School officials in Bristol have canceled plans for a Muslim woman to speak at a middle school on misconceptions about her religion after they were hit with vitriolic social media campaign and potentially threatening calls and emails.
The Council on American Islamic Relations called the decision a mistake, saying it emboldens Islamophobes and is a disservice to students. Longtime city resident Fatma Antar agreed.
“The people who placed the threats are kind of winning — what are we teaching the kids?” asked Antar, a board member of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.
But Superintendent Susan Moreau said going through with the talk was too risky.
“I canceled this speaker because the teacher felt threatened — she was getting phone calls and emails that were, in her words, threatening,” Moreau said Wednesday afternoon.
Instead, the schools will host a larger forum covering presentations about many religions, and will invite parents to accompany their children to the optional session, Moreau said.
The controversy began about a week ago when a member of the Facebook group Bristol Talks posted about the plan for Annam Choudhry to talk with a Northeast Middle School class that has been studying religions around the world. The letter was from a teacher to advise parents about the Nov. 20 presentation and explain that Choudhry would be discussing her religion, misconceptions about it and her experiences as a Muslim woman.
Some Bristol Talks members posted messages of support, but the site had dozens of comments criticizing the idea. Many argued that it was a snub of Christianity, and some used the opportunity to condemn Islam.
Several posts rallied angry residents to contact the school, and some did.
“I understand some emails to the principal and the teacher were very confrontational,” school board Chairman Chris Wilson said. “The superintendent thought for safety reasons we should pull the program.”
Police said that as of Wednesday night, they’d gotten no report of threats.
Farhan Memon, chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said he understands the security concern, but thinks the decision was wrong.
“A world religion or social studies class in an appropriate place for someone to talk about what they are, what they believe and the difficulties they may have had,” he told The Courant. “People will say ‘we have a separation of state and church,’ but this wasn’t going to be performing an act of worship or endorsing a religion.”
Memon said the social media posts didn’t mention that a rabbi was scheduled to talk, too; that presentation also has been canceled.
“We are concerned that Bristol public schools would seemingly bow to public pressure in this manner,” he said. “Canceling speakers outright emboldens individuals and organizations in Bristol who are Islamophobic and anti-Semitic.” Antar, who teaches economics at Manchester Community College, said she was saddened by the controversy.
”When is this we going to stop, when do we stop hating each other?” she said. “We’ve been here 37 years — we are senior citizens of this town. I respect people’s choices about their faith — why don’t people who make threats accept our choices?”
Her husband, Ali, a Central Connecticut State University professor, agreed.
“Our two boys attended Northeast Middle School. We have never seen this before,” he said.
Moreau wants to put together a one-night series of talks by representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. It would be held at a high school auditorium to permit a large audience, she said.
Newly elected Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu wants to develop a diversity council for such situations. She suggested that residents who are disappointed Choudhry won’t get to speak should attend the Nov. 23 interfaith service at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Church.
“The service represents all faiths,” she said. “Going would be a public show of support for diversity.”