Daily Herald: Faith and real life

The bell chimes at 12:05 p.m.

Harris Hassan joins the hallway rush of teens bound for the one place students feed their need for food and face time: the cafeteria.

But Hassan detours to the library instead.

As a Muslim student in the midst of Ramadan — a monthlong fast that begins each day at sunrise and ends at sundown — the Lake Park High School cafeteria is a beehive of temptation Hassan avoids.

“I try thinking about God more than my social life,” said Hassan, 16, of Bloomingdale. “We’re really not supposed to do anything that will distract us from the real reason we fast.”

Harris Hassan, 16, breaks his daily fast with his family as they gather in their Bloomingdale home for the nightly meal, or Iftar. Like other Muslim families worldwide, the Hassans observe the monthlong fast from sunrise until sunset. (Woo Chan Joo/Daily Herald)

Now in its final week, the Islamic observance tests the religious flexibility of public schools.

Muslims are called to fast, pray and abstain, be it from sex, swearing or watching too much TV.

The sacrifice does not lapse when students walk through the school door. Nor does their constitutional right to express the faith driving such devotion, legal scholars say.

Just like Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, Ramadan challenges educators charged with protecting students’ rights to express their beliefs without promoting a religion themselves.

“It’s always that balance between establishing religion versus allowing free exercise,” said William Kling, an attorney specializing in school affairs and a professor at Chicago’s Kent Law School.

Across the suburbs, public schools steady the spiritual scales differently.

Some alert teachers that fasting students may be unusually tired and allow kids to skip gym for study hall. “They know how tough it is for us,” Glenbard West High School senior Wajeeh Bakhsh said.

Others reserve a classroom for Muslim students observing the afternoon prayer so long as they don’t skip class to do it.

For many, Ramadan remains a distant ritual more than a pressing reality.

“We really haven’t had any kind of request from students,” Barrington High School Principal Tom Leonard said. “We have had a few Muslim students over the years where we accommodate their Friday worship requests, but we do that on an individual basis.”

The approach is a safe one, lest they offend those who pray to a different god or none at all.

Just watering down a Halloween festival to a fall celebration in the spirit of inclusiveness landed South Elgin’s Fox Meadow Elementary School on the front page and nightly news earlier this month.

As suburban diversity grows, myriad faith traditions sprout with it.

Some 400,000 Muslims today live in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, estimates show.

Nationwide, 53 percent of the country’s population was Protestant in 2004, according to a survey by the American Religion Data Archive at Pennsylvania State University. An additional 23.4 percent was Catholic, 2 percent was Jewish and 0.6 percent was Muslim.

“Religious observances practiced here are varied,” Naperville North High School Principal Ross Truemper said. “We just have become very accustomed to expressing all of them.”

Legal guideposts do not offer a clear roadmap.

School officials cannot preach, but they must protect students’ right to do so.

School officials cannot muffle teachers’ free speech, but they may determine what gets taught in a given grade.

“It’s not just about religion; it’s about freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Kling said.

A sure-fire way to avoid legal trouble? Treat Muslim students celebrating Ramadan the same way Jewish kids celebrating Yom Kippur or Christian kids celebrating Christmas are treated, experts say.

“It doesn’t raise an issue in the same way it doesn’t raise an issue for students to be able to go into a cafeteria and set aside a table where they meet and have Bible study,” said Ed Yohnka with the ACLU of Illinois. “That no one compels any student to go or not go and participate in that observance is what becomes the critical element.”

Most school officials and students, for that matter, get it, legal experts say. Yet the rituals of Ramadan — complete with fast, good deeds and both pre-dawn and nightly prayer — present a distinct challenge.

“We’re a public high school and we have to worry about what’s public,” Truemper said. Naperville North High reserves a classroom for Muslim students during lunch.

In Hoffman Estates, Conant High School sets aside an area where teens observe the afternoon prayer during Ramadan.

Sadaf Syed rarely uses it.

The 17-year-old senior prefers to stick to her routine — pray at home and catch up with friends in the cafeteria. That she chats while friends eat doesn’t faze her.

“I try not to draw too much attention,” said Syed, who also cuts down her TV time during Ramadan. “It’s my choice to do this. I don’t think anyone should pity me. If you do it long enough, you get used to it.”

The holy month of Ramadan honors the revelation of the Quran to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The entire month is dedicated to God. Extra prayer and dawn-to-dusk fasts broken by the nightly Iftar feast with family members punctuate the observance.

“It’s basically an exercise in resisting temptation and practicing self-restraint,” said Ahmed Rehab, who heads the Chicago-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

As a student at Maine South High School during the early 1990s, Rehab fasted alone. He was the lone Muslim student at the Park Ridge school.

A decade and bevy of publicity later, Ramadan is a more common word spoken in suburban school hallways.

Such awareness better allows schools and the students who fill them — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — to manage the monthly ritual complete with growling stomachs, scant sleep and TV withdrawal.

“At school, I can ignore the hunger. I talk to my friends. I concentrate on homework” Syed said. “To me, Ramadan keeps us grateful for what we have, for the people we have.”

Copyright © 2006 by Daily Herald