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Why more Muslim Americans are choosing to send their children to Islamic schools

Many Muslim parents are opting to send their children to Islamic schools because they feel secular schooling is heading in the wrong direction
Girls from Crescent High School, an Islamic school in New York City, participate in the American Muslim Day Parade, on 26 September 2010 in New York City (AFP)

Abdullah Khan attended public school his entire life. The truth is, his parents had wanted to send their kids to a private Islamic school, but they just couldn't afford it - and Abdullah believes he suffered because of it.

“Sex and drugs,” Khan told Middle East Eye. “That is what I was around all of high school.” 

Khan, who is now 32, and his two siblings went to a public high school in Michigan. He said he spent the first two years experimenting with drugs, just like many of his other classmates. He remembers going to parties and being in a room with a young woman but forcing himself to leave before anything happened. 

'I want her to be taught Muslim ideals in school'

- Abdullah Khan, Islamic school parent

Khan is Muslim and was raised as such. In Islam, taking drugs and pre-marital sex are prohibited. And while his parents did all they could to steer their kids in the direction of Islam, Khan says it was difficult. 

“Being surrounded with kids who do these things, it makes it really hard to say no. I was that brown, lanky kid in high school. Of course, I wanted to fit in and be liked.”

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For him, that meant taking part in things deemed haram (forbidden) in Islam. It wasn’t until he was older that he realised the mistakes he had made. So, to make things better for the next generation, he began by enrolling his daughter in an Islamic school, a kindergarten. And many parents are doing the same. 

Khan says it's easy to be pressured in a country that isn't predominately Muslim. "I want her to be surrounded by other Muslims and I want her to be taught Muslim ideals in school.”

“Nowadays when you enroll your kids in public school, they ask them to choose their gender. And there are like fifty genders to choose from. That is not the way of Islam, and I want to keep my daughter away from that.”

Unclear data

There isn’t clear data on the total number of Islamic schools throughout the country, or how many overall students are enrolled. A 2011 report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (Ispu), said: “After taking into consideration other factors, the most probable number of children in Islamic schools is approximately 32,000 students.”

“Although this information indicates fairly clearly the actual number of children attending full-time Islamic schools, it does not, however, indicate the percentage of the Muslim school-aged population attending Islamic schools because the numbers for the Muslim population, in general, are still not well determined.”

A decade later in 2022, the numbers are expected to have increased immensely. 

Shorouq Bader is the principal at Universal Academy of Pittsburgh, a full-time Islamic school. She said that enrollment in the school has been increasing, though there could be a number of factors for that. Last year, there were 135 students enroled in the school. Now there are 160. 

She said that Islamic schools celebrate a student’s identity, and like Jewish and Catholic schools, are focused on a specific purpose that children don’t usually find in public schools. 

Aisha Habibovic is a teacher at Almanara Academy, an Islamic school in Missouri where she was also once a student. Currently, there are 110 students at the school and the number is expected to increase in the coming years.

“We’ve had a few families this year telling us their kids were struggling in a public school setting because they couldn’t relate to anybody there, especially the younger kids. They would say they see their moms and aunts wearing a hijab, but nobody is wearing one in school,” she said.

According to Habibovic, parents want to build a foundation for their children from a young age. 

Islamic schools like Almanara teach the basic classes that are required by the Department of Education, which include mathematics, history, and science. Additionally, they teach Islamic studies and Arabic, which "can be argued, are the very definition of an Islamic school," an Ispu report said. 

The curriculum varies from state to state. In New York, private schools must prove they offer English, math and other fundamental classes or they will risk losing government funds. In September, the state board of regents that oversees New York schools voted for new rules after a New York Times investigation showed shortfalls at ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools for boys. 

Some 'kids were struggling in a public school setting because they couldn’t relate to anybody there'

Aisha Habibovic, teacher 

The new regulations will mandate that all private schools in New York provide specific instruction in English, as well as ensure that teachers are competent in their subjects. 

Having teachers that are not competent in their subjects is a common complaint by those who have attended Islamic schools. Many teachers are volunteers and are teaching for very low pay. They are also often teaching more than one subject despite having only basic knowledge, a retired teacher from an Islamic school in New York told MEE.

There is also no clear data on how students from Islamic schools perform on various college entrance exams like the SAT, compared to students who attend public schools. Despite these shortcomings, many parents still opt for Islamic schools.

"There are downsides to everything. Islamic schools are far from perfect and there are many reforms that need to take place. But you need to remember that sending your kids to Islamic school isn't enough as well," Khan said.

