Inside US Islamic Schools

Some Americans are wary of these institutions, but a new study finds they cultivate engaged citizens

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson might, just might, vote a Muslim candidate into Congress, but never into the White House. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” the retired neurosurgeon told NBC’s Meet the Press in September 2015. Carson’s apparent fear that a Muslim couldn’t cut it at the top doesn’t make him an outlier. Only 34 percent of Americans are confident that a Muslim who attained a position of influence in the US government would be able to do the job, according to a 2014 Arab American Institute study. An earlier Public Religion Research Institute survey found 47 percent thought Islam incompatible with American values.

Despite such views swirling around their religion, Muslim youth at Islamic schools in the United States have found ways to embrace their faith and their nation. After examining Islamic schools’ effectiveness in fostering positive character and civic engagement, Charles Glenn, a professor of educational leadership, found “how extraordinarily American” the students were. They were just “very normal, good American kids who also see themselves as faithful Muslims.”

With five other BU researchers, Glenn conducted hundreds of interviews with students, parents, and teachers at Islamic schools across the country. The work was part of Moral Foundations of Education, a national project that includes a study of values education across 10 different types of schools, from urban to rural and from evangelical to Jewish. The ongoing project is based at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Glenn started the study of Islamic schools expecting to hear about tension: “kids trying to straddle two worlds” and struggling to balance their religious identity with their national one. “It was astonishing how seldom that was expressed,” he says. “I quote one kid as saying that being Muslim is his way of being American.” (“America is kind of like a melting pot, right?” said the student, who—like all other study participants—had identifying information removed for the report. “And to be able to blend in, you have to stand out in a way. I think faith gives you that edge.”)

In America and elsewhere, Glenn says, research suggests “kids who attend faith-based schools are less alienated from their society than kids who attend public schools, where they feel part of a singled-out minority.” He gives the example of Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim who made national headlines in September 2015 after being falsely accused of bringing a bomb to school (it was a homemade clock). Imagine, Glenn says, the alienation he would have felt if his story hadn’t provoked sympathy from President Barack Obama and tech industry leaders. As it was, the Mohamed family still left the country.

“It’s not unexpected from a social science point of view,” says Glenn, a former director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education and founder of Boston Trinity Academy, an evangelical school. “Those kids who feel securely supported in their identity, while being prepared to function effectively in American society, are not as alienated as they might be if they were like the 14-year-old in Irving, Texas, who was treated like a young terrorist. In other words, the kids we’re interviewing aren’t being treated like young Mohamed was. They’re not being suspected.”

Still, many are suspicious of Islamic schools’ goals. Although there are only around 235 Islamic schools in the United States—compare that to more than 6,500 Catholic schools—the web is littered with advocacy groups and blogs questioning their intentions. In 2013, two state lawmakers in Tennessee raised concerns about a school voucher system when they realized funds could go to Islamic institutions. Islamic schools, contends Turkish American scholar Zeyno Baran in Citizen Islam (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), “are run by Islamists who teach children that their primary loyalty is to Islam rather than to their countries of citizenship.”

But Glenn notes that loyalty to God doesn’t necessarily have to compete with loyalty to nation. He compares allegations like Baran’s to those leveled at Catholic parochial schools in the 19th century, when a rush of immigrants founded their own schools, much to the chagrin of established Protestant Americans. He also says a study in Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), by government counter-terrorism consultant Marc Sageman, reveals that the majority of a group of 300 Islamists arrested for terrorism in North America and Europe learned about Islam online or in prison.

Surprisingly, Glenn and his team found students got their biggest exposure to American culture not in social studies or history, but Islamic studies. It was during those classes, students said, that they could talk about their place in society, openly covering topics as diverse as pop music, painted nails, dating, and sexuality. One educator told the researchers that the purpose of such classes was teaching “how to be a good person.”

Glenn’s team also noted that the Islamic schools placed a premium on fostering community connections, from organizing sports activities with neighboring institutions to running volunteer efforts at homeless shelters. “All of them emphasize that they do welcome public visits,” says Munirah Alaboudi (’16), one of the researchers on the project and a doctoral student at SED. “These schools are announcing their mission, their vision to foster their students’ identities, foster their religion, and to express themselves—as not only Muslims, but as American Muslims; as contributors in their own society and community.”

Those contributions last beyond graduation. Previous studies have found that graduates of faith-based schools keep that elevated commitment to community engagement long into adulthood.

A version of this article was originally published in @SED.

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