"Calligraphy - the art of writing - is sacred to Muslims [sic]. It was born from the Arabic script of the Koran. [...] 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 shahada is the statement that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God". Predictably, this made some parents very angry. Less predictably, it ended up making the national news, rather than remaining a question for Augusta County to worry about. Concerned editorials presented the situation as either an example of creeping Islamic indoctrination or a symptom of reactionary Christian ignorance, while concurring in any case that we should all be deeply concerned about it. So many emails poured in, threatening protests and violence, that the county was scared into closing the schools temporarily.
How could asking students to copy out a short phrase have this effect? Well, we know the objections of one parent at least, Kimberly Herndon (WHSV):
"I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloked in the form of multiculturism. My child was given the creed of the Islam faith to copy. This creed that is translated: There is no god but Allah. Mohammed was Allah's messenger. This is recited during their pledge to the Islamic faith. This creed is connected to Jihad in that it is the chant that is shouted while beheading those of Christian faith, or people of the cross as being called by ISIS. [...] Also unknowingly they [the children] were instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam."Apart from the ridiculous ISIS connection, the keywords here are "indoctrination" - the idea that this assignment constitutes an attempt to make students Muslim, or at least to make them believe a particular ideology - and "to denounce our Lord by copying this", the idea that copying the shahadah amounts to declaring that Jesus is not God. Of these, it's the latter that is fundamental: the former makes little sense unless taken as a corollary of the latter.
If this is indeed Ms. Herndon's understanding of the situation, she would be well-advised to read John Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Austin, an Oxford philosopher, became famous in linguistics for pointing out that many sentences that superficially look like statements of fact are, in fact, actions in their own right: "When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c., 'I do', I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it." These sentences he termed performatives. The shahada is a classic example of a performative sentence: by uttering those words under the appropriate circumstances, one becomes a Muslim. Such an outcome is clearly not desired by Ms. Herndon, and for the teacher to seek it would violate the US constitution.
However, as Austin points out in great detail, performatives are effective ("felicitous") only when appropriate circumstances apply. These are determined by social consensus ("accepted procedure"), and, where relevant, by sincerity of intention. In this case, Muslim scholars have devoted a good deal of thought to the question of what count as the appropriate conditions for the shahadah to be felicitous from their perspective - for some English samples, try eg ConvertingToIslam.com or Dr. Fouad - and copying out an untranslated phrase in a language you don't understand in order to complete your homework fails at the first hurdles: the student neither has knowledge of what is being said, nor certainty as to its correctness, nor sincerity in its assertion... In short, this exercise does not satisfy the conditions for performativity, and as such does not commit the student to the claim made in the shahadah. So there's nothing to worry about!
But surely Ms. Herndon would already agree that the children who copied this didn't actually "denounce our Lord", since they copied it "unknowingly"? If so, then her issue must lie elsewhere. "Indoctrination" is perhaps a relevant lead; the teacher presumably knew the meaning of the words, so, in Ms. Herndon's view, that presumably means that she was attempting to make them repeat words they wouldn't have repeated if they had known what they meant, which would be an abuse of authority. But that just leads us back to the original question: why wouldn't/shouldn't they have been willing to copy these words if they had known what they meant?
I'm not sure I have a philosophically sound answer, yet on that question I share the same intuition: I wouldn't sing or want my children to sing a song about Jesus being God, even though songs don't commit their singer to the statements they contain. It seems that statements felt as blasphemous, rather than merely false, continue to be felt as such even in contexts where they clearly can't be interpreted as assertions by the speaker. In that respect, they resemble swearwords, although with swearwords it goes even further - if you give an accurate quote of someone swearing, then you're swearing yourself, quotation marks be damned. In a Christian context, one might explain this by the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. However, the fact that she didn't appeal to it, and the fact that this intuition is shared by non-Christians, suggests that that would merely be rationalisation.
This is not a domain I've worked on much, so let me open up the floor to any reader who's made it this far: what's going on here? Does anyone have a coherent and empathetic explanation for why some types of statements should be felt as problematic even when clearly not asserted?