by Thomas Hochman
Last year, OES and the Oregon Islamic Academy (or OIA) ran a joint class called The American Story. That class doesn’t exist anymore.
The two schools can trace their connections back to when former Head of Upper School Jordan Elliott began teaching OES’s Islam class.
“Jordan started taking his students over [to OIA] and established a good relationship with the director over there,” says Corbet, OES’s interim Head of Upper School. “That relationship had been continuing to grow for a while when VJ came up with the idea of running a shared online class.”
Beginning four years ago under the leadership of OES’s religion department chair VJ Sathyaraj, the class read immigrants’ non-fiction works, using Haiku Learning as the medium by which the two schools communicated. OES and OIA would meet face-to-face three times a term.
“For the first few years, everything went well,” says VJ, “So much so that the students from both OES and OIA attended each other’s graduations.”
And as the class continued to thrive, OIA proposed further collaboration.
“They explained that they wanted to include what they called a ‘moral education,'” says VJ.
And OES was mulling over this idea when on Sunday, June 12, a shooter pledging ISIS allegiance opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49.
The Muslim Educational Trust (MET), the organization to which OIA belongs, put out a statement in conjunction with Muslim leaders from around the city condemning the attacks in addition to the violence against Muslims in other parts of the world.
“The American Muslim and Arab-American Communities in Oregon and SW Washington unequivocally condemn the senseless murder that has occurred in Orlando, Florida and offer our condolences to the victims and their families,” it begins, going on to call for an end to hatred and terror worldwide (read the entire statement here).
While clearly thoughtful in its intent, what was notably absent from the statement was the mention of the Orlando attacker’s obvious target — the LGBT community.
Calling upon OES’s core values of inclusivity regardless of gender or orientation, VJ felt that MET had a duty to acknowledge the group at whom the Orlando massacre was specifically directed.
MET explained that they don’t talk about the subject of sexuality as they consider it a private matter.
“At that stage I felt like I needed assurance from MET that all of our students would be respected and treated equally,” says VJ. “In return I hoped that they would expect the same thing of us.”
“The concern from our perspective was that we were encountering a deep seated belief with this issue,” says Dori King, OES’s Director of Community Partnerships. “There’s a continuum within the Islamic faith, and on one side of that continuum there is the belief that homosexuality is a sin. As a result, anyone who tries to have a conversation on that subject is bound to step into unstable territory.”
So after consulting with Corbet and OES’s Head of School Mo Copeland, VJ and history department chair Mike Gwaltney decided to suggest to OIA that both schools draft a not-to-be-published statement affirming their commitment to respecting each other’s students.
“They were offended by that proposition and felt that we were stereotyping the members of their school,” explains VJ. “So we reached a stalemate.”
As a result, the class was discontinued for the following school year. And that’s where things stand now between the two schools just under 12 months later.
Right now, Corbet and VJ are working closely with Dori to decide whether or not a close relationship with MET is one that OES is willing and/or capable of pursuing.
But one thing is for sure. Now that the superficial levels of our partnership with MET have been explored in full, both OES and OIA are going to have to commit to having difficult conversations about our values if we are going to continue working together.
And we may find that, in the end, our two schools just don’t share enough common ground. After all, as Corbet said, “It’s easy to talk about intercultural understanding, but it’s not always so easy to actually do it.”
Thanks for reading.
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While it would have been beneficial to hear the personal opinions of those at the Muslim Educational Trust, the Dig made no attempt to contact the organization at the request of some members of the OES administration.