Medill News Service: Muslim schools gain popularity

At the Universal School students take time out from classes to pray once a day. By seventh grade, boys and girls attend classes separately. They take classes in Arabic, Islamic studies and memorize the Quran.

The number of full-time Muslim parochial schools in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years reaching a high of 234, according to numbers provided by the Islamic School’s League of America.

Educators expect the popularity of these schools to continue rising as a result of growing religious awareness in the Muslim community.

Since the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks American policy makers defined Muslims by their religion, according to Karen Keyworth, director of education for the Islamic School’s League of America.

As Americans singled out Muslims as a religious minority, many followers of Islam have re-examined the importance of religion in their lives.

“I think a lot of people said if there’s a possibility of me losing a job or being harassed in the street, possibly even seriously hurt because of this religion maybe I better look at it more carefully,” said Keyworth, who is also a Muslim parent of school-age children. “There’s a greater desire on the part of young parents to make sure that their children have a strong Muslim identity and in some cases to protect them from what they might perceive from a not so understanding environment.”

Educators praise the Muslim parochial school environment for sheltering students from outside influences.

“Our focus in their beginning years is that they do have that homogeny because they need to have that identity and not feel like they are something strange because we are a minority in this country,” said Naheed Hashmi, an employee at the Hadi School of Excellence, a Muslim day school in Schaumburg. “Having that homogeny actually helps in developing their identity where they are a minority.”

Malika Bilal attended first through 12th grade at the Universal School in Bridgeview and credited the school with strengthening her appreciation of Islam.

“You’re surrounded by people that have the same belief system as you do and so it helps solidify what you believe in,” said Bilal, 22, a senior at Northwestern University.

Universal was very different from public schools. Educators enforced a strict dress code. After fifth grade each girl was required to cover her head with a hijab. Educators discouraged socialization between the sexes.

“It was a very disciplined environment,” said Bilal. “No one did drugs; no one drank because it’s against the religion.” This insulation draws some Muslim students away from public schools.

“When the Muslim students go to public schools they imitate their peers as they smoke, abuse drugs, kiss, and engage in sexual activity,” said Dr. Ibrahim Syed, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. Syed commends Muslim schools for focusing on morality in the classroom and the development of what he called the “Muslim personality.”

“The basic aim of Islamic education is character building which is not there at all in American public schools,” Syed said. “Islam aims to produce good citizens.”

Islamic schools place a priority on the study of the Muslim faith.

“We teach the Quran and the language of the Quran, which is Arabic, and we teach the different lessons and principles of our faith and the practical aspects how we can use them in daily life,” said Farisa Hussain, an administrator at Averroes Academy, a Muslim elementary school in Northbrook. “[Faith] permeates throughout the day.”

Islamic civil rights activists want public schools to be more perceptive to Muslim issues.

“I think it’s important that sensitivity training occurs in the schools so that Muslim students are treated fairly,” said Ahmed Rehab, director of communications for CAIR Chicago, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. “It’s important that students understand that those who have a different skin color or a different way of dressing or a different religion are not necessarily foreign.”

Muslim schools shelter students from religious abuse. Some public schools lack this protection, according to Rehab.

“There have been many incidences in schools where Muslim students have been approached by others students and accosted on the basis of their religion or dress,” said Rehab. “There have been examples where Muslim students have been confronted in the hallways, insulted, called terrorists.”

Some question if religious segregation answers the problem of discrimination.

“I think it’s better for kids to grow up in a diverse situation,” said Dr. Kevin Breault, sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “You end up becoming a smarter person and a more effective person because you have to deal with other people in those formative ages.”

Copyright © 2006, Time Out Chicago