More Muslims home in to educate children

More Muslim Americans are choosing to home-school their children, making them one of the fastest growing minority groups within the national home-schooling movement.

Muslim parents are educating their children on their own for reasons common to most home-schooling families: improving academics and controlling social interactions.

The value clash between public-school teachings and Islamic beliefs, combined with the dearth of Muslim schools in many communities, leads many of the parents to educate their children independently, proponents of the movement say.

"Muslims prefer a religious-based curriculum as a Christian might," said Fatima Saleem, a South Carolina mother of two who helped create the Palmetto Muslim Homeschool Resource Network, a Web site ( pmhrn_2000/PMHRN.html) that helps Muslim families find information on the basics of home schooling.

"Parents may encounter that their school overemphasizes Judeo-Christian holidays," she said. "They also may feel that their children will feel isolated and have a problem with their identity as a Muslim."

Nationally, Christians make up 75 percent of the nearly 2 million children who are home-schooled, said Brian Ray, president of the Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute. But the proportion of minority groups, including Muslims, choosing to home-school is steadily increasing, he said.

There are about 6 million Muslims living in the United States. Mr. Ray, who has been tracking home-schooling trends for 18 years, says it is hard to estimate the numbers of Muslims and other minorities who home-school.

But, an online Muslim home-schooling advisory organization, contends to have served an estimated 30,000 Muslim-American home-schooling families since September 1997. And Mrs. Saleem said her site gets at least 6,000 hits a month.

Locally, the number of Muslim children being home-schooled is growing. In 1998, there were five Muslim families in the Washington metropolitan area that home-schooled their children, local Muslim leaders said. Today, there are 30.

Interest has grown so much that local leaders in Loudoun County, Va., have set up a six-week summer camp where local Muslim home-schooled students learn about bridging American and Muslim identities and developing character and community responsibility. The camp meets daily at Algonkian Regional Park Golf Course in Sterling.

Nationally, the Muslim home-schooling movement can be divided into three populations, said Scott Somerville, an attorney with the Virginia-based Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

Mr. Somerville estimates that about a third of Muslim home-schooling parents are white American women married to Muslims or Arabs, a third are blacks who converted to Islam, and the rest are immigrant families from Muslim countries.

The religious context for Muslim home-schooling parents is different than it is for Christians, but, Mr. Ray said, Muslim parents are like any others: They want to provide the best possible education for their children. "The key things being taught to [Muslim] children are different, but the thing that is very similar is that parents care very much about their children," he said.

Once Muslim parents decide to home-school their children, finding teaching materials is not difficult. Fathers and mothers can use books from the library or order class material from Web sites.

Muslim families also rely heavily on the Koran during instruction. They use the holy book to teach children about character development and responsibility. They also teach children how Islam compares with other religions such as Christianity and Judaism.

Faizah Badeges of Sterling said she pulled her two sons out of public school so they could learn more about their faith and other religions, subjects not usually taught in public schools.

"In middle school, my sons didn't learn enough about [their] religion," Mrs. Badeges said. "Public school didn't teach enough of other religions. Now my husband and I are teaching them about other religions, about the similarities the religions share. We're teaching them to accept other people."

Other parents pulled their children out of public schools because they felt their children weren't challenged enough in class.

"I didn't feel my son was in an atmosphere lending to who he was," said Afeefa Syeed, a mother of three from Sterling, who helped organize the summer camp. "Our public school system was set up to homogenize."

Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day, which means interrupting the school schedule. It also emphasizes modesty, by encouraging young girls to cover themselves in public. The religion also doesn't allow Muslims to participate in common activities such as raffles, forcing many parents to opt their children out of the activities.

"The public school system is not accommodating to Muslims," Mrs. Saleem explained. "When children reach puberty, there are a lot of tenets that they have to adhere to, and interaction between boys and girls [is] greatly frowned upon."

At Mrs. Syeed's camp at Algonkian Park, the children spend 45 minutes learning three lessons, all taught in English. One session is spent studying how the Koran teaches appropriate Muslim conduct; another is an arts-and-crafts class in which instructors encourage the students to explore "the wonder of God's creation." The third lesson involves physical activity. The Koran is always included in class discussions.

"We try to integrate the identity of being American and being Muslim," Mrs. Syeed said. "I didn't pull my children out of public school so they can memorize the Koran and recite all of the verses. It was to help them understand what they're saying. Home schooling is all about ensuring a holistic education and ensuring that my children grow into good people."

The children enjoy the home-schooling environment, even though they say they miss their friends at school.

"I get to learn at a more advanced pace," said Zaki Barzinji, 13, of Sterling. "It's a compromise."

Hykel Bisyir, 14, also of Sterling, agreed. "I miss my social life, but this is a more relaxed learning environment," he said.

The fear that Muslim home-schooling parents might be somewhat extremist is unfounded, proponents argue. The religious focus in Muslim home-schooling curriculum is no more strange than what parents from other faiths teach their children, said Cynthia Sulaiman, a mother from Massachusetts who home-schools her son.

"We have a little bit different names and dress a little bit differently," Mrs. Sulaiman said. "We are no more extreme than a person who tattoos themselves all over the place. Somehow we're viewed as a little bit more odd."