This Islamic School Helps Students Build Their American And Muslim Identity

Like any good fifth-grade teacher, Mike Matthews wants to make his social studies unit on the American West as exciting as possible. So he's planning a special "Wild West" evening at the school with his students.

"We're going to have good ol' cowboy-fashion hot dogs and beans, Texas Toast and beef jerky," he says. Matthews will tell stories around a mock campfire, and for added authenticity, the fifth-graders will set up a saloon.

Of course, the saloon scene will be free of any references to alcohol, since the school — Al Fatih Academy in Reston, Va. — is an Islamic institution.

"We had the discussion already about what is appropriate, according to our mission," Matthews says. "The students are going to create an indoor saloon, but we're going to make it kid-friendly."

The academy, which serves elementary and middle school grades, was established in 1999, "to cultivate and nurture a thriving American Muslim identity that balances religious, academic and cultural knowledge and imparts the importance of civic involvement and charitable work."

The school combines traditional classes with Islamic instruction. All students take Arabic, recite from the Quran, and are taught how to pray. Shad Imam, who has a daughter and a son enrolled here, says he and his wife were drawn to this school because of the way Islamic ideas are woven into the curriculum.

"When you're learning about the stars and the planets, when you're learning about science," he says, "you're doing it through the rubric of, 'This is how God created the world. This is how we, as Muslims, understand the world to exist.' I find that very powerful, because often, I think, religion is relegated to a compartmentalized part of society."

With Islam estimated to be the fastest growing religion in the country, private Islamic institutions are gaining the same acceptance in American education that other religious schools have long enjoyed. There are now nearly 300 elementary and secondary Islamic schools across the country, according to the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), where many of them are represented.

Joe McTighe, CAPE's executive director, says the Islamic schools share with other private religious schools a vision of their education mission that goes beyond the purely academic orientation of public secular schools.

"Religious schools see education as much more than that," McTighe says. "They look at the aesthetic dimension, the spiritual dimension, the ethical and moral. They look at the whole child, in body and soul."

The curriculum at Al Fatih Academy nevertheless closely follows state guidelines. Eighth graders at the school, like eighth graders across Virginia, take civics and learn the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. Teacher Ann Raheem has her students write letters to their representatives about government issues that concern them.

Ayra Aslam's burning issue was road congestion. "I wrote to my state elected officials about the traffic on Route 7, and how maybe they could, like, fix it by adding an extra lane," she says. "Because it's really bad in the morning." If they added an extra lane, Aslam explains, " I could get to school on time."

Like most of the older girls and female teachers, Ayra wears a headscarf to school, though it's not required except at prayer time. The school directors aim to bring the students' Muslim and American identities into a single whole, a goal that responds in part to the frustrations they themselves felt as young immigrant Muslims.

"Growing up, we thought it was hard," says Pervin Divleli, a co-founder of the school. "You created different identities for yourself, depending on where you were. If you were with your family, there was a certain expectation for how you behaved. They were first-generation immigrants, with a very strong culture that they brought with them. You were a different way when you were in school. You were a different way when you went to the mosque, because there were so many different people there. Part of what attracted me here was the opportunity to create an environment where my kids can really understand their identity and shape it and become an American Muslim."

The Al Fatih program includes a special emphasis on social justice issues.

Ann Raheem opened her eighth-grade civics class on a recent day by reading a story about children in Birmingham, Ala., leading a civil rights demonstration in the 1960s.

"It's so amazing what they were able to do as such young kids," she says, looking up from the text. "They made the decision that they were going to risk going to jail, they were going to risk personal violence against themselves, to make that change."

As the students deepen their connection to their faith and their Muslim identity, however, they also need to grapple with the reality that Islam has become associated in some minds with terrorism and hate. The young Muslims at Al Fatih have struggled with the actions of violent extremists who share their religion, like the Pakistani American and his wife who carried out the massacre at San Bernardino.

"They would say, 'This was a Muslim guy! This was a Muslim woman!' " recalls Afeefa Syeed, the co-director at Al Fatih. "And as they're talking, they're saying, 'But that's not what a Muslim does. How could they even think to do that?' And they're clearly thinking through this, without us just spooning them the answers, because we've created a climate here where we have them think through what it means to be a person of faith and specifically what it means to be Muslim."

Such conversations may come more easily in an all-Muslim environment, where the children dare to raise questions they would keep to themselves in a more public setting. Some research suggests that Islamic schools may actually promote more free thinking among Muslim-American youth than public schools can.

At the same time, the students at Al Fatih are taught that, if they want their religion respected, Muslims need to learn to respect other faiths.

"That is one of our goals," says Afeefa Syeed, "to bring in somebody to talk about Christianity who is a Christian. A Jewish person would come and talk about Judaism. And it helps the students understand that if we treat people with authenticity, they will treat us in the same way."

Most of the students at Al Fatih Academy will go on to a public high school when they finish the eighth grade, which is the highest level taught here. Fateeha Syed, two months away from graduation, thinks her education at Al Fatih has prepared her for what comes next.

"Here we learn to be ourselves," she says, "and we go off to public school where we can be ourselves with other people. It gives me the confidence."