Where Two Worlds Collide

Muslim Schools Face Tension of Islamic, U.S. Views

Eleventh-graders at the elite Islamic Saudi Academy in Northern Virginia study energy and matter in physics, write out differential equations in precalculus and read stories about slavery and the Puritans in English.

Then they file into their Islamic studies class, where the textbooks tell them the Day of Judgment can't come until Jesus Christ returns to Earth, breaks the cross and converts everyone to Islam, and until Muslims start attacking Jews.

At the Al-Qalam All-Girls School in Springfield, seventh-graders learn about the American Revolution and about respecting other people's beliefs. But students in class also talk about the taunts they face outside the school gates -- being called "terrorist" and "bomber" -- and ask whether Osama bin Laden is simply the victim of such prejudice. Maps of the Middle East hang on classroom walls, but Israel is missing.

Such tensions within the walls of Muslim day schools are in many ways emblematic of the U.S. Muslim community's political concerns, fears, biases and hopes, all brought into sharp focus since the events of Sept. 11.

Today, these schools -- and Muslims in this country -- are at a crucial juncture, as some work to stay true to their religion while they try to adapt to the U.S. experience, a process that Catholics and Jews went through before them. At stake, educators acknowledge, is how the next generation of Muslims coming of age in the United States will participate in the country they live in.

The fall attacks could serve as the catalyst in determining whether these schools and their students focus on the culture and politics of faraway Muslim lands or find within Islamic tradition those ideals consistent with U.S. democracy and religious liberty.

"This is going to get us out of the cocoon, out of our little comfort zone that is more of an isolation from the community at large," said Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the California-based Council on Islamic Education. "And it is going to put us into a position where we are going to have to put our own feet to the fire."

The growth of the Muslim population in the United States in the past two decades has prompted a proliferation of day schools, with about a dozen located between Richmond and Baltimore. Nationally, there are estimated to be 200 to 600 of these schools, with at least 30,000 students. Thousands of others attend Islamic weekend schools.

Most Muslim children in the United States attend public schools, but there is a growing desire for more day schools. Some schools face the same prejudices that Catholics and their schools did beginning in the 1800s, when their loyalty to the pope was seen as inherently anti-American.

"We put Catholics through that, Jews through that, Mormons through that and many other groups," Mansuri said. "It is the Muslims' turn . . . and if Muslims are not living up to the ideas of Islam, then we certainly should take them to task."

To that end, some Muslim educators are writing a new curriculum that infuses tenets of the religion in every lesson while providing a broad-minded worldview. Textbooks, often from overseas and rife with anti-American rhetoric, are being replaced in some schools. Some parents are forming PTAs and seeking a curriculum that teaches the civic virtues of tolerance and pluralism.

"I wouldn't be surprised if some teachers are sometimes anti-American or anti-Semitic," said Abdulwahab Alkebsi, whose 12-year-old daughter attends the Islamic Saudi Academy. "But I don't want it to be that way.

"I choose the school because of the same reason why all American parents choose private schools -- it's a better environment and no peer pressure of drugs and being a sex symbol at too young an age. But there are other American values -- like freedom of speech and assembly -- that we should be teaching our kids to respect."

'A Lot of Growing to Do'

Ali Alkhafaji, 9, a fourth-grader, poses a question for his classmates at the Washington Islamic Academy, echoing a lesson from their teacher:

"Is it better to be a fashion star or to listen to Allah?"

The youngsters agreed it was better to listen to God, though wide-eyed India Abdullah, 8, said: "It's hard to be a good Muslim. But if we do the right deeds and stuff, the devil is locked up and the door of heaven is unlocked."

Yet the pictures of Britney Spears and the Islamic holy city of Mecca adorning the lockers and notebooks of two Muslim schools in Springfield attest to the challenge of providing an Islamic education amid the beckoning popular culture.

In fact, many such schools are not considered by Muslims to be truly "Islamic" because there is not yet a curriculum that teaches all subjects through an Islamic prism -- nor is there an Americanized curriculum for Islamic studies, said Hamed El-Ghazali, head of the Muslim American Society's Council on Islamic Schools.

Instead, they use public school curriculum and add classes in Islamic studies, Arabic language and the study of the Koran.

The schools "do have a lot of growing to do," said Sharifa Al-Khateeb, president of the Muslim Education Council and the North American Council for Muslim Women. "They are still working out the exact curriculum. They are still working out how much readiness they would like to see in the children for taking mainstream exams. They are still going through the throes of rewriting materials that would be more appropriate for kids here in the U.S."

With the exception of one network of schools for African American Muslims, most Muslim schools develop their own approach.

At the coeducational New Horizon School in Los Angeles, Principal Shahida Alikhan said the school is "on the progressive side," with teachers stressing tolerance and students feeling connected to the outside world.

In Springfield, Islamic studies teacher Majida Zeiter described a different role for the Washington Islamic Academy, serving kindergarten through fourth-grade students.

