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He said that when he moved to a new school in another region, no one would believe the stories he told about being bullied. “People had a hard time accepting that bigotry against Muslims was that widespread and out in the open.” Another local student recalled being slapped with slices of ham during lunch after explaining to his peers that it was against his religious beliefs to eat pork.
James White, who chairs the political science department at Concord University, a nearby liberal-arts college, believes these problems are largely a result of the area’s poor socioeconomic conditions. “Tolerance is related to education. Tolerance is related to income. It’s inversely related to age. You look at this area and you see that it’s more intolerant than the norm in America. That would be somewhat expected.” West Virginia has the lowest proportion of college-educated residents in the nation. It also has the third-highest median age and third-lowest median income in the country.
Though he concedes that the area is not particularly diverse, White said that local leaders choose to ignore diversity instead of celebrating it. This, he added, leads to bigotry directed at people from minority religions.
White’s opinion on this matter is shaped by his experiences. Two years ago, his son, who was about to graduate as valedictorian of his high school class, published an op-ed in West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, arguing against his public-school-graduation ceremony’s being held in a church, on the grounds that such a ceremony would be a violation of the separation of church and state. This prompted a negative reaction from the community, which overwhelmingly supported the decision to hold the graduation in a church. “There were people anonymously threatening to beat up this 17-year-old kid. It was absurd, ” White said.
His wife, Lynne White, served on the board of education, which controls many of the public schools attended by members of the ISAR community. Her experiences on the board during her eight-year tenure support her husband’s assessment. She was particularly troubled by a program that provides optional Bible classes during regular school hours in the local public schools. Though the program’s supporters claim it teaches the Bible from a purely historical and literary point of view and thus does not pose any constitutional problems, critics argue that it is a religious program that alienates non-Christian students. One Muslim student recalled being left alone in a room each week when all the other students attended Bible class.
Imad, who still has family in the area but rarely visits, says these types of incidents just push young people like him further from the community.
“I think a lot of us younger people just don’t feel comfortable there, and that’s why I, personally, would never live in that type of area again.”