Faith In America

By Laura Lang — May 01, 2002 18 min read
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Since Sept. 11, educators, students, and parents at the Washington Islamic Academy have feared for their safety. Still, they believe in the country they call home.

It didn’t take long for Rahaf Nazer to learn of the first plane crash on September 11. That morning, Nazer, a 33-year-old who analyzes airline-related data, was at her office near Dulles Airport in Sterling, Virginia. Minutes after the disaster took place, her co-workers reported the news they’d heard on an office radio: Someone had plowed a plane into the World Trade Center.

Nazer was stunned. Immediately, her mind turned to her young son, Abdulfattah. If she were like most mothers, she could have at least been comforted knowing that he was safe at school. But it was Abdulfattah’s school that worried her most.

The 9-year-old attends the Washington Islamic Academy in Springfield, Virginia, a K-4 Muslim school that combines standard academics with lessons on Islam, Arabic, and the Koran. Nazer, a Palestinian American, recalled the backlash against the Muslim community following previous terrorist attacks, and that morning, she overheard people in her office speculating that Arabs might be involved in the current disaster. Imagining her son sitting in his 3rd grade classroom, she feared that his school might be the target of spontaneous acts of revenge against Muslims.

Nazer tried to call the academy, but the circuits at her office were jammed. She continued dialing feverishly, her initial shock quickly shifting to panic. Soon, supervisors allowed employees to go check on their families, so Nazer rushed to her car. She hoped to drop by her house in Centreville, where a baby sitter cared for her 2-year-old, before heading to the school. Traffic was horribly congested, though, and Nazer’s fears about her son grew with each passing moment.

When she finally got to her house, an employee from the school called to say the principal had closed the building and that another parent was taking Abdulfattah home with her. Nazer drove to the other parent’s house, where she noticed that her son “looked yellow” and was very quiet. She quickly pulled him into a hug.

While Abdulfattah stayed home from school—the academy’s principal decided to keep it closed for four days—he could think of few other ways to express both his grief and his pride in his country than by displaying the American flag. He showcased any version he could get his hands on: freebies from stores, a sticker he affixed to the family’s minivan, a banner he displayed on the front door of their townhouse. Finally, he got his mother to pull out the five-foot American flag she received as a present when she became an American citizen more than a decade ago. He and his father hung the huge Stars and Stripes down the front of the house, where it stayed for months.

Abdulfattah remained troubled, though. Now a news junkie, he continued to hear about hate crimes against Muslims, the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and the killings in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He always asks, ‘If someone hates kids like me that much, can they come here and hurt me?’ ” Nazer says. “He will ask questions like that. I always tell him: ‘No, you have to be positive. Don’t think that.’ I always tell him: ‘You live here. You’re just like the rest of the American kids.’”

Like other Americans, families associated with the Washington Islamic Academy and Muslim schools across the country mourned those who were lost in the September 11 terrorist attacks. But since then, parents like Rahaf Nazer, as well as teachers and administrators, have also struggled with fears that their schools might be targeted. They worry about the institutions’ visibility, due partly to unprecedented growth: In the past 10 years, the size of the American Muslim community has increased rapidly, and some 500 Islamic schools now enroll an estimated 75,000 students. But much is also made of the schools’ dual identities: Although nearly all students at the academy, for example, are American-born, most of their parents emigrated from Islamic countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

This mixed heritage often presents a challenge to the academy’s population, which is tied to both American and Muslim worlds at a time when those worlds seem to be at odds. Abdulfattah, for one, is proud of both aspects of his background and refers to himself as a “Palestinian American.” But those charged with his care and education know that not everyone sees things the way the 3rd grader does. They also know that the war against terrorism is far from over.

The Washington Islamic Academy is a melting pot of sorts, combining families from Muslim countries around the globe. This mix is particularly evident during a regular Friday morning assembly, held in the facility’s mossala, or prayer room, on this January day.

Eighteen students from the school’s only 2nd grade class assemble at the front of the room and face the academy’s 100 other students, who are seated on the floor. All sport uniforms: for boys, blue slacks with white shirts; for girls, plaid jumpers, white blouses, and hijabs, the head coverings required by Islamic rules of modesty. The fidgety presenters hold up bright boards decorated with flags, photos, and small food samples that they’ll use to describe their families’ countries of origin.

