Students Deserve Equal Religious Rights Under the Law

By Fedwa Wazwaz and Marcia Lynx Qualey, Engage Minnesota

Marcia Lynx Qualey

On April 9, we read Katherine Kersten’s column in the Star Tribune, and the e-mail exchange between Kersten and Asad Zaman, executive director of Tariq ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), and were compelled to respond.

I (Fedwa) have an eight-year-old daughter. I visited TIZA and decided not to enroll my daughter, choosing instead Al Amal School in Fridley. The primary reason is that I was convinced TIZA is not an Islamic School and does not teach Islamic Education to kids. I pay from my own pocket to put my daughter in Al Amal, the only Islamic school in the Twin Cities.

I (Marcia) have a four-year-old son, enrolled in a private Montessori school in St. Paul. While the school is housed adjacent to a Jewish temple—as TIZA is housed adjacent to a mosque—my son has learned nothing about Judaism by mere contact with the building. The school’s vacations are, as you might imagine, focused around Christian holidays.

Both of us work at the University of Minnesota, a public institution that receives taxpayer money. This school also closes on Christian holidays. Tests and school breaks are planned around Christian holidays to allow Christians time to celebrate. The floating holiday this year was on the Christian Good Friday, right before Christian Easter. There are “holiday parties” around Christmas Day—not, for instance, Ramadan.

However, the University of Minnesota presents itself as a secular university.

I (Fedwa) live in Brooklyn Park. The community center receives public taxpayer money, and they have a very large Christmas tree every Christmas. They close on Christmas holidays and have “holiday parties” around Christmas day.

However, the community center presents itself as a secular institution.

Kersten is upset that “Friday prayer” is allowed at TIZA, although the right to practice one’s religion is protected by the U.S. Constitution. Where, on the other hand, is her challenge to the system that allows public schools to close on the Christian holy day, Sunday? This was designed, of course, to facilitate the religious needs of Christians. All public schools and public institutions are closed on Sunday, the Christian holy day. Christians do not pray five times a day like Muslims, but set aside special time to pray and reflect on Sundays. However, when Muslims ask for small accommodations to allow them to pray—as Christians do, on Sundays—some express a fear that Muslims are imposing Shariah.

While Christians are allowed space and time to go to church and celebrate religious holidays, commentators like Kersten grill minorities for wanting the same thing. Many Muslim students study for finals on Muslim holidays, while Christian students relax and celebrate Christmas with their families. Many Muslim youth are afraid and embarrassed to pray in school, and do not go to Friday prayer, while Christians have the day off to take their children to church.

Would Kersten call for allowing some public schools to close on Thursday and Friday instead of Saturday and Sunday so that the students attend Friday prayer not at school, but at a mosque with their parents?

Would she and similar commentators call for having public schools open on Sundays? Christians could pray in a small room as Muslims currently do. Are Kersten and others who are upset at TIZA similar upset by the presence of Christian symbols such as Christmas trees in public institutions, and the institutions’ adjusting their schedules to accommodate Christian holidays?

We are not. In fact, we are not calling on schools to remove special accommodations for Christians. We ask only that the Minnesota Department of Education—and the public—extend equal treatment to non-Christian students, allowing schools to make small accommodations so that students can exercise their constitutional right to observe their religion.

The division between “church” and “state” is illusory—and, for most Minnesotans, not at all desirable. Last December, the Minneapolis Public Schools launched a faith-based initiative that encourages students to participate in church-led programs. (Read about it here.) The city’s school board has praised the initiative, which works with mostly Protestant churches, a few Catholic institutions and temples, and no mosques. However, to their credit, School Board Director Pam Costain, and program directors Hedy Lemar Walls and Jackie Starr, have stated a desire to reach out to the Muslim community.

We believe Asad Zaman’s statements that TIZA is not an Islamic institution. At the same time, attempts to accommodate Christianity in our schools go unnoticed, while Kersten uses a fine-tooth comb to demand an iron-like separation of prayer and state for Muslims.

What we ask for is fairness.

–Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Marcia Lynx Qualey is a writer and mother who lives in St. Paul.

4 thoughts on “Students Deserve Equal Religious Rights Under the Law”

  1. What a wonderful article! Bravo ladies. My kids are in public schools and spend most of the year doing ‘secular’ ativities with Christmas trees, Easter bunnies and the like. Shamrocks come home in March. A shamrock is the symbol of trinity! All teachers are kind, supportive and flexible, but it is clear that not nearly enough time and attention is given to the secular activites and holidays of other cultures. Fairness is only possible when we look both ways.

  2. Normative practice and structures in this country deserve a very critical eye in our ever changing world and this is a refreshing take on the subject. I gladly did not read Kersten’s column as the mainstream media offers nothing substantive as it shuts out diverse viewpoints along with legitimate competition(All thanks to our heavily partisan FCC.)

    Look to the blogs for useful insight into our daily lives.

  3. Muslim youths are angry, frustrated and extremist because they have been mis-educated and de-educated by the British schooling. Muslim children are confused because they are being educated in a wrong place at a wrong time in state schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers. They face lots of problems of growing up in two distinctive cultural traditions and value systems, which may come into conflict over issues such as the role of women in the society, and adherence to religious and cultural traditions. The conflicting demands made by home and schools on behaviour, loyalties and obligations can be a source of psychological conflict and tension in Muslim youngsters. There are also the issues of racial prejudice and discrimination to deal with, in education and employment. They have been victim of racism and bullying in all walks of life. According to DCSF, 56% of Pakistanis and 54% of Bangladeshi children has been victims of bullies. The first wave of Muslim migrants were happy to send their children to state schools, thinking their children would get a much better education. Than little by little, the overt and covert discrimination in the system turned them off. There are fifteen areas where Muslim parents find themselves offended by state schools.

    The right to education in one’s own comfort zone is a fundamental and inalienable human right that should be available to all people irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background. Schools do not belong to state, they belong to parents. It is the parents’ choice to have faith schools for their children. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim teacher or a child in a Muslim school. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools. An ICM Poll of British Muslims showed that nearly half wanted their children to attend Muslim schools. There are only 143 Muslim schools. A state funded Muslim school in Birmingham has 220 pupils and more than 1000 applicants chasing just 60.

    Majority of anti-Muslim stories are not about terrorism but about Muslim
    culture–the hijab, Muslim schools, family life and religiosity. Muslims in the west ought to be recognised as a western community, not as an alien culture.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.