While enrollment in Islamic schools is growing, most Muslim children in the United States--69 percent, according to a 1996 poll by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington--still attend public schools.
For many, the experience is not always a pleasant one.
Sakinah Ayuoob, a 2nd grade teacher at Al-Ikhlas Academy in Detroit, for instance, recalls that a public school teacher once took layers of clothing off her daughter, stripping her down to the T-shirt and pants she wore underneath, put the other items in a bag, and told her to tell Ayuoob not to send her to school wearing so many clothes.
Karen E. Keyworth, a white American-born Muslim in East Lansing, Mich., finds it annoying that public schools say whether cafeteria food contains peanuts but won’t offer information about whether it contains pork or other products from pigs, which Muslims don’t eat.
“There are more children who are Muslim in the United States who don’t eat pork than there are children who are allergic to peanuts,” Keyworth says. “Why peanuts and not pork?”
American Muslims are increasingly organizing to educate other Americans about their faith, and slowly, awareness is growing, says Shabbir Mansuri, a Muslim from India who is the founding director of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, Calif.
Mansuri gives workshops on Islam to social studies teachers around the country. “I ask the teachers, ‘How many of you know the word Ramadan?’ The majority of teachers, no matter where I am in the United States, will raise their hands,” he says, adding that two years ago, this was not the case.
The main mission of Mansuri’s organization, started in 1989, has been to get American textbook publishers to include accurate information about Islam in social studies and history textbooks.
Mansuri began that effort after his daughter, who was attending a public school, read him a description of Islamic prayer in her 6th grade textbook. It said Muslims rub their faces in the sand while they pray. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not correct. We need to do something about it,’ ” Mansuri says.
Some schools have already made changes. At the request of Muslim parents, Fairfax County, Va., public schools have begun to offer Arabic as a foreign language elective. The district schools also place either a picture of a pig or a red dot on any food containing pig products, and the district has asked principals not to conduct major testing on Islamic holidays.
The following groups offer help to public schools wishing to accommodate Muslim students:
The Arab World and Islamic Resources in Berkeley, Calif., gives free workshops about Islam to public school educators across the country. Call (510) 704-0517. The office is closed this month but will open again in February. Online at: www.dnai.com/~gui/awairproductinfo.html. The Muslim Education Council in Great Falls, Va., gives workshops primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region on Islamic religious and cultural awareness. Write to Sharifa Alkhateeb, Muslim Education Council, PO Box 942, Great Falls, VA 22066. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington (online at: www.cair-net.org/) has published a pamphlet titled "An Educator's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices." One tip: Let Muslim students go to the library instead of the cafeteria during lunch period if they're fasting for Ramadan. Educators can receive a free copy by calling (202) 659-2247; on online at: www.cair-net.org/pub/news.htm#educator.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 1999 edition of Education Week as In the Public Schools