Equity & Diversity

Fearing Potential for Backlash, Islamic Schools Step Up Security

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 19, 2001 3 min read
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Many Muslim educators and parents in the United States took extra precautions last week to ensure that their children wouldn’t be harmed in reaction to reports that Muslims or Arabs might be responsible for the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

While acts of vandalism or hate against Muslims were reported in various communities last week, Muslim educators said in interviews that the worst they had personally faced were telephone calls in which the callers swore at them or told them to leave the country.

A number of Arab university students have told the cultural division of the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington that they have been verbally insulted or spat on, but reports of harassment of students in K-12 schools are less concrete.

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The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations hadn’t received any reports of incidents in public schools as of late last week. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington received a few e-mail reports of school incidents, but the reports lacked specifics.

Some private Islamic schools—particularly in the Washington area—closed for at least a day, in response to parents’ concerns for their children’s safety. Other private Islamic schools, or schools with many students of Middle Eastern backgrounds, stayed open, often with extra surveillance from local police departments.

Muslim leaders in the Washington area instructed members of their community to keep a low profile, said Sharifa Alkhateeb, an educator who teaches a course on Middle Eastern culture for teachers in the Fairfax County, Va., schools.

“I fear that average people will be so filled with fear in general,” Ms. Alkhateeb said. “It will make them so depressed that as a catharsis for their general fear, they will try to find a local target.”

The Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa, a 265-student pre-K-12 school, was one of a number of Islamic schools across the country that received extra police surveillance last week after the attacks. “The backlash is the thing that people are concerned about,” said Abdul Biuk, the assistant principal of the school.

Angry Calls

On Sept. 11, the day of the attacks, the school stayed open to maintain a sense of normalcy, Mr. Biuk said. The local sheriff’s department monitored the school’s dismissal at the end of the day.

But in response to parents’ concerns, the school closed the following day. Mr. Biuk said the school received several angry calls last week, in which callers used an obscenity or told Muslims to “go home.”

But “to my surprise,” he added, “someone called to say, ‘I’d like you to know that we know you feel the same way we do, and I don’t feel like you are different from other people.’ ”

Sommieh Uddin, the principal of Crescent Academy International, an Islamic school in Canton, Mich., said she appreciated a visit to her office by local police early on the day of the attacks and extra police monitoring on the following day, when the school stayed open.

“Our local police department has been very helpful,” she said. “As American citizens, we rely on the police department in times like these, like anyone else.”

Nawal Hamadeh, the superintendent of the Universal Academy and Star International Academy in Dearborn, Mich., appreciated the willingness of the local police department to assign officers to the schools’ campuses. The two charter schools’ students are primarily from Middle Eastern backgrounds, and most are Muslim.

Ms. Hamadeh said she went from class to class, trying to assure the students they were safe and “to help the students understand that violence is really unacceptable, whether at the school level or community level or national level.”

Hassan Qazwini, a prayer leader at the Islamic Center of America in Detroit, said that while he had supported the closing of the private school operated by the Islamic Center on Sept. 12, he chose not to keep his own two sons home from their public high school in nearby Dearborn.

He had answered some hateful telephone calls at the Islamic Center, he said, but expressed faith that public school children would act more civilly than had some of the adults in the Detroit area.

Even so, he said, he instructed his sons “to keep quiet, be quiet, avoid any provocation.”

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