Teacher suspended in feud with Muslim

Henry Ford CC instructor may face assault charge

By George Hunter / The Detroit News

27 September 2001

   DEARBORN -- A Henry Ford Community College philosophy teacher has been suspended for allegedly assaulting an Islamic student during a recent classroom religious discussion.

   The incident, which happened on Sept. 13, two days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, has further heightened tensions among many area Muslims.

   Meanwhile, police and school officials insist religion may not have caused the altercation.

   The problem started when teacher John Azar came into his classroom on the morning of Sept. 13 carrying a small American flag and a book titled Why I'm Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq. Azar reportedly urged his Islamic students to read the book to learn more about their faith.

   "I was shocked," said student Ahmed Kassim, a 20-year-old Dearborn resident of Yemeni descent.

   "It was very degrading to have him show a book with that title, and to say things like that, especially coming only two days after the World Trade Center attacks."

   Azar could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

   One student in the class said Kassim, who is Muslim, began arguing with Azar. Kassim and the student described Azar as a Lebanese-American atheist.

   "Mr. Azar started yelling at Ahmed, telling him to shut up or get out," said 19-year-old Sakne Srour of Dearborn. "That's what he kept saying: 'Shut up or get out.' But Ahmed wouldn't be quiet; he kept saying Mr. Azar was wrong for stereotyping Muslims like that."

   After arguing for a few minutes, Azar grabbed Kassim by the shoulder and lifted him from his seat, Srour said. "Then, Mr. Azar started pushing Ahmed toward the door, and he pushed him out of the classroom. Then, Mr. Azar threw Ahmed's book bag at him and closed the door.

   "At first, everyone in the class was just sitting there in shock. We couldn't believe a teacher would do something so stupid."

   As the incident began to sink in, students began walking out of the classroom in protest. "We were truly offended," Srour said. "One by one, we all started leaving the class."

   Srour's and Kassim's accounts of the incident were corroborated by other students, said HFCC President Andrew Mazzara.

   "We've talked to most of the students who were in the classroom that day, and they all tell basically the same story," Mazzara said.

   "They say the teacher grabbed the student and physically removed him from the classroom, which is unacceptable."

   After the altercation, Kassim and the students who walked out of the class reported Azar to school officials. "After we investigated the incident, we suspended the teacher (with pay) for the remainder of the semester," Mazzara said.

   The incident has angered local civil rights leaders.

   "These are not American values being displayed," said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "It's a sad message of hate."

   However, Dearborn Police Chief Greg Guibord said investigators are not treating the matter as a racially or religiously motivated incident.

   "From the information we have, this was not ethnic or religious intimidation," Guibord said. "We are simply looking into the alleged assault and battery that took place, and after we're finished with our investigation, we'll present all the evidence to prosecutors."

   School officials will reach a decision by Friday about what permanent disciplinary action, if any, will be taken against Azar, Mazzara said.

   "It's absolutely unacceptable for a teacher to put his hands on a student," Mazzara said.

   However, Mazzara also was reluctant to call the incident racially or religiously motivated.

   "You have to be very careful about that," Mazzara said. "A college is not the place to suppress people's First Amendment rights to free speech. After all, it was a philosophy class, and part of a philosophy teacher's job is to challenge students' belief systems. But, no matter what, there's never an excuse for a teacher to touch a student like that."

   Kassim's attorney, Mohammed Abdrabboh, plans to file a lawsuit.

   "It's bad enough that Arab Americans are being humiliated in airports; you'd think a safer place would be a college in Dearborn, where people are supposedly sensitive to our community," Abdrabboh said.

You can reach George Hunter at (313) 561-3376 or ghunter@detnews.com