Islamic Schools: A Continuing Discussion
By Yahiya Emerick
A number of years ago I wrote an article entitled, "Islamic Schools: A View from the Inside." What has surprised me is how widely circulated that piece has become on the net. It seems hardly a week goes by before it appears on yet another website. Given that the article was written almost a decade ago, and because times have changed, I felt compelled to write something of an update, or a part two, so to speak.
To begin, by way of summary, my previous article focused on both the shortcomings and strengths to be found in the American Islamic Educational "system". At the time of that writing, I was a bit frustrated with the oddball ways in which several of the Islamic schools I've been exposed to were being operated. Specifically the way in which school administrators often treated their colleagues in disrespectful and unprofessional ways, the way in which schools were often set up and operated by medical and engineering professionals who had no idea how a school should be structured and operated, and the problems of a student body in which many of the children (and their families) had next to no clue about even many basic Islamic beliefs and practices, who were patronizing the Muslim schools for little other reason than the fact that it was a safer and more wholesome environment than their local public schools.
My conclusion was not colored by any rosy forecast or sense of negativism or pessimism, however, but rather by a profound realization that we need Islamic schools, however imperfect they are, or we run the risk of extinction as an identifiable American religious sect. Assimilation is hacking away at the edges of our community like loggers are destroying the Amazon- it’s relentless. It is my firm belief that, by and large, (recognizing that there are always a few exceptions,) the only children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of today's Muslim Americans who have any chance of remaining in Islam are those who have had at least some exposure to Islamic schools. (I feel that Sunday schools just aren't enough and are sometimes counterproductive in themselves.) The full time schools are, quite simply, the only place where kids have the chance to "feel" Muslim for five days of the week. It is an "immersion" experience- a poor one, considering an Islamic society is the best way to "pass on" core values uninterrupted, yet the only one that Muslim kids in this country can find. It is the only way for our youth to ever develop a sense of group consciousness.
It must be said that most immigrant Muslim families (that I have been exposed to) are very work and career-oriented, more so than any other community in this large and diverse country. Consequently, I have found that fathers, and sometimes mothers, are mostly absent from the home. In cases where the mother is at home, I have noticed that the challenges of raising kids alone, without an active husband or an extended family to rely upon, are quite daunting and many an overwhelmed parent just leaves their children to languish in front of the television, the video game console, the internet or worse- on the local street corner! I have taught Muslim kids of every major Muslim ethnic and racial group and can assert without hesitation that the cream of our youth are being consigned to an electronic and social wasteland where they learn nothing good and are even damaged from too much video stimulation and unIslamic influences from the “neighborhood” kids..
I am not alone in these alarmist opinions. Nearly every teacher in a Muslim school that I have ever talked to complains about the same thing: there is just not that much active, informed and morally imperative parenting going on in the Muslim community! The running joke among many teachers is that every other student admitted to an Islamic School comes to them with a note taped to their back which reads: "Save my child!"
Think about it: the parents put their children in public school (oh, how trusting we Muslims are, and hey, it's free!) and what do they think the children will learn? They'll be spending around forty hours a week surrounded by non-Muslim peers and adults and their culture of dating, drinking, cursing and worse! And you think they even have a chance of inculcating Islam? Wait. Scratch that. Most adults with Muslim sounding names have never really learned Islam themselves, instead, they immigrated here as economic refugees from cultures that had already misused or misplaced Islam, looking for the American Dream (wealth and ease) and then they expect their children to be as industrious as they are.
Look at current statistics; education in the United States is eroding yearly. Families are breaking up at a record pace. Youth culture has gone bananas! Do you think your child will be learning to be a hard-working, goals-oriented person? Do you think those friends of his or her will be reinforcing punctuality, patience and long term strategic planning in them? I don't need to enumerate too much about what they will really be learning from their “friends”, suffice it to say: drugs, alcohol, hyper-sexuality, defiance of authority, a kind of atheism with a "me first" twist, accepting cheating, and an inner image patterned after the latest rap star, pop diva, or sports star.
