Minnesota high school teacher disciplined for comments about Muslims

Thursday, February 11, 1999

A Minnesota English teacher who harassed a couple of Muslim students because of their religious garb and practices has been disciplined.

This month the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote and called the principal of Mayo High School in Rochester to complain that teacher Evelyn Turner had derided religious practices of Muslims several times in school.

According to the group's letter, Turner belittled two Muslim students, AbdulKadir Abdi and Smater Farah, by telling them that the religious garb they wore during the last days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, made them look like terrorists. CAIR said Turner made those comments to the students late last month.

Moreover, CAIR alleged in its letter that another high school student, Mustaf Sheikh, had been “subject to harassment and verbal abuse because he refuses to shake hands with women.” Additionally, the group cited a draft letter written by Turner last November, in which she decried the Muslim practice of not shaking hands with women, as evidence of her misunderstanding of Islamic tradition.

Turner, who has worked at the high school for more than 10 years, sent her draft to John Frederikson, principal of Mayo High, and some Muslim staff for their suggestions. She planned to send a final version to Muslim leaders in Rochester. However, Frederikson did not approve the letter, and Turner did not mail a final version. CAIR, however, obtained a copy of the draft. In her five-paragraph letter, Turner lectured Muslims on American business etiquette.

“The issue I wish to address is in regard to men shaking hands or refusing to shake hands with women in a business setting,” Turner wrote. “In American culture, it is a very large insult to refuse to shake hands with a person who offered her hand. The history of handshaking is deep-rooted in our history. It goes back to a time when people carried weapons. Shaking right hands was a signal between men that their weapon hand was empty and they did not intend harm to the other person. The symbolism remains even though the weapons don't; people shake hands as a sign of cooperation and goodwill. Refusing to shake is a sign of enmity and disrespect.”

The Islamic advocacy group, however, explained to the Mayo High principal that the Muslim students' garb and actions toward others are both related to their religion.

“Islam prescribes certain parameters for relations between the sexes,” wrote Eric Shakir, civil rights coordinator for CAIR. “For example, many Muslims are reluctant to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. This should not be taken as an insult, but as a sign of personal modesty.”

Shakir wrote that “it is unconscionable that Ms. Turner, a teacher entrusted with the education of our children's youth, would subject her Muslim students to such degrading and stereotypical comments.”

Frederikson responded to the Islamic group in a Feb. 5 letter. The principal said Turner would finish out the school year at Mayo and then be transferred. He also told the group that Turner had apologized personally and in writing to the students. “We celebrate and honor the growth that comes from teaching in a multidimensional community and will continue to work aggressively to ensure that all our students are safe and welcome.”

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR, said that it was unfortunate Turner would still be teaching the Muslim students.

“School officials have agreed that this should not happen again,” Hooper said. “Our main consideration was to make sure this lady would not be in contact with Muslim students again. For us to learn that she will have contact with them till the end of the year is disturbing.”

Hooper said it was apparent to him that Turner had no concern for the religious practices of the Muslim students and was concerned only about their future working lives. “She states in her letter to Muslim leaders that her advice was for their own good,” he said. “But she overlooked the religious significance. Muslims are strongly encouraged to not have contact with people of the opposite sex who they are not married or related to.”