Last December when Kimberly Kanan was invited by her children’s school to discuss the Muslim holiday of Eid during the school’s study of traditions and cultures from around the world, she happily accepted the offer. But Kanan, an active parent of four, three of whom attend the same school where the presentation took place, did not expect the storm of controversy that ensued.
Turning to the Council on American-Islamic Relations for an opportunity to clear the misunderstanding, Kanan was able to turn a negative experience into a meaningful lesson for the school as well as the larger community.
Kanan, in an exclusive interview with InFocus, shared her journey of the seemingly benign presentation, the fallout and the steps taken to correct the misinformation.
In the presentations to her son’s kindergarten and twins’ second-grade classes, Kanan briefly described Eid as an Islamic celebration that focused on the importance of charity and how it is “better to give than to receive.” She ended by showing the children a picture of the Ka’aba on a prayer rug and passing out gift bags with chocolate money, puzzles, and homemade sets of prayer beads (also called worry beads).
Kanan said that she was very conscious of not implying a religious use for either the prayer rug or the prayer beads. She used the rug as a visual of the historical monument where people gather during the holiday, and the beads, which her 8-year-old twins made themselves, were included as a cultural item. She explained the prayer beads to the students as: “you can just twiddle your thumb on these and it can help calm you down.” Historically, the Greeks used the beads as stress-relievers for a long time before they were adopted for religious purposes by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even Native Americans.
In spite of Kanan’s precautions, a group of parents panicked and accused Kanan of preaching religious practices to their children with the prayer rug and the prayer beads. The controversy culminated when the principal sent a letter to parents apologizing for allowing Kanan to give the presentation. No complaints were reported, however, when parents gave presentations on Christian, Jewish and other cultural holidays at the school.
Affad Shaikh, CAIR-LA Civil Rights Coordinator, said that although the misunderstanding around Kanan’s presentation was unfortunate, it was not unique or uncommon. Shaikh’s organization recorded 16 school-related cases reported in 2006, but Shaikh said the number was low because “only the worst of the worst get called in.”
Overall, CAIR processed 2,467 civil rights complaints during 2006, constituting a 25-percent increase from the year before. In schools, it’s becoming increasingly common for a student to be harassed or discriminated against, just because he or she is Muslim, Shaikh said. . .
Shaikh encouraged people from the community to report incidents and explained that many people are unaware that something can be done to reconcile their situations. He said some brush off discrimination as “the price of being Muslims today,” while others “do not want to further marginalize themselves…by taking a stance.”