The kids begin their speeches, some nervously, some excitedly. “Pakistani people are very friendly and hard-working, and we love to eat spicy food,” says a round little girl. Soon, one boy with careful diction introduces his poster about Afghanistan, which is decorated with postcards of the country’s capital. Although the photos depict a city destroyed by decades of internal strife, he makes only passing reference to past conflicts and the current U.S. strikes. “Afghanistan has been in civil war for over 23 years, and just recently, they have been freed from the Taliban,” he says. Mostly, he spends his time talking about the country’s seasons and buskashi, a popular ancient sport. Other youngsters also describe places, such as Pakistan, that play a role in America’s war on terrorism, but the presentations all come off as proud reports with little mention of unpleasant matters.

After the students finish, principal Saleh Nusairat takes over. With his suit and salt-and-pepper beard, Nusairat looks serious, but he’s upbeat with the kids. And he, too, avoids discussion of conflict. Instead, he reinforces a message he considers crucial. “One thing we have to remember here is that we all come from different countries,” he tells the kids. “But one thing brings us together. What is it?”

The children whisper and wiggle. A few quietly provide the answer. “Say it louder,” he prompts.

“We are Muslims,” shouts one boy.

“That’s right. Our religion: Islam,” Nusairat responds.

Since September 11, the principal has reminded students that no matter what others may say about their religion, they should take pride in it. But he also continues to drive home a philosophy he promoted even before the attacks: Islam must unite Muslims and even non-Muslims. Although leaders of some Islamic schools have been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic and anti-Western views, Nusairat says he believes people of all backgrounds should overcome their differences when dealing with one another. “This is the point we stress always, that we are more similar than different,” he notes.

Nusairat himself is a blend of varied worlds. A native of Jordan, the 45-year- old has lived in the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. He takes advantage of modern American amenities—he’s never without his cell phone and subscribes to a cable TV system offering Arab channels—but makes sure to pray five times a day. He’s outgoing and comfortable with social niceties, yet he’ll avoid the handshake of a woman he doesn’t know—out of respect, he says, for an Islamic code of modesty and privacy.

When members of the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, decided to expand beyond their popular part-time education program to a full-day school, Nusairat was their pick for principal. Among other pluses, he was a former president of the mosque. Nusairat, who was then working for an American school in the United Arab Emirates, returned to the States, and in 2000, the Washington Islamic Academy opened with 65 students and 10 teachers in a rented space that once was a computer learning center.

As one of only two administrators at the academy—another employee doubles as both secretary and vice principal—Nusairat has grown accustomed to taking charge and making do. He’s worked hard to recruit teachers and students and to raise funds. The school’s budget isn’t completely covered by the $2,500 annual tuition (not an insubstantial sum for the mostly working- and middle-class students), so he and mosque leaders solicit contributions from the local Muslim community. The principal also leads the school’s Friday morning assemblies as well as daily prayer sessions, and when a teacher can’t make it to class, Nusairat usually fills in.

One of his toughest jobs is creating the school’s curriculum. Secular courses, like mathematics, were developed with relative ease because the academy uses the same materials as Virginia public schools. But covering Islam has been more difficult. For one, Nusairat says, it’s hard to find textbooks that integrate Islamic history and values with standard subjects, such as social studies. And many American textbooks give the religion short shrift, he claims, or even express biases against it. He is encouraged, though, by Muslim scholars’ efforts to produce materials that better meet the needs of today’s American Muslim students.

No outside sources, however, could have helped Nusairat prepare for what happened on September 11. That morning, the principal was, as usual, the first to arrive at the school, at about 7:15. He turned on lights, checked phone messages, and sifted through e-mail. Soon, he was greeting arriving students, and by 8:15, he’d visited each classroom to ensure that children and teachers were all in their places.

Nusairat then grabbed a cup of coffee. He stopped to chat with a colleague who works at another Islamic school housed in the same building, and the man shared the news of the first crash. The two weren’t terribly concerned, though, figuring that it was most likely an accident. But then the colleague received a phone call informing him of the second disaster. “I said, ‘We have to find a radio,’ ” Nusairat recalls.

After racing to his car, he tuned the radio to an AM station and listened to the latest reports. He then called home, where his wife’s parents, visiting from Jordan, told him they were watching television coverage of the events. Nusairat quickly drove home to see what else he could learn. On the way there, he heard the news that a third plane had hit the Pentagon, only 10 miles from the school.

