Hanif Mohebi at July 25, 2017 Board of Education meeting.
  • Hanif Mohebi at July 25, 2017 Board of Education meeting.
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On March 7 a group of parents represented by San Diego attorney Charles S. LiMandri, chief counsel of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, settled a lawsuit — Citizens for Quality Education v. Richard Barrera — it filed against San Diego Unified School District over its “anti-Islamophobia initiative,” which the school district created in partnership with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

The Council calls itself “America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group.”

The conflict started July 26, 2016 when San Diego Unified trustee Kevin Beiser put forward a resolution to develop the initiative. Four Muslim students told the board about their experiences being bullied.

Hanif Mohebi, then director of the San Diego chapter of the Council, spoke to the board about the relationship the organization had with the district for the prior five years and stated, “55 percent of Muslim students report they were bullied. What we would like to do now is take our relationship with the school district to a next level. We do have a strategy.”

Charles S. LiMandri

Charles S. LiMandri

The board unanimously agreed and gave the green light.

The Council and district staff presented the plan they developed to the school board on April 4, 2017. Among other things it called for “professional development opportunities” to teach staff “advocacy for Muslim culture.”

Mohebi said to the board, “This plan is a great first step... I’m hoping [it] is rolled out and there are proper investments. If we do this right San Diego Unified School District will be the leading school district in the nation to come up with a robust anti-Islamophobia program.”

The board adopted it by unanimous vote. But the next few board meetings became embroiled by angry community members protesting what they perceived as the district inviting Shariah law into public schools and partnering with a terrorist organization, a charge the board denied.

Beiser responded, “There has been a lot of misunderstanding with regard to what we are doing to keep our Muslim students safe. We will not allow in San Diego public schools for Muslim children to be spit on, beat up, verbally harassed or have their hijabs constantly pulled on in class.”

John Lee Evans

John Lee Evans

Photograph by Jason Greene

On May 22, 2017 a group of parents, the Citizens for Quality Education San Diego and the San Diego Asian Americans for Equality sued the district and board alleging the anti-Islamophobia initiative “set up a subtle, discriminatory scheme that establishes Muslim students as the privileged religious group within the school community.”

Some local media have dismissed opposition to the Council’s involvement with public schools as “right wing” and “anti-Muslim.” But the Council has critics from all over the political/social spectrum, including Muslims.

Terrorism-related crime

Newsweek reported in 2006 California Democratic US Senator Barbara Boxer withdrew an award from a Muslim activist upon learning they were affiliated with the Council.

As the plaintiffs’ amended complaint points out, the Council has been linked with Islamic extremist groups, “including the Muslim Brotherhood and especially Hamas.”

The complaint continues, “Six of CAIR’s leaders have been arrested, convicted or deported for terrorism-related crimes. In 2007 federal prosecutors named CAIR an unindicted co-conspirator for providing material support to Hamas.”

In an April 28, 2009 letter to a group of U.S. senators, assistant FBI director Richard Powers explained the Bureau’s decision the prior year to cut ties with the Council: “The FBI’s decision to suspend formal contacts was not intended to reflect a wholesale judgment of the organization and its entire membership. Nevertheless, until we can resolve whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner.”

A month earlier, then FBI Director Robert Mueller clarified to the Senate Judiciary Committee there may be individuals affiliated with the Council who are not suspected of having terrorist ties. He said the FBI could communicate with such individuals if they had information or concerns to share.

Kevin Beiser

Kevin Beiser

Photograph by Jason Greene

The Council regained an image of legitimacy during the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency but continued to remain under suspicion by many. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim nation, designated the Council itself a terrorist organization.

The same year National Review reported, “CAIR incites, funds and does much more vis-a-vis terrorism.”

During the 2018 election campaign, Omar Qudrat, a local Muslim who challenged Scott Peters for Congress, made a point to state he would not receive any support from the Council.

The left-leaning Anti-Defamation League published a report accusing the Council of engaging in anti-Israeli hate speech and states the Council was founded by “leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine, a Hamas affiliated anti-Semitic propaganda organization.”

Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund executive director Daniel Piedra says, “I’m sure there are decent people at CAIR who believe their stated mission. But their leaders are radicals. Parents don’t want terrorist designated organizations involved with their kids.”

For its own part, the Council regularly expresses a desire to respect people of all religions. After the Sri Lanka bombings @CAIRSanDiego tweeted, “Prayers for peace and healing to our Christian sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka.”

After the Poway shooting @CAIRSanDiego tweeted, “We are absolutely heartbroken to hear about the shooting at the Congregation Chabad.”

Far left groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have come to the Council’s defense and labeled many of its critics hate groups.

The Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Are Muslims most targeted?

On July 25, 2017 the school board considered a resolution ending the district’s partnership with the Council and backing away from the anti-Islamophobia initiative.

Mohebi told the board, “It’s a mistake to not focus on groups that are targeted much more than the rest. We expect the district to publicly acknowledge the work we have done with the district for a decade. We expect the district to recommit to working with us.”

Multiple board members echoed Mohebi’s sentiments that they should give more attention to one group when one group is targeted more than others. Trustee John Lee Evans said, “One of the issues that clearly needs to be addressed today is the vilification of our Muslim community.”

Is it true that Muslims were or are being targeted more than others?

A four-month study of global religious persecution, commissioned by the British government last year, published in an interim report on May 3 which concluded 80 percent of religious persecution in the world is perpetrated against Christians.

The report states anti-Christian persecution is “at near genocide levels” in the Middle East and is rising in frequency and severity around the world. It concludes the crisis is under-reported in the media and responses by governments have been insufficient. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who commissioned the study, blamed politically correct bias against Christians for the lack of attention to the crisis.

America has a primary religious target as well. According the FBI’s 2017 national hate crimes report, Jews were targeted by 58 percent of anti-religious hate crimes. Muslims comprised 19 percent, and Christians 13 percent.

In 2018, only four of the 30 hate crimes the San Diego District Attorney’s Office prosecuted were motivated by the victim’s religion. Two were Christians. None were Jewish or Muslim, a statistic which will change for the worse this year after the Poway shooting.

Piedra points to school district bullying statistics that show the same pattern as hate crimes; Jews are targeted more than Muslims. However, he first points out the numbers are so low there is no crisis involving any religious group being bullied in San Diego schools.

He says the Council survey that came up with 55 percent of Muslim students being bullied was an anonymous online survey that anybody could have filled out. He says San Diego Unified records show only two anti-Muslim bullying incidents from the entire district during the 2015-16 school year. That same year there were 11 incidents targeting Jewish students.

The California Healthy Kids Survey 2015-17 report for San Diego County (sponsored by the state Department of Education) asked thousands of middle and high school students from multiple school districts including San Diego Unified about incidents of harassment. Seven percent stated they were harassed because of their religion in a one year period, but the survey did not ask which religion the students were. Thirty percent of students were harassed by each of the following: false rumors spread about them, sexual jokes or sexual gestures made to them, and being made fun of for the way they look or talk. Twenty percent reported being harassed by students offering them illegal drugs. Twenty percent reported being cyber-bullied.

Faced with a lawsuit

...the San Diego Unified School board adopted a new resolution on July 25, 2017. “Staff is redirected from forming a formal partnership with CAIR to forming an intercultural committee which shall include representatives from all faiths and cultures.”

In a twist of events, in lieu of partnering with the Council the district decided to expand its partnership with one of the Council’s critics.

Piedra says, “The school board adopted a neutral anti-bullying program in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League the same night they backed away from CAIR. It has aspects that deal with Islamophobia but is more broad-based. Unlike the CAIR program which was designed by members of their local chapter with no expertise, the ADL program has been vetted by multiple experts from Ivy League schools.”

In some cities the League and the Council have engaged in a war of words. But San Diego League education director Kelsey Young declined to comment on the Council and instead explained the work they are doing with the school district.

She says schools who adopt their “No Place for Hate” program must have three school-wide activities a year that include active learning, combat bias and bullying, and promote respect for diversity. The League provides lesson plans on topics such as the escalation of hate, fake news, and cyber-hate.