And you wanted your kid to be a thoughtful, hard working doctor one day! A few may manage that feat, but the immigrant Muslim community is now awash in "dirty little secrets", of so-and-so's son or daughter who “shamed” the family, of so-and-so's child who flunked, or can't spell in ninth grade or who needs "tutoring", or was sent "back home" to be "straightened up". And I'm only talking about the immigrant Muslims who still feel some connection to their home culture and community. There is a huge number of people, whom our pollsters count as "Muslims" who have no connection to Islam at all!
Where I live you see them sometimes. The bank teller named "Tasneem", with the miniskirt, tight shirt and tons of makeup; the stock boy in the local appliance store named "Hassan", who you see flirting shamelessly and making sex jokes with the "very willing" air-headed sales girls; the mechanic named "Hamid", who you see drinking from a beer can as he changes your tire; the guy named "Mike" selling lotto, wine and porno magazines in his gas station shack, who you know is an Arab, and most likely from a Muslim background. Is this what you want for your children, grandchildren? There is a 90% chance that it will be a reality for your descendants. Won't you show some bit of concern? When did we forget that all life is a test and that to Allah we will return?
Just another small example: I recently became acquainted with a “nice” Muslim family. The mother was boasting to me how multicultural her teenage son is because he has so many friends of various ethnic backgrounds. As I heard her speaking I was thinking, “Ah, here is a conscientious mother who is trying to raise a very bright and amicable kid.” But then she began boasting about how she forces her son’s friends to conform to her rules when they visit her house. She said that she makes them “pull up their pants” to hide their underwear, remove their earrings, forbids them from cursing and doesn’t let them wear their shoes in the house. I was hearing this and thinking: “Do you not see it? These are your son’s “friends”. They dress and act how? Do you know among themselves all they talk about is girls and sports stars and wild parties? Where is the medical school in his future? Where is the ticket to heaven? Another family from a Muslim country that only enriched the strength of the kuffar lifestyle and culture.
So how do Islamic Schools help a family keep their children on the road to faith and the road to academic success? For starters, Islamic Schools don't "hurt". If you send your child to the typical Islamic School, they will learn to read, write and do 'rithmatic. I'm always stunned by those parents who go into an Islamic School and say that they are afraid to send their child to it because they believe the education is "substandard." As if! As if the public schools are providing such a stellar education! Every year we admit at least thirty new students straight out of public school, and let me tell you, as a professional, licensed teacher, 95% of these public school products in grades 5 and above have serious spelling and writing problems- many have no conception that homework must be completed, let alone understanding the concept of taking notes!
Are there some "good" public schools? Well, that depends on how you are defining "good". Sure, there are still many public schools with good academic programs. I am not saying they are all poor at instruction, but the youth culture of today's kids is so awful, so horrendously awful, that in spite of the best public school program, your son could come home emulating rap language and calling himself a gangsta'- or worse! Your daughter could be pursuing boys or being pursued- or worse! Not to mention the values they will automatically pick up despite your best efforts. Are you so naive to believe they are all harmless? Don't you know how different the values of this society are from what you grew up with? I just shake my head when I see the parents who have so little forethought. Do you know how many Arab and Indo-Pak girls take drugs or have boyfriends, for example? If anecdotes are any indication it may be a very high percentage. The parents see all the hip TV shows showing the worst anti-religious values and they never stop to think that their child, watching too, may actually come to accept and participate in those values.
Getting back to the schools, although Islam is getting a lot of bad public relations today, mostly from people who are consciously distorting the reality of Islam to support their own agendas, you and I know that Islam is a good thing- it's a positive factor in an individual's life. And I'm not talking about the Bin Laden style of Islam: a tiny minority rebel movement teaching things that are so out of Islamic norms that even the old Taliban government (before it fell) publicly stated that fatwas by Bin Laden are invalid. No, I'm talking about original Islam, the simple, easy to follow Islam of the Prophet (p). The kind of Islam that teaches us to be introspective, thoughtful, kind, charitable, tolerant and open-minded.
