A group of Montgomery County, Maryland, parents gather outside MCPS Board of Education during the school board meeting to protest a policy that doesn’t allow students to opt out of lessons on gender and LGBTQ+ issues, July 20, 2023

Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Blurring Political Lines

A dispute over school curricula in Maryland shows how American Muslims defy binary partisan thinking

Maggie Phillips
August 08, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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A group of Montgomery County, Maryland, parents gather outside MCPS Board of Education during the school board meeting to protest a policy that doesn't allow students to opt out of lessons on gender and LGBTQ+ issues, July 20, 2023

Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland will hear arguments on Aug. 9 from a multifaith group of parents—Muslim, Catholic, and Ukrainian Orthodox—who contend that the Montgomery County Board of Education in the state is infringing on their religious liberty. At issue is the introduction into the curricula of a suite of children’s books intended to increase LGBTQ inclusion and representation, and the school board’s refusal to allow parents to opt their children out of reading them in school as part of language arts instruction.

While the plaintiffs in the upcoming suit are from different faith backgrounds, Muslim parents have been particularly vocal at recent county school board protests over the issue this summer. Although Muslim Americans have been traditionally viewed as political allies of the Democrats after the anti-Muslim animus that followed the attacks of September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new kind of conflict has some breaking with the progressive wing of the party, primarily in reaction to issues touching on culture and belief. In Montgomery County and elsewhere, it is not conservatives, but progressives who are framing certain adherents to Islam as the opponent in a clash of civilizations. Even on this polarizing issue, however, some Muslims are rejecting the binary of party politics.

When Montgomery County’s Board of Education initially announced the selection of texts in October 2022, parents could and sometimes did arrange to have their children pulled out of class for these books (Maryland state law requires parents be given an opportunity to review curriculum materials related to family life and human sexuality, as well as the ability to opt their children out of these lessons for substituted “appropriate alternative learning activities”). On March 23, 2023, the school board reversed this policy, saying schools would cease notifying parents, and requiring students to remain in class for instruction that included the selected books. The parents suing the school board are being represented by religious freedom legal defense firm Becket Law, which contends that this move by the school board constitutes a violation of not only state law but also school board policy, which includes a commitment “to accommodate requests from students, or requests from parents/guardians on behalf of their students, to be excused from specific classroom discussions or activities that they believe would impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.” The Muslim parents leading the charge have been characterized as siding with white supremacist ideology by some Montgomery County officials (one, Montgomery County Council member Kristin Mink, later apologized). But neither Islam nor Muslims—who number roughly 3.45 million in the United States, and account for 3% of the population in Montgomery County (one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the country among counties with a population over 10,000)—map neatly onto the American political spectrum.

Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.

These parents’ opposition to the inclusion of LGBTQ books may seem surprising in light of recent polling data. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of U.S. Muslims said they identified with Democrats, and overall acceptance of homosexuality increased over 25 percentage points between 2007 and 2017, with just over half of U.S. Muslims saying homosexuality should be accepted by society. Increased acceptance was even the case among those for whom religion was “very important” (47% in 2017, up from 19% in 2007) and foreign-born Muslims (49% in 2017, up from 26% a decade earlier). But this acceptance comes with parameters. “If you’re saying it’s OK to openly engage in gay sexual actions and gay marriage and that’s halal—you’ll find a few, not many, to endorse that position,” wrote Muslim author Wajahat Ali, who cautioned he was not himself a scholar, in an email. “I do think you can find a lot of people and most scholars who say, ‘Yes, perfectly fine to be Muslim and gay, but certain sexual actions and behaviors are still haram.’”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has been praised by Democratic politicians for its social justice work, addressing discrimination and civil rights abuses against Muslim Americans. Yet even CAIR’s “Educators’ Guide to Islamic Religious Practices” states, with regard to family life and sex education, that “contact with local Islamic centers is essential to encourage input from the Muslim community. Class materials should be available for review and parents should have the option to remove their children from all or part of the program.”

The white supremacy remark from a county official was “deeply disturbing” and created a “sense of betrayal” among Muslim parents, said director of CAIR’s Maryland office Zainab Chaudry in a phone interview. She explained that parental opposition to the books in question, which include accompanying discussions of social gender transition in early grades, are not coming from a place of intolerance. The content goes “beyond just representation,” Chaudry said.