Despite the board’s decision to drop their partnership with the Council the lawsuit continued. Piedra said evidence surfaced that the Council was still lobbying lower level district staff. In September 2018 the Council celebrated a court decision denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

A few months later plaintiffs’ attorneys met with the school district attorney and their outside counsel. Piedra says they were assured no formal or informal partnership with the Council remained and the district officials who facilitated that partnership were no longer there. The plaintiffs agreed to a settlement.

San Diego Unified agreed to distribute an information circular titled “Religion in Education” to all district area superintendents and school principals giving them several directives.

One states, “Educational material on religious subjects must be neutral and may not be presented in a manner that promotes one religion over another.”

Another, “Guest speakers from religious organizations are not allowed to present to students on religious topics.”

LiMandri says the Council’s strategy to push its political and religious agenda on children in public schools under the pretext of curbing Islamophobia is a “study in mass deception.”

Piedra expects more legal battles to come and says the Fund is already facing the Council in other states. “Now that we’ve had our victory more parents are reaching out to us with their concerns.”

Piedra adds more caution about anti-bullying programs. “As a former educator, I have firsthand knowledge of bullying. There is no crisis of religiously-motivated bullying in schools. Bullying is so complex. It’s almost impossible to measure and quantify it and adopt government programs to resolve it.”

He says when a kid is labeled a “phobic” it stays on their permanent record and in most cases they don’t deserve the label in the first place. “To accuse an 11-year-old boy of being a bigot is very strong. He could be making fun of another kid because he thinks they dress funny, not because he hates their religion.... This whole idea there are classifications of victims in schools is false. It’s a narrative driven by special interests who want to portray groups of students as victims so they have an excuse to push an agenda on all children in the school.”

He warns against programs that cut parents out of the conversation. “The best solutions to incidents at school always involve the parents.”

Caleb Chuc started his freshman year at Clairemont Mesa’s Madison High School in the fall of 2017. He says he was bullied every day, but not because of his race or religion. He is one of the 30 percent bullied for the way they look or talk. In his case, he stutters.

Other than a couple friends who defended him and his mother who visited school administrators to complain, he says nobody at the school did anything to stop it. His mother says, “They said they will talk to the kids, but they don’t do anything.”

Caleb says he wasn’t the only one. His sister was bullied by students who pressured her to smoke marijuana. He frequently saw kids get bullied and get in fights for different reasons. But he can’t remember an incident of a student being bullied because of their religion.

He explains that a person can be bullied for any perceived weakness. “Someone once told me, ‘Know the weak point of a spoon and you’ll be able to bend it.’”

Before he finished his freshman year he transferred to San Diego Met High School, which meets on the campus of Mesa College. With smaller classroom sizes, it’s ideal for students who have had traumatic experiences in more populated schools. He feels much safer there.

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Comments

ah081272 May 22, 2019 @ 5:03 p.m.

This is a pretty balanced article on a pretty controversial topic. For the San Diego general public I earlier attempted to distill the issues in an op ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune. See: Why San Diego Unified should drop its plans to address "Islamophobia" (Title used in print version: ‘School No Place For Islamic Apologetics”) BY STUART H. HURLBERT, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 11, 2017, p. B21 http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sd-utbg-islamaphobia-cair-schools-20170510-story.html The main issue is really not so much about “bullying” as about attempts to impose politico-religious doctrines on public school students. As the Eric Bartl’s article makes clear, “bullying” of diverse sorts is a perennial problem with young people not getting strong ethical foundations from their parents. But it is not rocket science, and good teachers and administrators should need no outside help in dealing with it. It is interesting (and humorous and symptomatic of deeper problems) that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have taken different stances on the actions of the SD Unified School District and the lawsuit by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund. Neither organization has the integrity to be taken seriously on this issue. Both organizations engage in “bullying” and “hate speech” against those organizations supporting the recommendations of past US national commissions advocating large reductions in immigration to the U.S. and supporting US population stabilization. The unethical behavior of SPLC in particular has been documented for decades (http://www.populationstabilization.org/censorship.html), and finally the organization seems to have crashed in disarray (https://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc_29_3/tsc-29-3-nachman_printer.shtml) – but with half a billion dollars in the bank! With that moola any zombie has a good chance of arising from the dead!