"We want it to be a place where they don't have to assimilate, where they can practice their religion. It's like any other religious school," Zeiter said. "We teach them the history and good values and what it takes to be a good Muslim."

Still, Zeiter said she takes pains to present balanced lessons to students, piecing together a curriculum from books published both in the United States and overseas.

When she feels she must use material in a popular Pakistani textbook, she said, she makes photocopies of pages she needs and never uses those calling Christian beliefs "nonsense" or portraying Jews as treacherous people who financially "oppress" others. Yahiya Emerick, the author of "What Islam Is All About," said he will soon release a new edition for U.S. audiences that eliminates the tendentious parts.

Political views, though, pervade the school.

Third-graders at the academy spent one recent morning learning how volcanoes work and where the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite National Park are.

Yet on world maps that hang every day in the classrooms, Israel is missing. Upstairs in Al-Qalam girls school, the word is blackened out with marker, with "Palestine" written in its place.

Officials at the two schools defended the maps, pointing out that some of the students are refugees from Palestine and want their heritage represented.

The schools, they said, have no anti-Israeli policy, or any policy teaching students to be disrespectful of others, saying Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. If teachers are slipping opinions into lessons, they say, it is because they lack proper qualifications. The average salary at Muslim schools across the country is about $16,000.

In a history class at Al-Qalam, Jill Fawzy teaches events from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. But even before Sept. 11, a major topic of conversation had been what Muslims consider the U.S. government's unfair treatment of Muslims abroad, particularly in the West Bank and Iraq. Given their distrust of U.S. policy, some students question the government's claim that bin Laden is responsible for the terrorist attacks -- disputing that videotapes actually show him taking credit.

Fawzy, a 19-year-old who will graduate from George Mason University in 2003, said she isn't so sure and wonders whether the United States just needed someone to blame and picked a Muslim.

"A lot of the students can't make up their minds if he is a good guy or a bad guy," Fawzy said. "There are some Muslims who think he did it and others who don't. The thing is, we don't have any real proof either way. I think a lot of people feel this way."

Rigid Strain of Islam

With two lavish campuses in suburban Virginia, dozens of highly qualified teachers and accreditation from two respected organizations, the Islamic Saudi Academy stands out among Muslim schools in the Washington area.

The academy educates the children of Arabic-speaking diplomats along with other children of differing heritages -- about 1,300 students altogether. But the financial support from the Saudi government brings with it a curriculum that reflects the particularly rigid strain of Islam practiced there, Muslim educators say.

"One of the things the community has been concerned about for years is the Saudi influence and Saudi money," said Amir Hussain, a California professor who has researched Muslim communities in North America. "You have people who come in and say, 'Hey, I'll build you a school.' Then people begin to realize, if that school gets built with Saudi money, do we want that kind of curriculum?' "

The Islamic Saudi Academy does not require that U.S. history or government be taught, offering Arabic social studies as an alternative. Officials there said that only Saudis who intend to return home do not take U.S. history, though a handful of U.S.-born students who plan to stay in this country said they opted against it, too.

School officials would not allow reporters to attend classes. But a number of students described the classroom instruction and provided copies of textbooks.

Ali Al-Ahmed, whose Virginia-based Saudi Institute promotes religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia, has reviewed numerous textbooks used at the academy and said many passages promote hatred of non-Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

The 11th-grade textbook, for example, says one sign of the Day of Judgment will be that Muslims will fight and kill Jews, who will hide behind trees that say: "Oh Muslim, Oh servant of God, here is a Jew hiding behind me. Come here and kill him."

Several students of different ages, all of whom asked not to be identified, said that in Islamic studies, they are taught that it is better to shun and even to dislike Christians, Jews and Shiite Muslims.

Some teachers "focus more on hatred," said one teenager, who recited by memory the signs of the coming of the Day of Judgment. "They teach students that whatever is kuffar [non-Muslim], it is okay for you" to hurt or steal from that person.

Other teachers present more tolerant views, students said. Usama Amer, a veteran math teacher, is popular not only for his math skills but also for regularly allowing students free debate about topics within Islam.

"We do not teach hatred," Amer said.

None of the academy's officials would publicly address the students' statements. One, who spoke anonymously, said he had no knowledge of intolerant passages being assigned or intolerant views being taught. He said textbooks with such passages would be replaced soon.

Mont Bush, of the Secondary and Middle School Commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the academy's accrediting agencies, said that the organization does not delve into curriculum extensively but that it would be "concerned" about such material being taught.

The schools are legally allowed to teach whatever they want -- as long as they meet state requirements -- but have a responsibility to be accurate, scholars say.

"As a matter of educational policy, no, it's not a good idea to cross a nation off the map or to in any way misrepresent history," said Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center in Arlington. "It is a civic responsibility of all schools, religious and secular, to do the best job of educating students to a variety of perspectives."

That should be particularly true for Muslim schools, where many of the students are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with U.S. institutions, said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?"

"One would hope that Muslim day schools serve as a bridge that enable young men and women to make the journey into the safe harbor of open society," he said.