English Feature #7-35312 Broadcast September 24, 2001
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington have raised concerns among Muslim immigrants to the United States. Today on New American Voices, we visit two Islamic schools in the Washington area to talk about the attack’s effects on their students.
“On the same day of the incident, we had to shut down the school, because we expected some threats. So the kids, they sat home for four days, as everybody, glued to their chairs watching the TV, and they are scared, they did not like the media’s portrait of Muslims as terrorists… So they feel they are vulnerable to this kind of stereotype.”
Dr. Saleh Nusairat, a native of Jordan, is the principal of the Washington Islamic Academy located near a busy crossroads in Northern Virginia, not far from the nation’s capital. The school has been in existence only a year, and has classes only from kindergarten through fourth grade. The 130 students follow the regular curriculum prescribed by Fairfax County for elementary schools - but with a difference. In addition to the usual lessons in arithmetic and language arts and computers and so on, they also have classes in Islamic studies and Arabic. And once during the school day they all turn in the direction of Mecca and pray.
The students are children of Muslim immigrants from many parts of the world - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as the Middle East. Dr. Saleh says that in talking with their students about the attacks in New York and Washington and their aftermath, the teachers at the Islamic Academy take care to emphasize the true Islamic point of view.
“One of the things, first and foremost, is that we don’t condone this kind of terrorist act. The other thing is that we tell the kids that Islam teaches us to be tolerant towards others, even if they sometimes make mistakes toward us, we have to forgive them. Muslims always love peace, they are very peaceful, and those that commit terrorist acts, they are on the fringe, they are not mainstream Muslims.”
Bright-eyed Arudge Hag is in the fourth grade at the Washington Islamic Academy. She says her favorite classes are language arts and recess. Arudge’s mother is from England, her father from Pakistan. Like all the other girls, she wears the school uniform - a green-and-blue plaid jumper, white blouse, and a hijab, a white headscarf with a pretty lace trim, to cover her hair. Arudge found out about the attacks when she and the other children were sent home from school.
“When I came home I asked my dad, why did they close all the schools, and he said, um, a person hijacked a plane and he hit one of the twin towers and the Pentagon, too, and all the offices are being closed because it’s such a big thing for America, and they’re trying to find out if Osama ben Ladin did it or not.”
Like most children in America, in the following days Arudge saw the attack replayed again and again on television.
“It made me feel mad and sad, because they were hurting innocent people - and they were blaming it on innocent Muslims, because they found out that the hijackers were, like, Muslim.”
Although schools have reopened and life seems to be getting back to normal, the events of two weeks ago have made a difference in Arudge’s everyday life.
“Well, first when I go outside with a hijab on, people look at me like I’m suspicious, or something. And people sometimes follow me.”
Abdul Hamad Asghar is the director of the Al-Qalam School of Virginia for girls from fifth through twelfth grades. Mr. Asghar, a Pakistani who has been in the United States for 18 years, was concerned for the safety of his students in the aftermath of the terrorist attack as some people drove by his school honking and yelling. And recently, the school received a threatening letter.
“This letter says whatever has been done, all Muslims are equally responsible for that. This is a major concern we are facing as Muslims in this country, as a Muslim community, rather. Because whatever a criminal would do, if he happens to be a Muslim, some people start blaming the entire community and the Muslim faith.”
Mr. Asghar believes, however, that this attitude towards Muslims is not widespread in America.
"The evil is not normally in many people. Normally it is amongst very few people. The majority of the people are normally good, and their attitude is very nice.”
And indeed, the school has also received expressions of support and friendship.
“Yesterday we found these flowers in front of our door, and this nice letter. The letter says ‘God is great. He is compassionate and merciful to all. We are one as his children. A friend.’”
As the search for the terrorists continues, and America gears up for a response, both schools plan to be especially vigilant over the next weeks and months, with their students’ safety first in their minds.