This is very confusing to a lot of people who are captured by a paradigm of the right-left, but for us, that’s what we need to be.

However, Chaudry said, this is “not just a Muslim issue.” She said that CAIR and the Montgomery County Muslim Council were told in a closed-door meeting with Montgomery County Public Schools that the elimination of the opt-out policy came because “too many families were asking to opt their children out.” Chaudry noted that while she has heard of parents pulling their children out of schools in the area in the last several months, not everyone has the resources to do this, especially the refugee families who have been housed in the area (local media report there are around 900 Afghan refugees living in Montgomery County since the U.S. withdrawal from that country in 2021). She said that CAIR had reached out to the Maryland State Board of Education about the prospect of cultural competency training for educating its Muslim population, something she said is left up to the localities to decide. The Montgomery County Board of Education’s Nondiscrimination, Equity, and Cultural Proficiency Policy specifies the need for training to attain systemwide cultural proficiency, and the school system’s Equity Initiatives Unit offers a resource for culturally responsive parent engagement. (Neither the county Board of Education nor Montgomery County Public Schools responded to emails from Tablet about the nature of the cultural proficiency training educators receive.)

Ismail Royer is the director of the Islam team at the Religious Freedom Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based multifaith nonprofit dedicated to religious liberty in the U.S. and abroad. He does not see a contradiction between traditional Muslim belief and heterodox politics. In fact, in his estimation as a Muslim himself, the two are often complementary. “We have to judge our position on various issues of public importance on the basis of what our criterion is as Muslims,” he said, rather than by “aligning ourselves morally, theologically, with a particular place on the American political spectrum.” That means “neither the left, nor the right,” nor their many factions.

He recalls being especially disturbed then, after 9/11, to see Muslim Americans “entering into a bargain,” he said, “where we would agree to be silent on particularly moral issues, moral stands that our religion would take, when they conflicted with progressive ideology, in exchange for a sort of friendship that was almost—it was a very transactional relationship.” The benefit, Royer said, was “a sort of protection from what were perceived to be within the right, you know, sort of anti-Muslim policies, statements.”

Royer likens the theological position of Muslims in the American political landscape to that of Catholics, whose official doctrine is often more in line with Democrats and even progressives on issues like the death penalty and immigration, but appear more amenable to conservative Republicans on issues like abortion and sexuality. “This is very confusing to a lot of people who are captured by a paradigm of the right-left, but for us, that’s what we need to be. We need to be like, we’re for the environment, we’re for immigration,” he said, “but we also take positions that would make us look conservative.”

We’re for the environment, we’re for immigration, but we also take positions that would make us look conservative.

Royer said Montgomery County is “a perfect example” of the fault lines that were present from the beginning of the post-9/11 bargain he described, which he said was becoming “increasingly at odds with the ordinary Muslim family.” A cultural reckoning between traditional Muslims and their political champions on the left was inevitable, in Royer’s view. “We’re not Amish,” he said. “It’s going to affect us, it’s going to enter our families, our homes.”

The Muslims willing to defend what he calls “this bargain with the left” are becoming fewer, he said, and they tend to be more secular and academic in their outlook than typical Muslim Americans. At the same time, Royer is keen to stress that “there is and will always be” areas of cooperation with the left for Muslims that align with Islamic values: criminal justice reform, environmental concerns, immigration.

While a pragmatic political alternative for traditional, practicing Muslims has yet to present itself, Royer said, “our natural allies are other religious denominations.” Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Latter Day Saints, in particular, he said, and their political advocacy arms, “are our natural inner circle; not Republicans, not Democrats, not political manifestations of those things, but denominations.” Movement conservativism and liberalism, in his view, are arbitrary accidents of history and circumstance that “have nothing to do with universal truths.”

Royer said the Montgomery County protests are easily categorized as “culture war stuff.” But, he said, “if you look carefully, what you’ll see is that we are actually trying to forge a relationship across the aisle to eliminate culture war stuff.” By casting their objection to the opt-out elimination in religious terms, joining forces with other denominations, he said, Muslim parents are circumnavigating the poles of the political map.

