Islamic Schools in the US

Familiar story in still unfamiliar garb
By Rich Barlow | June 23, 2007: Boston Globe

Anyone who attended parochial school would have flashbacks while walking the halls of the Islamic Academy of New England. Uniforms abound at the kindergarten- through-fifth-grade school, in a field-and-forest section of Sharon. The boys wear white shirts and navy pants; the girls wear white shirts and navy skirts.

Of course, any thought that this school reports to Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley evaporates when you see the female teachers in their hijabs. In principal Sawsan Berjawi's office, the typical school decorations (an alphabet chart, a poster of a puppy's face with the phrase "Dream BIG!"), share space with volumes of the Koran.

Still, the Catholic analogy is appropriate for another reason. In the 19th century, parochial schools worried Protestant America as possible hothouses of alien influence and unpatriotic papal allegiances. Oregon and Nebraska tried unsuccessfully to ban Catholic schools outright in the 1920s, said Peter Skerry, a Boston College political scientist. Muslim schools are the fastest-growing faith-based schools in the country -- estimates put them at as many as 250 -- and they have been the object of questions and, occasionally, bigotry. An Islamic school in Tampa was set on fire in April, and authorities ruled it a hate crime.

Recently, Boston University's School of Education hosted a conference on religious schools in the country, partly to counter notions that Islamic schools such as the one in Sharon hinder Muslim assimilation into American life. The conference drew educators from Catholic, Jewish, and evangelical Christian schools.

The common thread? "I think there was a sense that these schools were very deliberately trying to offer a different way of understanding life, society, and truth" than the public school system provided, said Charles Glenn, interim dean of the School of Education.

Jewish schools are another matter, said Skerry, who studies Muslims in America and spoke at the BU conference. "I think Jews have concerns about losing track of who they are," diluting their heritage because of assimilation, and therefore are more concerned with preserving their community.

That's not to say Muslim schools are indifferent to academic quality. "They all want to be accredited; they all want to get their kids into the Ivy League," Skerry said.

The Islamic Academy of New England, which has about 125 students, meets state curriculum requirements and is going through accreditation, Berjawi said. The school is one of several in Massachusetts and around the country, public and private, that use a math curriculum imported from Singapore, whose students topped a study of global math proficiency in 1999.

Like Catholic schools, these schools accept those who don't adhere to their religious faith, though non-Muslims are advised of the Islamic instruction at the school. Mandatory classes include Islamic studies and Arabic.

"It's part of the standards that we offer in the school," Berjawi said. "It's part of the report card. It's part of the GPA."

Islamic practice is taught gradually in the younger grades. "In the beginning, we teach them how to pray, how to make an ablution," she said.

Older grades are taught stories about and the biography of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as moral instruction, she said. " 'You have to treat your classmates in a good way. Why? Because the Prophet has said this and that.' "

Berjawi, a native of Lebanon, came to the United States to study international relations at BU. There, she drifted on the unforeseeable currents of life -- love, marriage, and motherhood -- into working at schools. Her husband saw a proficiency with children and urged her to make a career of education. She earned a master's degree in education and became the academy's principal in 2003.

Unlike Tampa, the Islamic Academy's neighbors have welcomed the school, Berjawi said.

Skerry, who has visited dozens of such schools around the country, says the majority are straightforward prep schools that include Islamic religious education and Arabic in their curricula and pose no threat to their communities. Few are like the Saudi Arabian Embassy's school in Alexandria, Va., governed by that country's rigid and insular Wahabist strain of Islam, he said.

"Obviously, there are some bad guys" among Muslims, Skerry said. "There are no Catholics blowing up the World Trade Center."

Still, most Muslims in America are more cosmopolitan and tolerant than the Catholic community he grew up with in the 1950s in Boston, he said. "My mother wasn't a Catholic, and I was told she wasn't going to go to heaven."


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