DALLAS – Raising children in the west has turned into a hard challenge facing Muslim parents, where they work against circumstances, many of which work against them in their goal to raise their youngsters not only with a complete understanding of Islam, but with pride in the religion.
“When I reverted I wanted to know as much as I could,” Stacey Solis, a Muslim revert since 2011, told OnIslam.net.
“Teaching these children helped me in my religion because as I’m going through material with the teachers I would discover something new myself,” she added, referring to the time she spent volunteering at Palm Tree Academy in El Paso, Texas.
Solis said, much like knowledge of Islam helped her to grow as a new Muslim, so too would children and the public at large benefit from a greater and more accurate understanding of Islam.
She bemoaned the great amount of ignorance regarding Islam and its pervasiveness throughout the American culture, suggesting that general knowledge of the religion should be a nationwide priority and not limited to mosques and Islamic educational institutions.
She said this would be a boon to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“With (news) networks like Fox and CNN skewing our beliefs, children who don’t go to an Islamic institution can be bullied or ignored,” she said.
“Islamic school can provide sufficient information to the Muslim youth population. Education centered on Islam provides children with an understanding of why we submit to Allah and allows them to appreciate their religion more.”
Ageel Shatry of Houston, Texas, said she can relate to Solis’ worries about hostility toward Muslims.
In fact, she said one of the most positive results of her young daughter’s attendance in Islam weekend school is her feeling of belonging and connectedness to her community.
“(Nowadays) it can be somewhat intimidating and difficult for children to be proud of their heritage and faith,” Shatry said.
“My daughter loves going to Islamic classes, and she told me she likes it because she can be herself and doesn’t feel intimidated. As for myself, I’m glad she wants to go to the classes. She gets to mingle with other Muslim girls and doesn’t feel alienated.”
For many Muslim teachers, the media’s effect on young Muslims can be damaging, though Islamaphobia is not the only threat.
“The biggest challenge we face is dealing with the onslaught of the media promoting such things as vulgarity,” Shaad Ahmed, who is in his second year as principal at Dayton Islamic School in Ohio, said.
Ahmed said it is his and his teachers’ goal to push back against those negative stereotypes and encourage their students to focus on the importance of living an Islamic-centered life even when it’s difficult to do so.
“We tell our students to look at the big picture and to think of the hereafter,” he explained.
Recalling his experience in Dayton and with Al-Iman School in South Carolina, Ahmed said he believes that Islamic education in the United States can be on par with or exceed that of public schools.
“We offer a great student-to-teacher ratio, have certified teachers, technology like iPads and SMART Boards, and we offer Islamic studies, Quran and Arabic (lessons),” he said.
“I truly believe schools such as ours offer a better secular education in addition to letting our students feel the beauty of being part of a Muslim community.”
However, Ahmed admitted there are areas for improvement.
“I would like to have the Muslim community be more involved with our school and for our students to be more of a part of the community’s activities,” he said.
In her opinion, Shatry said her daughter’s school could benefit from better technology such as more computers and overhead projectors.
Like Ahmed, Madiha Zaidi has spent many years affiliated with Islamic schools and is now in her sixth year as a teacher.
Though she acknowledges the need for more classroom resources, her main concern about Islamic education and the environment of the schools she’s been affiliated with are their effects on older students.
She recognizes the importance of Islamic education while children are young, particularly when they are in elementary school. However, Zaidi said as students move into middle and high school their needs change, and parents who once swore by Islamic-based education might do well to take a step back and reevaluate.
“(When they’re young) they are getting that conversation about their Islamic history and the laws they need to follow,” she said.
“They may be inspired to pray or wear their hijab and the school keeps them a little more connected to Islam than they would be in a public school.”
But Zaidi warned those benefits often start to wane as children age.
“I’ve seen what happens when they’re older, and it has to do with wanting to be in an environment with more kids or where they’re getting more opportunities like the fun stuff in school such as sports and art classes,” she said. “Some Islamic schools don’t have that, but these are the things kids really enjoy in school. They need that fun time, and when they don’t get it they get angry and then they resent their school and they resent the religion and it spirals downward from there. Islam says we should have everything in moderation but (with full-time Islamic school) we are drowning our kids.”
Of course, not all Islamic schools are wastelands for older children. Many do their best to offer a variety of classes, clubs, sports and extracurricular activities – Ahmed said the Dayton Islamic School has girls’ and boys’ basketball teams, for example.
But is it enough? And, in the end, does it matter as long as a child is being instilled with solid Islamic values and a good base of religious knowledge? Of course, only meaningful and thoughtful conversation between a parent and child can answer that question.
For Ahmed, he said the key to continuously improving Islamic schools lies with the Muslim community itself. He called on American Muslims to support Islamic schools and to contribute to their success, ensuring they reach the highest standards of excellence while keeping with the spirit of educating young Muslims in both religious and secular matters.
“I believe we should not have an inferiority complex and should work harder to attract students to our schools,” he said.
“We should not feel the need to compromise our beliefs in order to sell our schools.”