.

“They’re given a different kind of freedom to tap into these young American minds,” Carson said.

Asked if he was saying that the Koran should be in the public school classroom, Carson said: “No, no, no.”

But, he added, one reason he mentioned education in a conference about Islamophobia is because “people across the country came to me because they were saying there are folks who want to shut down us building a school in the community. They’re having to fight back against Islamophobia, and they don’t want us to teach things from our holy book. That statement was made in reference to the faith-based schools that they have where they are allowed to teach from their book of choice.”

Carson said that whether a religious school teaches the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita or the Koran, “there’s something to be said about the success rates of faith-based learning institutions that we might be able to extract some principles or some methodology from.”

This isn’t the first time Carson has stirred controversy at an out-of-state speech. Last August, while speaking at a Congressional Black Caucus event in Miami, Carson criticized the tea party movement, saying “some of these folks … would love to see you and me hanging on a tree.”

He later dismissed calls for an apology, saying: “I stand on the truth of what I spoke.” Still, he conceded then that his word choice wasn’t the best.

NewsHounds also posted a response to the Islamophobic insanity Fox Demonizes Rep. Andre Carson For Talking Up Madrassas As A Model Educational System

Chalk up Rep. Andre Carson as the latest African American to be demonized by Fox News. In a speech several weeks ago – but just blared by Breitbart a few days ago – Carson promoted madrassas as a model for ingenuity and innovation that should be looked at by American schools. Thursday night (7/5/12), Guest host and conspiracy-theorist extraordinaire, Monica Crowley jumped at the opportunity to use that quote to portray Carson as some kind of poster child for creeping Sharia. And how did “Democratic strategist” Julie Roginsky advocate for her side? By immediately distancing herself from Carson and completely ignoring Fox’s over-the-top hate mongering.

In his speech, Carson spoke of challenges facing American Muslims in a tough economy and post 9/11:

America will never win the war against terrorism without help from the Muslim community. America will never tap into educational innovation and ingenuity without looking at the model that we have in our madrassas, in our schools, where innovation is encouraged, where the foundation is the Koran. And that model that we are pushing in some of our schools meets the multiple needs of students. …I have found that we need an educational model that is current, that meets the needs of our students. America must understand that she needs Muslims.

It’s true Carson was talking up madrassas and having a school with the Koran as a foundation. But he said America should be “looking at the model” of madrassas, not turning them into public schools. Predictably, Crowley interpreted Carson’s remarks as an endorsement of Muslim education for all.

Here’s a Democrat member of Congress saying that American schools should use Islamic madrassas as their model and that the foundation of American education should be the Koran.

Rather than note Crowley’s almost certainly exaggerated interpretation, Roginsky gave a useless–to-Democrats answer: that there’s no role for any religion in public education. “Let me be clear, he was dead wrong,” Roginsky said. She seems to have made absolutely no effort to determine what Carson really had in mind for the U.S. If she had, she might have learned, as Carson said in a statement today that he meant exactly what I thought he meant:

My remarks at ICNA call attention to the fact that faith-based schools throughout this country have excelled because of innovative instructional methods and a willingness to engage different learning styles – whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. While I do not believe that any particular faith should be the foundation of our public schools, it is important that we take note of the instructional tools these schools utilize to empower their young people. Christian, Jewish, and Islamic schools have experienced notable success by casting off a one-size-fits-all approach to education, and this is a model we must replicate. Having attended a parochial elementary school myself, I’ve seen these successes first hand. If we are going to take American education to the next level, we must expand successful models and implement the practices that will enable success for our students.

Even worse, Roginsky sat silent as Crowley went on to accuse Carson of, essentially, treason and working to implement Islamic law for the U.S. Crowley said the organization Carson had spoken to was “loosely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood… Their purpose is to undermine America from within, to install sharia and so on. Here is a U.S. member of Congress advocating this in our schools… This is not some crazy guy on a box standing on Fifth Avenue advocating this. This is a U.S. member of Congress… Doesn’t this raise concerns about the kind of infiltration that we have been talking about?”

Crowley went on to quote some of Carson’s other “incendiary” quotes and sneer, “Here’s a guy throwing firebombs from his perch in the U.S. Congress all the time.”

Still no peep of objection from Roginsky, even though she was sitting on the set of a news network whose stock in trade is throwing firebombs. In fact, another firebomb was on its way, as guest Jack Abramoff (yes, that Jack Abramoff) said Carson “should be in the Congress of Iran” and Crowley offered up Egypt as an alternative.

To be fair, Roginsky did challenge Abramoff for his comments. But as Crowley had the nerve to demand, “Where’s the condemnation?” of Carson from other Democrats, Roginsky jumped to appease. She boasted, “I’m a member of the Democratic Party and I think it’s outrageous.”

Was Roginsky just clueless about Fox’s obvious agenda to use this segment as a means to demonize a Democratic Congressman and fear monger about Islam? In deep denial? Or did she consciously decide - either out of loyalty to the network that pays her or out of some notion that appeasement was the best strategy - to go along with their agenda? It’s hard to know which would be worse – not knowing what Fox was up to or deciding to give them a pass if she did.

If anyone is searching for individuals who actually are promoting turning public schools into religious schools, you might want to check out Promoting Islam in the Public Schools? and see what some Americans actually said about this topic, including

- Franklin Graham’s Vision: A Student Evangelist in Every Public School Class - “I want to see at least one child in every class in every public school in America who is trained as a witness for Jesus Christ.” [7]

- Jerry Falwell’s Vision - I hope I live to see the day, when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be! [America Can Be Saved, (1979)] [8]

-  “A mother is angry about a trip led by the head football coach at Breckinridge County High School took about 20 players on a school bus late last month to his church, where nearly half of them — including her son — were baptized.  Michelle Ammons said her 16-year-old son was baptized without her knowledge and consent, and she is upset that a public school bus was used to take players to a church service — and that the school district’s superintendent was there and did not object.”  See:  Ky. school trip to church that included baptisms raises questions USA Today