I mentioned once in a gathering recently that the only redeeming after-effect of the September 11th tragedy was that it finally forced Arab and Indo-Pak Muslims to finally feel and understand the kinds of discrimination and irrational racism that African Americans have been feeling for the last several centuries in this land. Before that dastardly attack, immigrant Muslims were used to being ignored by their neighbors and lived in the blissful shadows of an unknowing American public. Incidents of discrimination were relatively rare and some of our neighbors even took us into their hearts thinking we were "cute," in a way, with our colorful clothes and yummy foods.
Now the rest of the Ummah feels the whip on their backs and is so bewildered that the way some Muslims run for cover is comical, if it wasn’t so disenheartening. Crisis brings out the best and worst in people, and this one caused a lot of otherwise dormant Muslims to stand up and fight for their rights. This has made us a stronger community, even as our numbers have shrunk some from the apostasy of people who couldn’t wait to assimilate, because that was their one dream since watching American shows in the 1970s and thinking this country was paved with gold.
You cannot believe how 9-11 was a boon for Islamic school enrollments. So many Muslim kids have been targeted and picked on by their “civilized” and “culturally advanced” public school peers, that parents have literally been lining up outside the door of Islamic schools. It feels good, in a bizarre sort of way, to tell parents we have no more room and that they have to join the long waiting list. Although I really, in hindsight, wish we could be a place of refuge for all Muslim kids, especially the younger ones, who are our precious future.
An Islamic school often does not have the bells and whistles of your local public school, but it has a more serious and rigorous environment. What I mean is that in a typical public school, all the time your child is not in class, and that is cumulatively about two to three hours worth of breaks, lunch, gym, recess, waiting for the bus, etc… they are necessarily privy to the cultural lifestyle of the student body. They hear about boyfriends, girlfriends, so and so’s stash of liquor, cursing, raw and brutal gossip, fighting, etc… They may also be the victim of some kind of bullying, though they would never tell you. All of these, and other factors, disrupts the learning environment and makes it hard for kids to concentrate, even if they have mostly good teachers. How can you study when the girl in the third row is pregnant, the boy behind you is cussing under his breath, the girl near the right side of class in the mini-skirt is cute to look at and the boy in the next grade wants to beat you up after school?
Muslim schools, for the most part, are devoid of these problems. No gangs, no rap clothes, no racial slurs, no curse words, no dating, no violence. When one of these problems does seem to creep up, and its always brought into the school from an outsider, newly admitted from public school, the Islamic school can eject the offending parasite from the otherwise healthy body. You may think parasite is a harsh word, but after you’ve worked hard to create an atmosphere where the only problem you face is an occasional kid chewing gum or forgetting to raise their hand, an environment where smiling, happy Muslim kids say 'salam' to you, counsel each other not to cheat or backbite, and play sports together without resorting to fist fighting or cussing, any introduction of a maladjusted, socially deviant, “lost” kid who cries about wanting a boyfriend or wants to lord it over the boys as a bully, will send shivers up your spine. The Muslim school cannot “save” such a kid.
For all the sincere “do-gooders” who want us to take teens who use drugs and girls with boyfriends and “fix” them with our caring Islamic atmosphere, you need to wake up and smell the coffee. Such kids rarely turn around and they raise such a ruckus in the school that the “good” parents begin to remove their kids from the school to look for a wholesome environment. There are enough bad school cultures. Let there be some place where a normal, well-adjusted family can send their child to learn without distraction, and without being turned into a statistic.
Islamic schools are not perfect, but they do have something that is priceless: the key to being joined by your child in Jennah. He or she will still learn to be a doctor, even if they go to an under funded and struggling Islamic school. They will be a better doctor because only in an Islamic school will they learn that medicine is not just about big bucks, but about the people you help, for the sake of Allah.