The materials being inserted into the language arts curriculum are not as graphic in nature as in some school districts where parents object to their inclusion. However, Royer argues that the content goes beyond being inclusive. The book Pride Puppy, in which a little girl’s dog runs away during a Pride celebration, is recommended for pre-kindergarten and Head Start students. It features an alphabetical seek-and-find section in the back; items children are encouraged to look for include “leather” and “intersex (flag).”

“These materials are not merely depicting the existence of families,” he said, and those who express opposition to the concepts introduced are made to feel they are wrong.

He cites Born Ready, a book about a little girl named Penelope who tells her parents she wants to be a boy, recommended for fifth grade. In the book, Penelope’s brother expresses disagreement with this assertion, and he is corrected by his mother, who says, “Not everything needs to make sense.” The brother, whose views, Royer notes, reflect traditional views on gender and biological sex, is made to accept his sibling’s way of thinking. “Stories are means by which human societies have always conveyed values and morals to the next generation,” said Roy. “They have said they don’t want kids to be able to avoid this instruction.”

Royer cites the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (known as hadiths) as the basis of the Muslim sexual ethic, as well as the commentary by both contemporary and classical Islamic religious scholars. The Quran depicts the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot, who escapes the divine wrath poured out on the cities, is upheld as a prophet in Islam. Lot is recorded in the Quran excoriating men “who approach men with desire, instead of women,” a verse that has provided justification for condemnation of homosexuality in traditional Islam.

Royer concedes that liberal Muslim theologians are attempting, as Muslim author Mustafa Akyol does in a 2015 New York Times op-ed, to reconcile traditional Islamic attitudes toward sexuality and gender with contemporary mores. While Royer is critical of such attempts, there is a little less daylight between his views and Akyol’s when it comes to the issue of tolerance.

How would Muslim parents feel if this was applied to children’s books about Ramadan or Hajj?

Akyol points out that these and other verses that appear to condemn homosexuality in particular need not support temporal punishments: There is, he writes, no prescribed punishment for homosexuality in the Quran. And the hadiths, the putative sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, were written two centuries after his death. Moreover, Akyol notes, there is no record of Muhammad ever commanding punishment for homosexuality.

Ramish Nadeem is the program manager for Muslim & International Youth at the sexual health advocacy nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “If you look at the original Quran and hadiths itself, the situation of queer Muslims is pretty ambiguous, it can be read several different ways,” he said in a Zoom interview. He also gives the example of Lot, and a popular progressive Christian interpretation of the story that is focused on the serious crimes of the people of Sodom: rape, and the violation of hospitality customs, “rather than a crime of, like, consensual homosexual relationships,” saying there are “similar readings and scholarly work done in Muslim traditions.”

In 2018, the Muslim Youth Leadership Council, an initiative of the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, put out a brochure called “I’m Muslim and I Might Not Be Straight: A Resource for LGBTQ+ Muslim Youth,” addressing various topics, including coming out to family (and whether doing so is necessary in the first place), consent and emotional readiness, and whether it is possible to be queer and Muslim at the same time. It also contains numerous quotes from LGTBQ Muslim young people sharing their stories. “As a 20-year-old queer, nonbinary, hijabi Muslim,” writes Fatimah, age 20, “my identity is complex. My parents often say that there aren’t any LGBTQ people in our community. My mosque often says that you cannot be LGBTQ and a Muslim. The government often says that me and my family aren’t welcome in this country in the first place. What I’ve come to understand is that queer Muslims have existed since the beginning of Islam. We exist. And Allah made us just the way we are.”

Telling the reader that there is no contradiction between their faith and their sexual identity, and that they were made just the way they were by Allah, the brochure quotes this verse from the Quran: “He Who created the seven heavens one above another: no want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of the Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw?” (al-Mulk 67:3-4)

Explaining that Islam lacks a central, unifying faith leader or authority, Nadeem said that the opinions and interpretations of scholars carry a lot of weight. “But there’s no sense in which they have an ultimate or final say,” he said. “And so that allows for a lot of diversity within Muslim spaces and traditions. So there’s like a thousand and one Islams being practiced in the United States coming from different traditions, all across the globe.”

If Royer’s understanding of Islam does not condone outright acceptance, it does mandate tolerance.

What if a Muslim family has gay neighbors? “A family that lives next door to us,” Royer said, “they have rights.” Rights, he said, that were spelled out by the Prophet Muhammad and in the Quran: “We are required to be good to those who are close to us and those who are far away from us,” he said, which is interpreted to mean close neighbors.

