Hanif Mohebi at July 25, 2017 Board of Education meeting.
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
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
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.
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.
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.