"Parents need to take that extra initiative and teach their kids Islamic values, as well as go over their homework and studies. I think that goes without saying whether you're sending your children to Islamic school or public school."

'Safety bubble'

Suhayla Saleh is a graduate of an Islamic school in Texas. She attended the school from pre-kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. And while she says it wasn’t always easy, she wouldn’t change her experience.

For Saleh, her Islamic school was a safe space where she was taught Islamic values and Islamic history. She explained that a lot of Islamic schools are very strict, such as having a dress code for both students and teachers.

At her school, girls were required to wear a white hijab and teachers could not wear a speck of make-up. Girls and boys were kept separate but most times, especially in her high school years, they’d find ways to meet outside the school. But she explained how it was these exact rules that eventually helped her find her way to loving her faith. 

Parents feel that 'public schools are heading in a direction' they don't want their children following

Sufia Azmat, Cisna

Saleh says a lot of people end up leaving Islamic school because they find it very strict, a criticism she says is necessary.

"I’d rather have strict than them letting us go loose and intermingle with each other wearing tight shorts and tank tops. Because otherwise, what would be the difference between an Islamic school and a public school?” she told MEE.

Saleh’s favourite part of Islamic school was being surrounded by other Muslims. She said that once she graduated high school and left, she had to face a reality check. 

“I was safe in this bubble for so many years. I won’t lie, college was hard in the beginning. Being surrounded by various kinds of people with so many different experiences and values was interesting. But I feel like being in Islamic school also taught me how to be respectful of other people who are not like us.”

Sufia Azmat is the executive director of the Council of Islamic Schools in North America (Cisna), an organisation that accredits Islamic schools. While Cisna does not have concrete data on total student enrolment, Azmat says that there is definitely a trend showing an increase. One reason for this is that confidence in Islamic schools grew during the pandemic. She believes that teachers and administrators put in a lot of effort and care for the children and parents saw that. 

But a big reason why she believes enrolment seems to be increasing - and will continue to increase - is because parents don't want their kids in environments where they aren’t being taught Islamic values. 

Many people have been reaching out to Cisna, letting them know they are planning on opening up an Islamic school in their communities and asking for resources. Azmat said they have had more calls in the past year than they had in the past five years.

She believes the best part of an Islamic school, besides the kids, is the teachers. Teachers get paid probably 50 percent less than what they could get paid in a public school, Azmat said. 

“They’re doing this because they want to. They’re doing this because they care about the kids and it shows,” she said. “Our schools don't have the resources that a lot of public schools have. We don't get those federal funds. We don't get the taxpayer's funds. But we get a lot of parents who volunteer and are so involved in their child's education.”

Azmat is a part of the Global Association of Islamic Schools, which has members from countries all over the world including the Netherlands, Australia, Pakistan, and Dubai. A while back, they held a strategic meeting where people shared similar concerns. 

“We were talking about the challenges and the needs of our schools and children. The kinds of things that we're seeing in society, the way that things are heading in terms of what they want to be taught in the curriculum, the kinds of books that are available in our schools, and the lack of books that have Muslim characters,” she said.

“Parents are seeing that public schools are heading in a direction that they don't want to be heading in, and they don't want their kids to be heading in.”

Banning books in public schools

Last month, in Dearborn, Michigan, chaos erupted when the school district temporarily restricted access to seven books after parents raised concerns that the books contained sexually explicit content.

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But according to the parents, they are not pushing to censor books with LGBTQ+ themes. They are pushing to censor books that contain sexually explicit content, whether in text or visually, something that has been done before in other school districts. Some of those seven books the parents are trying to get removed from their school libraries just happen to include LGBTQ+ references or are written by authors that identify as LGBTQ+, parents told MEE.

The books in question contain “extremely graphic depictions and descriptions of sexual activity. These sexual acts include oral sex, sodomy and group masturbation (among teenagers), as well as step-by-step instructions and images explaining how to engage in various acts,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) Michigan said in a statement. 

Omar, a parent who did not want to disclose his last name, will move his kids from a public school to an Islamic school. Omar’s kids have been in a public school in Dearborn for the past seven years. Now, Omar believes it’s enough. It's a decision other parents are making as well.

“I attended a school board protest a few weeks ago. Well it was a school board meeting, but a bunch of parents and I were protesting these books that are somehow allowed in our schools,” he said. 

“I honestly don’t believe anything is going to happen. Our own Muslim mayor isn’t on our side. Things like this make it not worth it. I will be sending my kids to Islamic school the next chance I get.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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