Muslims, he said, “have a very important principle, which is that every human being was created in God’s image, that’s actually the words of the Prophet.” Every human being has inherent dignity in this framework, which in turn places duties on Muslims to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and neighborliness.

Wajahat Ali shares Royer’s belief that Muslims can stay true to their faith and love their LGBTQ neighbors, but arrives at a different conclusion. Ali writes in a June New York Times op-ed titled “We Muslims Used to be the Culture War Scapegoats. Why Are Some of Us Joining the LGBTQ Pile-On?”: “Let’s take a DeLorean back to the post-9/11 years, during which Islam, especially the specter of Shariah, was frequently made the villain.” He characterizes the rhetoric from many prominent conservatives at that time, predicting the infiltration of Shariah law into American systems, and sees a parallel with contemporary Muslim concerns over an LGBTQ agenda in public schools. Eight years ago, Ali points out, Laura Ingraham was worried about Muslim immigration to the U.S. Today, she is hosting Muslims on her show to discuss shared concerns over religious liberty protections.

He is familiar with the arguments advanced by Royer and others, that the desire of many Muslims is simply for a policy of tolerance that allows LGBTQ people and observant Muslims to peacefully coexist. “But,” Ali writes in his op-ed, “is it truly inclusive and tolerant to signal to LGBTQ kids or LGBTQ parents that simply reading a book or learning about their existence might be so threatening and offensive that it requires an opt-out option in schools? How would Muslim parents feel if this was applied to children’s books about Ramadan or Hajj?” Because American Muslims know what it is to be a persecuted minority, he maintains, they have a reciprocal obligation to the LGBTQ community, “even if we occasionally make one another uncomfortable.”

Nadeem said the release of a document called Navigating Differences in May by a group of Muslim scholars, theologians, and leaders was “a pretty shocking moment” for him. The document, which asserts the rights of Muslim parents to be able to educate their children on values and sexual ethics against those of schools, said it was the signatories’ “collective, non-partisan articulation of Islam’s position on sexual and gender ethics.” Navigating Differences “reduced this really, really broad set of traditions, broad set of values and opinions into one voice for Muslims in the United states,” he said. “It also conveniently ended up aligning with some parents-rights talking points that have been circulating in these community spaces for a while.”

Navigating Differences was released on May 23. On June 6, hundreds of parents gathered outside of a Montgomery County school board meeting to protest the inability to opt their children out of LGBTQ reading materials in their English and language arts courses. “When I see the protests that happen, I see them in a continuous line with that statement that came out,” Nadeem said.

Nadeem said that since the release of the Navigating Differences statement, “young Muslims that I work with have seen an increase in the homophobia that they face in Muslim spaces,” everything from comments they heard, to the disappearance of opportunities for them in Muslim spaces, like DEI initiatives to talk about queer Muslims.

But one group of young Muslims whose feelings are being overlooked, said Chaudry, are those who attend Montgomery County schools. “Children have been part of this campaign from the start,” she said. Their families no longer feel they can trust the school system, she said, and their children are saying they no longer feel safe in living their faith identity publicly in school. Students, she said, are submitting anonymous testimony to the school board on the issue.

We’re avoiding partisanship right now to the greatest extent that we can.

Although Royer said it is a matter of Muslims believing that what they see as immorality should not be taught in public schools, he also contends that presenting the desired material on sexuality and gender to students is a simple matter of housing it under family life and sex education courses, rather than language arts instruction, where both the parameters of instruction and the guidelines over opting out are clear. Chaudry said, “It’s important to note that there is no move to ban books.”

Nadeem said that his reading of the Montgomery County school board protests is one of long-simmering tensions boiling over. The Navigating Differences statement “emboldened a lot of actors who were otherwise a little bit more silent, or like tacitly accepting, this sort of political coalition that had been built in the past several years between LGBTQ groups and Muslim groups.”

Part of what he observes in contexts like the Montgomery County protests is “backlash to progress that has been made in the past five to 10 years,” he said. In places where Muslim institutions have grown in size and influence, “disenfranchised and marginalized folks have been increasingly organizing for their own spaces,” he said. “Stepping up a little bit more, demanding more rights, et cetera. College campuses have been a particular site of this happening, of feminist Muslims, progressive Muslims saying no, we belong in these Muslim spaces as well, and they should be structured in a way that’s open, tolerant of diverse opinions.”

