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Islamic Schools in US Raise Hopes, Fears

Muslim educators say Islam is a small part of curriculum but critics worry schools breed violent anti-Western Islamists

Students at the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan follow the standard state curriculum. They also learn about Islam and take Arabic as a foreign language.
Students at the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan follow the standard state curriculum. They also learn about Islam and take Arabic as a foreign language.

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Mohamed Elshinnawi

As the population of Muslims in the United States continues to grow, so too does the number of Islamic schools serving Muslim families across the nation.

American Muslims see these schools as a way to provide their children with a combination of good, mainstream education and training in the essentials of their faith. But critics fear some of these schools might expose Muslim children to radical Islamist views.

Religious education

Education has always been very important to the Muslim community in the United States. And like many other families, Muslim parents have educational options. They can send their children to secular, county-administered public schools or private academies while providing religious training at home or on weekends.

Alternately, they can send their children to private religious schools. Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University, says Islamic schools serve the same role as the many other private, church-oriented schools in the United States.

Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University, says there are over 100 Islamic schools in North America that teach the state curriculum in addition to religion.
Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University, says there are over 100 Islamic schools in North America that teach the state curriculum in addition to religion.

"The Islamic schools in North America, there are over 100 of them teaching the curriculum of the state," she says. "There is absolutely no difference in the content of social studies, history, geography, math and science. The only difference is they have one period a day where they study Islam."

According to Haddad, soon after Islamist terrorists carried out multiple attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Americans began asking whether Islamic schools in America might be breeding grounds for homegrown terrorists that pose a threat to national security.

New reality

That public perception created a new challenge for Muslim parents. Their children began to encounter prejudice in public schools, while the news media often associated Islamic schools with extremist ideologies.

"Some of the Muslim parents took their kids out of the Islamic schools and put them in public schools because they were afraid of backlash," says Haddad. "But in some other places they took their kids out of public schools and put them in Islamic schools to protect them."

Moral and religious values have also figured in many Muslim families' school choices. For some conservative Muslim parents, subjects that are standard in the curricula of many public schools, such as sex education, are problematic. And faced with the high tuition costs at private Islamic schools, many Muslim parents elect, in the end, to home school their children - a choice, Haddad notes, often made as well by families of other religious faiths.

"They sort of organize a group sometimes with Christian people who keep their children out of public schools and sometimes with Jewish people, and they have curriculums that you can actually study on the internet and the parents can supervise their children, that way they feel that they can protect them the best way."

Rising public concern

Haddad, who co-authored the book, "Educating the Muslims of America," acknowledges the rising public concern about precisely what children are being taught in the Islamic schools.  

Daniel Pipes, a conservative Mideast historian who runs the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch websites, believes a number of private Islamic schools in America offer their students a curriculum laced with extremist content.

"It is not very subtle. These are schools with teachers and textbooks that are overtly anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish and [pro-]Islamic supremacy," says Pipes. "Talking about Islam as the only religion, leading to views that are clearly problematic, and in some cases led to terrorism. Notably in the Islamic Saudi Academy, one of the school's best students is now in jail for having tried to kill President Bush."

Pipes argues that many Islamic schools are spreading extremist ideas and that they work to instill in their students an unhealthy notion that the only thing that matters in their lives is their Islamic identity.

Albert Harb, director of the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan, hopes his students exemplify the positive aspects of Islam.
Albert Harb, director of the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan, hopes his students exemplify the positive aspects of Islam.

Standard subjects

But Albert Harb doesn't see it that way. He is the director of the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan.

"We follow the standards of the state of Michigan curriculum. In addition, we have an Islamic component, and we teach Islam as well as Arabic as a foreign language," says Harb. "We want to ensure that we can develop an Islamic character with our youth and give the positive aspects of Islam here in the society of the U.S.A."

Muslim-American efforts to create and support Islamic schools mirror previous efforts by Roman Catholic and Jewish communities in America. Both communities faced the same kind of public resistance when they first established their religious schools.  

Experts suggest that while Muslim-Americans work to secure the best possible education for their children, they should also redouble their efforts to educate the American public about Islam  and about how they are passing their faith on to the next generation.

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