In a bizarre twist of fate, Nicholas Damask, an Arizona college professor came under heat from his own school last month, had a lawsuit filed against him and his college, and then received death threats against himself and his family for teaching material that was thought by some as condemning Islam.

The Arizona Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit, asking that Scottsdale Community College (SCC) and professor Nicholas Damask, Chairman of the Department of Political Science at SCC, stop teaching the materials in question until they “do not have the primary effect of disapproving of Islam.” According to the lawsuit, Damask repeatedly condemned Islam as a religion that definitively teaches terrorism.

One of Damask’s students, Mohamed Sabra, posted three quiz questions from a world politics class, which featured classes on Islamic terrorism, to social media last month. That set off hundreds of posts criticizing the school online — many were from people who were not students of the school. Initiating a knee-jerk response, the college’s interim President, Christina Haines, then apologized for the “inaccurate” and “inappropriate” questions.

The three questions that Sabra posted to social media were:

  • Who do terrorists strive to emulate? A. Mohammed
  • Where is terrorism encouraged in Islamic doctrine and law? A. The Medina verses [i.e., the portion of the Qur’an traditionally understood as having been revealed later in Muhammad’s prophetic career]
  • Terrorism is _______ in Islam. A. justified within the context of jihad.

Haines and the school gave Damask an apology letter which he was to post to the student. He was also to remove the questions from his curriculum. Damask, who has been teaching at the school for 24 years, was having none of it. He said he had no intention of apologizing and that his academic freedom was being threatened.

Damask defended his teachings. He stated that all of the quiz questions were carefully sourced to the reading material. On the particular quiz, the quiz questions were sourced to the Qur’an, the hadiths, and the biography (sira) of Mohammed.

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Back in May, Kathleen Iudicello, Scottsdale Community College’s Dean of Instruction, reportedly told Damask that his quiz questions were “Islamophobic” and that before teaching any further classes on Islamic terrorism, he would have to meet with an Islamic religious leader to go over course content and he would need to take a class taught by a Muslim. 

Later, the College’s chancellor publicly apologized for “the uneven manner in which this was handled and for our lack of full consideration for our professor’s right of academic freedom.” He admitted that the questions were taken out of context.

But the story does not end there. 

Apparently, those who criticized Damask and took exception with the fact that he called Islamic Jihad violent have responded with death threats against the professor, his wife, his grandson, and his 85-year-old parents. There were literally hundreds of threats posted online, threatening Damask, his family, and the school — some threatened school shootings and burnings. Damask’s calls to have those messages removed from the school’s Instagram account have not been successful to date. The irony of the situation is one that has not been lost on Damask. 

On June 10, in a response to the lawsuit, Maricopa County Community Schools District, under which Scottsdale Community College falls, said that schools are not required to delete from the curriculum all materials that may offend any religious sensibility. The quiz questions do not violate the Constitution, and the suit’s claims undermine First Amendment protections reserved for academic freedom.

Damask has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Cincinnati and wrote his doctoral dissertation on terrorism.