Islamic schools declare focus is on religion

Assistant principal says Al Noor in New York eschews politics

March 21, 2002|By Yilu Zhao | Yilu Zhao,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - As they take in the barrage of news about the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the teachers and students at Al Noor School, an Islamic day school in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, say they try to keep it from affecting their lives within the school.

"We don't get into politics here," said Ahmad Hamid, the assistant principal. "We teach them the academics."

Many students reported that the teachers had never expressed their personal views on controversial issues in front of the students, some of whom have already formed strong opinions about, say, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, that might anger other New Yorkers.

But if a teacher were to take sides in discussions on current affairs, Hamid said, he would tell the teacher to stop.

"You live in America; you absolutely don't want to fire up the kids," he said. "If they go out and do something stupid, somebody will trace it back to the school and shut us down."

Hamid's policy contrasts with that of

`It's totally misleading'

Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia, which was recently reported to be using textbooks encouraging hatred of non-Muslims and to have teachers who aired anti-Semitic and anti-Christian views in class. That depiction has angered many in Muslim education circles.

"It's totally misleading," said Shabbir Mansuri, the founding director of the Council on Islamic Education. He added that he feared it gave a false impression that other schools had the same policy.

Officials at a half-dozen Muslim schools in New York City said they shunned courses that might be seen as inflammatory, perhaps because tolerance is essential in New York City, a magnet for immigration.

Al Noor, which teaches pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, says it seeks to blend Islamic spirituality with American pragmatism and a dash of popular culture in educating its students.

"Anyone whose both feet get covered with dust in Allah's cause will not be touched by the [hell] fire," says a banner on one wall, but on an opposite wall is a newspaper clipping about how to apply for Wal-Mart-sponsored scholarships.

Demand for schools

As the number of Muslim immigrants has swelled here and in other parts of the country, the demand for Islamic schools has surged. In New York City alone, the number of Islamic day schools has almost doubled, to 35, in the last four years, with Queens and Brooklyn having the most. More than 20 exist in New Jersey and other areas of New York state, and the average enrollment is about 200.

There are 200 to 400 Islamic day schools across the country, the majority established in the last decade by immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, according to Muslim educators. They typically charge $3,000 to $5,000 a year, and often use public school curriculums supplemented by Islamic studies and Arabic courses devised by each school. Muslim parents say that they send their children to private schools for the same reasons other Americans do.

"For a Muslim parent, the outside world is scary, with all the drugs, sex and name-calling," said Faiz Rehman, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Muslim Council, who added that he was considering Islamic day school for his son. "The things your kids say after they come home from public schools can give you heart attacks."

At Al Noor, students take the courses required in public school and two extra courses, Islamic studies and Arabic. In Islamic studies, students learn the Quran in Arabic and the history of Islam.

Because he finds introductory textbooks on Islam published in the United States lacking, Hamid uses books from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. But he is aware that books from the Middle East can contain hateful language about Christians and Jews, the West and Israel.

"We select the books very carefully," said Hamid. "We make sure that they don't contain anything inappropriate for kids in America."

Students' views

But among themselves , the students freely express their opinions, even those that may not be embraced by many Americans.

"There isn't any conclusive evidence that bin Laden did it," Nora Mostafa, a soft-spoken 12th- grader whose father immigrated from Egypt, said of the terror attacks. "A lot of people here at the school have doubts about it. Last time, when the Oklahoma bombing happened, they also blamed it on the Muslims. It turned out it was a white American."

Amani Abdelrasoul, a Palestinian-born seventh-grader, said that Israelis "really break my heart" because of their use of force against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite Al Noor's strict code - teen-age dating can result in expulsion - most students seem to enjoy the school. Students beyond pre-kindergarten are separated by gender, and whenever possible, women teach girls and men teach boys.

"At the public schools, people stare at you as if you were kind of weird," said Amani, who like all the other girls at the school wears a head scarf and a long skirt. She briefly attended a public school.

Most girls seem to categorically reject popular teen icons. But they share some American perspectives, particularly placing importance on having fun. Forbidden to wear cosmetics or play computer games at school, the girls define having fun as having many female friends.

Khadija Algamoos, a seventh- grader who immigrated from Yemen five years ago, said she wanted to be a physician, and that she would marry after college.

"My parents cannot force me to do anything," she said.

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