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Islamic schools on the rise in US, struggle for acceptance

Islamic private schools are expanding across the U.S., offering Muslim families access to education that instills their religious values. By's Kari Huus.
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“As-Salamu Alaikum! Good morning!” booms Habeeb Quadri, looking out over a sea of kids gathered in the gymnasium of the Muslim Community Center Full Time School.

“As-Salamu Alaikum!” the students shout in reply, echoing the traditional Arabic greeting, “Peace be upon you.”

It is a scene played out in countless variations each weekday at the estimated 240 to 250 private Islamic schools in the U.S. offering instruction to K-12 students. The increasing enrollment in these schools reflects the religion’s growing number of American followers and the desire of parents to shelter young Muslims from discrimination and discomfort they might encounter at public schools.

But Islamic schools, like mosques and other Islamic institutions, can can be viewed with distrust and even hostility, which means their founders have to work overtime to gain a foothold in many communities.

The MCC Full Time School, which has a student body of 410 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, is in many ways typical of U.S. Islamic schools. At a recent morning assembly, students recited from the Quran, discussed the virtue of the month — honesty — and heard announcements.

Then it was time for Principal Quadri’s weekly program “Caught ya doing good!” — during which he calls out two kids for acts of kindness — before closing prayers and the start of classes.

Preparing students for life and 'hereafter'“We want to give (students) the necessary tools to be productive citizens and Muslim citizens in this society, but also the necessary tools to be productive citizens in the hereafter, which is paradise,” said Quadri, a gregarious 36-year-old Chicago native whose parents immigrated from Pakistan.

Quadri’s goals are ambitious, and his job is about to get even bigger. Like many private Islamic schools around the country, MCC Full Time is aiming to expand enrollment to 450 next year. Its offerings: a solid education, religious values based on the Quran and a refuge.

“It’s very important …  for Muslim kids to be able to go to a school that affirms who they are and allows the creative space to be comfortable being Muslim,” said Fatima Bailey, a San Francisco-based education consultant and former teacher in Islamic schools. “In an Islamic school they have a feeling of pride … minus some of the other things they might encounter.”

The Islamic School League of America (ISLA), a nonprofit that connects Muslim educators and institutions, estimates that 40,000 students are enrolled in Islamic schools in the United States, a 25 percent increase from 2006. Those numbers are expected to keep growing as new schools open and existing schools expand.

In addition to standard curricula adopted from public schools, Islamic schools typically offer Arabic and study of the Quran. Beyond that, many offer Islamic studies, which vary widely but may include stories of the prophets, teaching about the Crusades and scientific discoveries of the Ottoman Empire. Teaching approaches also vary, and it’s difficult to generalize about many other aspects of their curricula and religious instruction.

A day in the lifeMCC Full Time, one of 11 Islamic schools in the Chicago area, serves Muslim students whose families come from South Asia, the Balkans, East Africa and the Middle East, as well as converts and one non-Muslim.

All students attend daily prayer. Classes are mixed, but boys and girls sit on opposite sides of the classroom. For girls, the school uniform includes headscarves after fifth grade — though they are not required to wear them outside school. Younger girls can wear them if they wish. A ban on jeans with the school’s maroon tunics was recently lifted after a group of older students petitionedthe principal, but the popular skinny jeans are still banned.

Apart from religious studies, students move from chemistry to computer lab, math and literature much as they would in public schools. But the lesson plans — and the classroom interaction —are often influenced by the students’ religious identity.

In a literature class, teacher Fatima Quadri (no relation to Habeeb Quadri) has her seventh-grade students sitting in a circle, discussing Maya Angelou’s poem “Alone.”

“The kids especially relate to works by minorities,” Quadri said in an aside. And they often ask questions that relate back to Islam.

“Last year we debated euthanasia for animals and capital punishment,” she said. “… We called in religions experts for their opinion.”  But, she added, Islam is very diverse. “They are encouraged to think for themselves.”

Growing upThe evolution of MCC Full Time School is fairly typical. It was founded in 1990 and initially offered kindergarten through second grade for just 25 students. Over two decades, it has expanded its enrollment and offerings, and administrators expect 450 students to enroll next year.

Located in a leafy middle-class suburb north of Chicago, the school also hopes to add a high school.

There are plenty of challenges to start-up schools, not least of which is persuading potential students and their parents that the school is academically up to snuff.

