Arizona college district defends professor facing backlash for Islam quiz questions

An Arizona community college district broke with the school and came to the defense of a professor criticized for quiz questions implying that terrorism is encouraged in the Islamic faith, saying the college was quick to “rush to judgement.”

Steven Gonzales, the interim chancellor for the Maricopa County Community Colleges (MCCC), said officials at Scottsdale Community College failed to follow proper procedures when it quickly apologized and denounced the questions as inaccurate, AZ Central reported on Monday.

"I apologize, personally, and on behalf of the Maricopa Community Colleges, for the uneven manner in which this was handled and for our lack of full consideration for our professor’s right of academic freedom," Gonzales said in a statement.

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The district will form a Committee on Academic Freedom so that disputes about education and curriculum are “realized alongside our longstanding commitment to the value of inclusion," Gonzales said.

Gonzales also that while the incident is under investigation, the professor will not be involved and is not at risk of losing his job.

The statement was praised by the MCCC governing board, which said “there has been a significant amount of unfounded misinformation distributed regarding the curriculum, student and professor."

"That misinformation has led to serious allegations and threats to one of our own faculty members with an otherwise unblemished past,” the governing board said in a statement obtained by AZ Central.

The issue revolves around professor Nick Damask and questions he put on a quiz for the world politics course he teaches online. 

One question read: "Where is terrorism encouraged in Islamic doctrine and law?"

Another question asked “Who do Islamic terrorists strive to emulate?” to which the correct answer was specified as the Prophet Muhammed, chief prophet in the religion.

Other answers to the questions on the quiz reportedly led to statements like, "Terrorism is justified within the context of jihad in Islam" and "Contemporary terrorism is Islamic."

The professor said the student emailed him about how he took offense to the quiz questions, but never filed a formal complaint.

The questions were then shared through a viral Instagram post, reposted by many influencers and prominent Muslim activist groups.

Comedian Abdallah Jasim posted the questions to his approximately 125,000 followers on Instagram.

"This has me fuming. Xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism are still alive & well. This is NOT acceptable at all!" he wrote

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Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director of Arizona’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, wrote that CAIR is investigating how many students have been impacted by “this hateful material.”

Damask, an educator at the school for 24 years, told AZ Central that the questions were taken out of context as part of the unit on terrorism.

The lessons included how Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda justify their actions, he said. The class is not limited to Islam, however, and also also explored the Jewish Zealot sect and the Hindu Thuggee cult.

"If there was such a thing as Mormon terrorism and Southern Baptist terrorism, we would have a unit on that, too," Damask said. "But we don’t, so we don’t spend any time talking about that."

The school apologized last week, calling the questions "inaccurate, inappropriate, and not reflective of the inclusive nature of our college." 

A now-deleted post on the school’s Instagram page was flooded with comments calling for Damask’s resignation. The outlet reported that some comments targeted the professor and asked for his address.

The threats were so alarming, Damask said he and his family left their home for their safety.

Damask said he refused to sign a prepared apology that school officials wrote on his behalf, saying, "I'll never apologize for teaching the content that I am, or the manner in which I'm teaching it.”