Like others in the Washington area, he was anxious about the proximity of the attack. But he harbored a second set of fears. “I thought, even if Muslims were not involved, some media would start speculating right away,” he says. He recalled that only hours after a federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, people all over the country suspected radical Muslims. And when terrorists struck the World Trade Center the first time, in 1993, it wasn’t long before some Americans began taking their anger out on innocent members of his faith.

By the time Nusairat returned to the academy, parents already had started calling. Although most were panic- stricken, the principal remained calm and encouraged his staff to do the same. He advised the secretary to inform parents that, if they wanted, they could pick up their children. At noon, Nusairat decided to close for the day. He, along with the teachers, called parents to tell them. By 1 p.m., the school was empty.

The academy would stay that way for several more days—except for a security guard hired to patrol the grounds. Nusairat was glad he’d opted for caution because, as he feared, Muslims were being harassed locally and nationwide. In nearby Sterling, for example, the walls of an Islamic community center were spray painted with “Die Pigs” and “Muslims Burn Forever.” At an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, just a 15-minute drive from the school, vandals threw bricks through a window with notes attached reading “Arab murderers” and other slurs. And across the country, according to the nonprofit Council on American- Islamic Relations, roughly 350 cases of harassment, including car rammings and death threats, were reported in the week after the attacks.

Since September 11, the principal has reminded students that no matter what others may say about their religion, they should take pride in it.

Nusairat reopened the school Monday, September 17, when he felt hopeful that the reprisals were waning. First, though, he made sure several security measures were in place. The academy’s landlord, the Darul Huda Corp., had already hired the security guard for the building, which houses a mosque and two other small Muslim schools. In addition, Nusairat instructed parents to avoid the front entrance and instead use a back door, which he would keep locked most of the day. Parents also volunteered to check on the school periodically, taking note of anything unusual, such as unfamiliar cars parked outside. “We thought it was important to be alert and aware,” explains Nusairat.

Vigilance could not ward off all threats, though. Early on, an ominous letter arrived in the mail. It was undated and unsigned and did not mention the school specifically. But it advocated inflicting harm on Muslims with passages such as “Don’t phone or threaten a mosque, blow it up.” Nusairat immediately called the local police. An officer arrived, listened to the principal’s account, and took the letter with him. Days later, the authorities informed Nusairat that other Muslim schools and businesses in the area had received similar letters. They urged school leaders to stay alert for any strange activity, and police cars began patrolling the area more regularly.

So far, no one has acted on the letter’s threats, and Nusairat tries not to dwell too much on the negative. He understands that some people react irrationally to tragic events, and he’d rather use the issues raised by September 11 to work through conflicts and to expand an understanding of Islam. In fact, he prefers to focus on a different type of correspondence: letters of support the school has received from several neighbors. One, dated October 6, 2001, reads:

My wife, son, and I were sickened, and saddened, by the harassment of Muslims around the country. . . . We hope you have received many acts of kindness to help you forget the thoughtless acts of a few benighted souls.

Nusairat responded with a note of thanks and also sent the man copies of the Koran and other materials to further his goal of helping non-Muslims understand his faith. As part of his mission, the principal opened the academy’s doors to reporters, unlike many of his colleagues at other Islamic schools. Ultimately, the academy showed up on ABC’s Nightline and the radio program “Voice of America” and, in February, in the Washington Post. Not all of the press was good. The Post article, for example, reported that maps at the school excluded Israel.

Ultimately, the academy showed up on ABC’s Nightline and the radio program “Voice of America” and, in February, in the Washington Post. Not all of the press was good.

Nusairat is outraged by the story. He admits that the maps, produced by a British company, omit the word “Israel.” But, he points out, they also exclude several other small countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, because of space limitations. He also is irked by the story’s allegation that textbooks at Islamic schools often are rife with anti-American and anti-Jewish messages: At the academy, he insists, neither materials nor instructors promote intolerance.

Of course, students have their own opinions about world affairs and the current conflict. For example, some 3rd graders at the academy recently debated whether the United States unfairly accused Osama bin Laden of the terrorist attacks. One argued that there was insufficient evidence, and another reasoned that if the Taliban leader had been responsible, he’d have taken credit immediately after the assault. A third said simply that bin Laden “was mad because Americans were killing people.” The Post article noted similar sentiments expressed by students at other Muslim schools.

Because of that story, several students, parents, and teachers are so upset that they’ve refused to continue speaking with reporters. But Nusairat remains committed to his role as an ambassador to outsiders. “In Islam, we have nothing to hide,” he says. “We normally invite people to know more. We think this is a very important process.”

