Fear and Intellectual Freedom

Academic Freedom, Censorship, General Interest

by Dustin Fife

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. –H. P. Lovecraft

In sixth grade I learned about the Five Pillars of Islam. We learned about one of the largest religions in the world. We talked about it openly and thoughtfully (as far as I can recall). This is where I learned about Hajj, or the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Hajj was important to this world geography class because it is a significant geopolitical event. Learning about the Five Pillars of Islam was not an attempt to convert malleable children to Islam; it was just part of a normal education.

Turns out, educationally speaking, Islam has become a threat. Last week, in Virginia, an entire school district was closed after a teacher assigned a routine calligraphy assignment related to the tenets of Islam. CNN reported:

When the world geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton rolled around to the subject of major world religions, homework on Islam asked students to copy religious calligraphy.

It read:

“Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”

The illustrative classical Arabic phrase was the basic statement in Islam. It translated to: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.”

This assignment ignited an unbelievable response from local parents. They protested the indoctrination of their children and they called for the teacher to be fired. All classes and activities were canceled through the weekend.

This is what fear looks like. When we hide from ideas, it is fear. When we stop educators from teaching, it is fear. When we attack a person, rather than have a thoughtful conversation, it is fear.

Discussions of Islam are essential to many subjects; history, literature, art, political science, geography, and science would all be immensely hurt by eliding Islam. Teaching calligraphy without talking about Islam would be like teaching art history without talking about Catholicism. Teachers and scholars need to be able to teach reality, not have to bend curriculum to societal fears. Students and children need to know what is real, not what some wish was real.

Perhaps if the parents of these students had learned a bit about Islamic religion and culture, they would know there was nothing to fear from a sample of calligraphy, mosques, or Syrian refugees.


Dustin Fife is the Outreach and Patron Services Librarian at Utah Valley University Library. Prior to coming to UVU Library, Dustin spent six years as a public library director for San Juan County, Utah. Dustin is currently the President of the Utah Library Association. He can be reached at dustin.fife@uvu.edu.

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