He sees them as victims of their own recent success. “You see this increased backlash in the past couple years,” he said. “These progressive movements and spaces had been increasingly a part of Muslim life in the United States, particularly in the past five, six, seven years, and that sort of feminist, progressive Islam, even if it’s one that has deep roots in Muslim tradition, still may not be the Islam that folks in these communities are accustomed to or legitimate as a real or authentic Islam.”

To some extent, Nadeem sees Navigating Differences as an attempt by a group of American Muslims to help frame their worldview in a way that is palatable to America’s traditional understanding of religion. “Part of it also is, what do we see as religious in the United States?” he said. “That question often has the answer of, whatever is current in Protestant spaces,” noting that Muslims are not prominent in protests against other societal ills, like predatory interest rates or exploitative capitalism. 

“There’s a Protestant-shaped gap that we can fill up with religion in the United States,” said Nadeem. For a recent denomination in the U.S. looking for respectability, “it’s expedient particularly in, like, Texas suburbs to fill in that particular gap,” he said, mentioning masjids (mosques) that are similar to megachurches, and that offer “Sunday school.”

In the context of his description of American Islam as an amalgam of diverse practices and interpretations, he said that “it felt like there’s this like, big broad set of Islamic traditions, and then here in the United States, there’s a set of actors who are leveraging the fact that we’re not as literate in that religious tradition, to then speak for that tradition in a singular voice,” to become “something that was expedient in a current political moment.” He said while some scholars will acknowledge privately that the Islamic tradition is more nuanced on sex and gender than the statement portrays, the perceived challenges posed by sex-ed changes in schools require them to condense and synthesize their position on sexuality and gender in response.

On a number of issues, American Muslims still line up with traditionally Democratic policy positions. According to a March 2022 poll by the research nonprofit Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, majorities of the American Muslims surveyed said they believed in stricter gun laws, that climate change was attributable to human activity, and in legalized abortion in all (25%) or most cases (32%). However, the survey also found a strong “independent” contingent among American Muslims, particularly among those between the ages of 18-29; 49% described themselves as politically independent, compared to 33% of Muslims aged 30-49. “The large politically independent segment among Muslims suggests that many in this community make voting decisions based more on changing policy issues,” the poll’s key finding report says, “and less along fixed partisan lines, opening an opportunity for both parties to win Muslim support.”

“It’s not a surprise,” Royer said, that the progressives elected to the Montgomery County Board of Education and County Council are governing like progressives. “The question is now that Muslims are starting to see the real-world implications of these kind of folks in public office and what it means for their families, then they have to vote accordingly.”

Progressives, he said, say a lot of things that genuinely appeal to Muslims, including advocating for their acceptance in American public life. This emphasis on inclusion, he believes, especially in the era since the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” has sometimes obscured what this means in practice for the moral values many Muslims hold.

An ideal candidate for Muslims, he said, would be someone who supports religious conscience rights and Muslim inclusion, while also opposing Muslim bans and forever wars in Muslim countries. “We haven’t seen that perfect candidate yet,” said Royer. “But I will tell you people are looking for that candidate right now, actively looking for people to run against Kristin Mink, to run against these board members. That’s happening and that’s what’s coming down the pike.”

Royer is unsure whether these people, who are not just Muslims, but Hispanics, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, will be organized in time for the next election. But in his capacity as a policy adviser for the Coalition of Virtue, a Muslim 501(c)(4), he is helping to locate candidates in Montgomery County for the school board. The groundwork, he said, is centered around denominational, rather than political, affiliation. The preference is to run them independently, but electability, rather than political loyalties, will take precedence as to whether they run as independents, Republicans, or Democrats. “We’re avoiding partisanship right now,” he said, “to the greatest extent that we can.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Chaudry said in an email to Tablet today that CAIR and the Montgomery County Muslim Council were told in a closed-door meeting with Montgomery County Public Schools that the elimination of the opt-out policy came “because of hurt feelings.” She said the school system later gave the rationale that opting out was revoked because “too many families were asking to opt their children out.”

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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