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monaghan May 22, 2019 @ 11:41 p.m.

I find it hard to imagine that Muslim students in our local public schools don't occasionally (or frequently) get harassed. Black students, Latino students, Persian students, Jewish students, Mormon students, special ed students, foreign students, disabled students, tall/short/fat/skinny students, stuttering students or students with lisps -- all are grist for the mill of adolescent ignorance and cruelty. With local class sizes of 35+ kids and teachers with five classes packed into a seven-hour day and counselor caseloads of 375+ teenagers and no districtwide leadership for systematically teaching tolerance, anything can (and does)happen.

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AlexClarke May 23, 2019 @ 7:58 a.m.

I went to an all white high school and we were mean to each other in all the ways you state with one exception religion. We had basically three groups; Protestant (the largest) Catholic and Jewish. Of all the adolescent BS religion was never an issue. Today with all the diversity religion has become a large issue. Religion is all about belonging to a particular group. Religion teaches intolerance in that all religions teach that their way is the one and only way for eternal life. Therefore if you don't believe as I do then you are an enemy. Add to that the various religious trappings that set one group apart from another only adds to tribalism. Many sects of Protestantism teach hate. Hate of homosexuals for instance. Kids will be kids and they must be taught tolerance but religion is, in my opinion, the root cause of problems in our society.

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ebartl May 25, 2019 @ 4:40 p.m.

Neither of the competing narratives state Muslim students in San Diego public schools are never harassed because of their religion. They disagree over how common it is. CAIR said it happens frequently. The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund argued it is relatively rare. The only data I had supporting CAIR's claim was their own. The state's Healthy Kids survey shows a different picture (anyone I know who works in public schools corroborates that survey with their own observations - religion is the least likely motive for kids to bully each other.) The data on reported incidents of bullying from 2015 and 2016 produced in the lawsuit also shows a different picture. I asked San Diego Unified for data on bullying reports from 2017 and 2018. They did not respond.

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monaghan May 23, 2019 @ 6:14 p.m.

Tolerance from non-believers for religious people is important in a civilized society. I don't think it's generally true what you say: "if you don't believe as I do you are an enemy." Maybe it's more like, you are an outsider -- an entirely positive thing to be in this country. For the most part, religious believers usually derive social or spiritual comfort from their conforming participation and do not weaponize their beliefs against others. That should cut both ways.

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Visduh May 24, 2019 @ 3:04 p.m.

All this talk about "bullying" is hard to grasp because the term isn't a clear concept. From my standpoint it involves some element of physical contact or a credible threat of it. But nowadays it seems to include saying "hurtful" things or taunts. If that is the use of the term here, I'd estimate that if a survey of students were taken at most middle and high schools, the reports of being bullied would be close to that 55% quoted for Muslim students. We like to think of kids as kind and considerate; in fact they can be nasty, mean, inconsiderate and outright cruel. (Just the way adults can be those things.) Bullies will bully someone, and they don't need a reason.

This program, as proposed, would be like so many other programs that school districts adopt. It's just that SDUSD does this kind of thing in spades. They would have a working group that would draft a handbook to be given to each employee, and there would be training sessions required for all such employees. The program would look great on paper--they always do. But would anything really change? Very unlikely. When added to all the other programs, it would get lost in the fog. The handbook would be on every teacher's or administrator's or support person's shelf, and seldom seen.

Somewhere in all this is an assumption that most/all bullying is reported to the "authorities." That's nonsense. No school can claim to be free of bullying based on a lack of reported incidents. Most victims of bullies are ashamed to have let it happen. Irrational? Of course, it is blaming the victim by the victim, but that is often how it works.

CAIR has some ethical problems, and while it attempts to take a high road in inter-religious dialog, leaves me cold. I fully agree with Mr. Apostolou above.

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