Educators at the Washington Islamic Academy have had to deal with a lot more than negative press. They struggle not only with students’ anxieties, but also their own. Abdulfattah Nazer’s 3rd grade teacher, Merbiye Mollayakup, for example, tried, early on, to turn the tragedy of September 11 into teachable moments. She’d discuss the attacks during lessons on international affairs, or to define a spelling word such as “destroy,” she’d refer to the World Trade Center.

But every time, her efforts were returned with gloomy looks from the 12 girls and boys in her class, so she started to hold back. “They’ll feel sad, and I don’t want to see their sad faces,” she explains.

‘I have to wear hijab. Even if someone is shooting at me, I won’t take off my scarf. Allah gave me a chance to come to U.S., and this is the freedom I have.’

Merbiye Mollayakup,
Washington Islamic Academy

It has been a tough year for Mollayakup, who is new to the country and even newer to working with young children. A native of a mostly Muslim province of China, she immigrated to the United States in 1999 and soon began teaching physics at a college in Ohio. She began work at the academy last fall, only weeks before the disaster struck.

That day, she, too, had to balance her job with familial responsibilities. After she got in touch with her husband and learned that he was safe at home in downtown Washington, D.C., with their 5-month-old baby, she told him she’d have to stay at the school to make sure her students were picked up by their parents. She didn’t want her husband to come get her, so she insisted on taking public transportation home. Most days, the teacher catches a bus to the subway, rides the train to Washington, and then walks the rest of the way. Her fellow teachers worried that Mollayakup might face harassment during the 80-minute trip, so they suggested she remove her hijab before leaving.

Mollayakup refused. A thin woman with pale skin and delicate features, she is usually soft-spoken. But her voice becomes louder when she talks about issues concerning her faith. In her native Xinjiang province—called Eastern Turkistan by Muslims there who hope to break free from Chinese rule—she didn’t practice her faith for fear of persecution. Responding to her colleagues on September 11, she said: “I have to wear hijab. Even if someone is shooting at me, I won’t take off my scarf. Allah gave me a chance to come to U.S., and this is the freedom I have.”

By noon, she was headed home. She passed screeching police cars and throngs of reporters in a region that had—in a matter of hours—skidded into turmoil. She avoided harassment, though, suffering only the suspicious looks of passers-by.

But a few weeks later, while she waited for the bus outside school, a car drove toward her, honking wildly. At first she thought it might be her husband coming to pick her up. When the car got closer, Mollayakup says, the driver waved his middle finger and yelled something incomprehensible. Although she found the episode unnerving, she feels luckier than some Muslims. A friend’s father was shot in Los Angeles last fall because, she believes, he was a Muslim. And while she respects safety concerns, she disagreed with Nusairat’s decision to close the school the week after the attacks. “You have to keep on with life. Don’t stop with life,” she says. “This a test for all of us.”

Like Nusairat, Mollayakup wants to focus on the positive. And she, too, has received supportive letters. In October, for example, the school got a package from the Valley View Elementary School in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Inside were messages from several classes addressed to the corresponding grades at the academy. Also included were posters decorated with a white dove and an American flag. One of the letters to Mollayakup’s class reads:

Dear Third Graders, . . . We heard about the plane crashes in New York and Washington, D.C. We are sad that it happened. We hope that none of your friends or family were hurt. We hope that you are all safe. Please be careful. We hope that everything gets back to normal soon. We are thinking about you.

It was signed by all the 3rd graders and their teacher.

Mollayakup was so pleased to get the letters that she encouraged her students to write back. Most, including Abdulfattah, did so, responding with notes and pictures they’d drawn of American flags and stick figures holding hands beneath sad-faced suns. Abdulfattah, assuming that some of the students had lost loved ones in the attacks, wrote the following:

Dear Kids, Sorry because you have pain about your [families] who are dead. Sorry about the twin towers. And we are sorry those bad people hurt you. And we will find these people who did this to you! Please help us find these people! And we hope you feel better.

The letters were sent months ago, before Mollayakup decided to drastically limit her lessons about the September 11 tragedy. Despite her efforts, effects of the attacks linger in the classroom in extraordinary ways. Students, for example, share stories about people taunting their mothers in grocery stores. And one morning, Mollayakup recalls, a student arrived late to school because she was helping her family collect clothing to send to relatives and others in Afghanistan. “She was so sad,” Mollayakup recalls. “‘They’re being bombed,’ she said.”


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