“If you’re dealing with immigrants, you’re dealing with post-colonial attitudes,” said Karen Keyworth, one of the founders of ISLA.  In many of their countries of origin, “The way to move upward was through Western schools. … (In the past) they saw Islamic schools as not where they should put their students if they want their kids to end up in Harvard.”

According to Keyworth, most Islamic schools now have state or national accreditation or they are working through the process. MCC Full Time has both accreditations. A handful of Islamic schools are going beyond that to develop international baccalaureate programs.

Habeeb Quadri is part of an effort to develop standardized testing for Islamic studies that has so far been tried by 35 schools.

“In the last five to six years we have gained more professionalism,” said Quadri. “We’re no longer just an expanded Sunday school.”

Comfort zoneAs with other religious schools, parents seek out Islamic schools in part to shelter their kids from the rough-and-tumble exchanges and atmosphere they commonly encounter in public schools.

“I think at the end of the day… a lot of parents tell me, ‘I don’t want my child to be in a high school where they have to deal with kids making out next to their locker,” said Fatima Quadri.

And it’s not just peer pressure to do things that conflict with their faith — like drinking, dating and making out in hallways — but conflicts between the education system and Islam, like coed swimming classes.

“I’d have to sit on the bench at gym because my teacher did not understand …  I wasn’t going to wear a bathing suit in a coed classroom,” said Quadri, whose parents sent her to public schools in Chicago. “It took a long time for me to make my teacher understand that and stop giving me a zero.”

At MCC Full Time, teachers say their most common breech of discipline is students smuggling cell phones into school — sometimes using headscarves as hiding places.

“The worst discipline problems — in a California public middle school kids are having oral sex,” said Saadia Shariff, a math teacher for the sixth- to eighth-graders at MCC who came here from California. “Here the worst we see is a girl texting a boy.”

'She wouldn't be called a terrorist'
Parents have the additional incentive of wanting to protect their kids from anti-Muslim slurs that have become more commonplace in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bailey, the San Francisco education consultant, decided to pull her daughter from a public middle school and put her back in an Islamic school after the killing of Osama bin Laden prompted other students asked her daughter if she was in mourning for the al-Qaida terror mastermind.

“They didn’t ask her about the pretty black scarf, or her trip to Abu Dhabi,” said Bailey. “In a Muslim school she wouldn’t get asked that question, she wouldn’t be called a terrorist. She’s faced a lot of harassment. … I want her to develop life skills, but there are lines you have to draw about how much you want your child to endure.”

The idea of private Islamic schools is troubling to Zudhi Jasser, an American born Muslim who is an outspoken critic of what he calls Islamic separatism in America.

"It creates a very ghettoized society..." said Jasser, who argues that American Muslim religious communities often embrace a belief in Islamist supremacy. "I worry that parochial schools are going to become incubators for separatism."

MCC Full Time's answer to that concern is to make sure the school's sports teams play against other schools and that the kids get involved in service projects and take part in academic competitions outside their school.

"What we want is to make sure the school is safe and comfortable and they can learn," said Quadri, the principal. "We don't want them to be in a cocoon."

Teaching religion carefullyBut teaching Islam to suit a wide array of Muslim Americans also can be tricky.

The Seattle Islamic School is on the progressive or modern side of the spectrum of Islamic schools. The school, which employs Montessori-style teaching, integrates Islamic values in its instruction but does not offer a separate course for Islamic studies. It does hold prayers and teach Arabic — both for conversation and study of the Quran.

Students work on memorizing the Quran in at MCC Full Time School in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Illinois. John Brecher

The school has banned the word “kafir” — a traditional label for a non-believer. Administrators of Seattle Islamic School identify themselves only as Muslim, in an effort to avoid highlighting differences between Shia and Sunni sects.

“We are raising Americans, Muslim Americans to be proud of America, true to their faith and global citizens,” said Ann El-Moslimany, founding director of the school.

The school does not allow veils in the classroom, and El-Moslimany said administrators also are rethinking the requirement that the older girls must wear headscarves, saying the issue has gained too much importance.

“It doesn’t feel like a religious school,” said Heather Lakhal, whose daughter is a second-grader at the school. Lakhal, who is married to a Muslim from Algeria and described herself as a “potential convert,” said, “Religion is comfortably incorporated into the day.”

Conservative exodus Not all parents were comfortable with the non-traditional approach, however. Two years ago, a group of more conservative Muslims, many of them originally from Southeast Asia, pulled their kids out of the school and opened a new Islamic school that employs a more old-school approach — stressing recitation of the Quran, hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) and sharia law — a system of rules that governs daily activities.

