Browsing through the religion section in the library, junior Anwar Omeish was disappointed to find so few books written about Islam, her faith. Finally, she checked out “Legacy of Jihad.” But only a few chapters into the book, she found multiple inaccuracies.
After extensive research on both the author and book and a discussion with librarian Margaret Carpenter, Omeish decided she would challenge the book, banning it from the school setting. In order for the challenge to go through, however, Omeish would not only have to read the book, but fill out pages of paperwork along with it.
“The author of “Legacy of Jihad” has absolutely no credentials to write on the subject. He associates himself with known ‘Islamophobes’ and hate-mongers and is named as one of the top 25 pseudo-experts on Islam by the Muslim Public Affairs Council,” she said.
Omeish is not the only one who has turned to book challenges. Earlier this month, one concerned parent’s challenge of “Beloved,” a Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, made it to the FCPS School Board. The parent, Laura Murphy, sought to ban the book from classrooms in Fairfax County because her child had experienced distress reading the book.
English teacher Judy Bello taught “Beloved” in her English 11 classes until two years ago. While teaching, she recognized that the violence and sexual material covered in the novel needed to be approached carefully.
“I would not have dared teach it at the beginning of the year,” Bello said. “I waited until we had a close sense of community and tolerance in the class.”
“Beloved” tells the story of an African-American mother who attempts to kill her three children to save them from a life of slavery. Her daughter, called “Beloved” does die. Bello explained that she never asked students directly to speak up about the sensitive topics in the book themselves.
Class of 2011 graduate Omar Abed was in Bello’s English 11 class. “Beloved” was the only book in high school he didn’t fully read.
“It was weird discussing it in class at times just because the topics in the book were a big jump from the kind of stuff we had read before in school,” he said.
Bello decided to stop teaching it after one student opted out of reading the book.
“’Beloved’ deeply enriched the students understanding of what slavery was really like. But perhaps it was a bit of a challenge even for the sophisticated, earnest students at TJ,” she said. “It was a risk that I didn’t need to take.”
“Beloved,” though recently challenged, did not make the top 10 on the 2011 list of the most commonly challenged novels by the American Library Association. Instead, at the top of the list is the “Harry Potter” series.
“There’s nothing wrong with ‘Harry Potter.’ Nobody does anything that would be found in an R- 18 magazine,” freshman Gabby Huckabee said.
Huckabee had more problems with “Brave New World.” However, she would not go as far as challenging it.
“Universally accepted literature shouldn’t be banned, even if it includes debatable topics,” she said.
But not everyone agrees with Huckabee. For this reason, there are standard rules and procedures for book challenges. In order for the challenge to be successful, it should prove that the book is violating Virginia law or FCPS rules or standards in some way.
Once a challenge has been lodged, the school principal has to approve the challenge after reading the book himself. It is then presented to the school board, where board members have to read the book and make a decision.
To avoid these situations, librarians Margaret Carpenter and Anne Applin ensure each library book has at least three positive reviews from credible sources. “I always go to lists of widely read, important, new books,” Carpenter said. “Honestly, we don’t have money to spare on objectionable titles.”
Still, she sees the library as “an exchange of ideas,” and feels that books that present ideas students may disagree with help, rather than hurt, them.
“Writers often write for the purpose of causing tension,” Carpenter said, “because tension helps us grow and understand ideas we are against or which may disappoint us.”
Omeish, while she absolutely values writers’ rights to creative expression, sees controversial fiction and “inaccurate, intellectually dishonest non-fiction” as two very different situations.
“I have significant issues when a book portrayed as nonfiction purposefully distorts facts, twists narratives, propagates false equivalencies, and dishonestly slanders the deeply-held faith of over one billion people around the world,” she said. “‘Legacy of Jihad’ promotes the type of dangerous ignorance that has led to the still-increasing levels of hate crimes against Muslim Americans.”
(This article originally appeared in the February 28, 2013 print edition)