That exodus and the economic downturn caused a sharp drop in enrollment at Seattle Islamic School, prompting administrators to eliminate eighth and ninth grades.

In Chicago, MCC Full Time teachers and administrators do what they can to accommodate the full spectrum of beliefs. Principal Quadri said, for example, that the school hosted a concert by “Native Deen” — an Islamic hip hop band — but gave parents veto power on whether their kids could attend.

To accommodate families that seek more intensive religious teaching, they also have created a separate program in which students work to memorize the entire Quran — 114 chapters — in Arabic. These students attend school nearly year-round in order to reach their goal — becoming a Hafiz, or “guardian” of the holy book — while also completing their academic requirements before entering high school.

Filtering out the politicsTeachers at Islamic schools say that one of their biggest challenges is filtering cultural and political baggage from core Islamic principles.

“I use the example of (a ban on) women driving in Saudi Arabia,” said Sadiya Barkat, a social studies teacher at MCC Full Time. “I don’t want my kids to walk out thinking that what (the government of) Saudi Arabia is doing is OK. That’s not Islam … if you go back to the core texts.”

Rizwan Kadir, chairman of the board of directors for MCC Full Time School in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Illinois. John Brecher

And Rizwan Kadir, chairman of the board of MCC Full Time, has produced a PowerPoint presentation to help students better understand the single most confusing “Islamic” incident in U.S. history: the 9-11 attacks.

“The presentation was motivated by the fact that kids haven’t had a forum to talk about this,” he said. The goal was “to explain why Muslims do things that are not Islamic.”

MCC has had to fight for its place in Morton Grove — a common narrative for Islamic institutions in the United States. Well before 9-11, Muslim American groups sometimes spent years searching for sites to build community centers for worship and schools.

But in recent years, opposition to proposed Islamic sites has become especially well organized and highly publicized — none more so than the furor over the Park 51 project, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” near the site of the 9-11 attacks in Manhattan.

A recent report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank in Detroit, showed that Islamic community centers, mosques and schools have run into opposition in dozens of communities across the nation. While the opposition usually focuses on land-use issues — including parking, traffic and noise — in many cases the intent is clearly to exclude Muslims from the neighborhood, the report said.

Public anxiety has been generated by highly publicized cases, such as a proposed Islamic school in Lodi, Calif., that ended up at the center of an FBI terrorism investigation in 2005. Two Islamic religious leaders who supported the Farooqia Islamic Center were ultimately deported after being portrayed as terrorist sympathizers. An FBI agent testified at a federal immigration hearing in San Francisco that the proposed elementary school was actually intended to be a terrorist training camp.

Ultimately, the county supervisors rejected the project, citing concerns about traffic and quality of life in the rural area.

MCC Full Time founders bought the Morton Grove property, with a former school building on it, at public auction in 1989 for a school and place of worship. A group of neighbors led an effort to persuade the village government to buy it back.

In November 2002, the school sought a permit to build a mosque on the property, saying its  Friday prayer gatherings had outgrown the gymnasium used for worship. The village of Morton Grove initially rejected the permit, prompting the group to sue the village on civil rights grounds.

In late 2003, an unidentified person launched a cinder block through a school window. Supporters from a local Catholic church rushed to fix the window.

After nearly two years, long evenings of rancorous public hearings and Justice Department mediation, the permit was granted, but with restrictions — including one that the school could not add a high school. Now MCC Full Time is petitioning the government to lift that restriction.

“Weve been through a lot to get to this point,” Kadir said.

PR overtimeBut Muslims are also learning that they need to get better at community outreach when they are planning projects, the think tank report said.

“My counsel is ‘don’t start the process in a vacuum,’ ” said Kadir, who is also a board member for ISLA. “Reach out. You’re the new kid on the block. Get to know the president of the village, the police, firefighters, other faith leaders and build relations. Be patient. Make sure the community is on your side and the community has a say in the whole process.”

ISLA also advises Muslim schools to avoid using any foreign funding, to avoid any question about the motivation of the donors.

Likewise, students at MCC Full Time are also taught that they are expected to be ambassadors for Muslims — to explain to others who have questions about Islam and suspicions about their intentions — whether those suspicions seem fair or not.

“Whether we like it or not, we have become defined by violent extremism. It’s become our responsibility to show we are not Osama bin Laden,” said Kadir. “It’s a big responsibility …  but living in this country is worth it.”