America Matters Muslim Matters islamic Schools
My mom’s classroom in an Islamic school, where the educational theme was the U.S. election and children all participated in mock elections.

By Shireen Qudosi

As Islam is pushed further into the spotlight, we get a deeper look at how Muslim Americans embrace their faith in the United States. Like Americans of all faiths, some Muslims prefer to place their children in religious schools. As we consider school choice for parents, faith-based education is a choice we can’t ignore. Yet, whether or not Islamic schools have a place in American society is increasingly brought into question, with some saying it’s time to shut-down all Islamic schools.  

When considering this question, we can’t forget the long-standing value America was built on: religious freedom. We also can’t forget the complexity of Islamic extremism, and the frustrating refusal of some to assimilate into American culture and accept our shared values.

So where does this leave Islamic schools?

I’m a Muslim American and part of a first generation immigrant family whose mother worked in one of the first Islamic schools in California. While she couldn’t persuade me to attend an Islamic school in the 90’s, she was successful in getting my younger sister to attend for a few years, and so I learned from my mom and sister’s experiences.

There were many times during the 1990’s that I had to spend my school holidays helping my mom in her classroom. I got to know the administration, the teachers, the students, the parents, and (like all private schools) the politics.

My mom spent 10 years at that first Islamic school. She then worked another 10 years at one of the best non-religious private schools in America. After that, she joined a new Islamic school, serving as one of its founding teachers for another eight years before retiring. During that time, I continued to learn through her experiences and also learned of all the other Islamic schools that popped up in the early 2000’s.

My insights into Islamic schools are also shaped by my own teaching experience and the extensive work and study I’ve done as a Muslim Reformer. Based on these experiences, I have found that just like any other private and faith-based school, there are benefits and drawbacks to Islamic schools.

Islamic schools that are attached to mosques are almost always problematic. They often come with school boards that are either Saudi-backed, or they have American Muslim investors who inject their specific interpretation of Islam into the school. These are schools that don’t allow for music or birthday celebrations, and they require teachers (and sometimes female students) to wear headscarves. They don’t report signs of child abuse because that would get “outsiders” involved in a “Muslim family,” the latter often seen as elite and separate from a larger society. These are schools that on a daily basis break at least 3-5 labor laws, knowing the teachers would rather avoid confrontation or are too economically dependent on their paycheck to take any legal action.

Meanwhile, other Islamic schools pass with flying colors and are reputable educational institutions and credits to the community.

When evaluating Islamic schools, in the context of a faith-based education and with the priority of assimilating into American culture, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Is it a stand-alone school or is it tied to a mosque?
  2. Who owns the school?
  3. Who are the investors?
  4. Who are the board members?

We can’t properly discuss the role of Islamic schools in America unless we have a clear profile of these schools. That means initiating inquiry and friendly outreach, rather than making declarative calls to shut-down something Americans have a right to participate in and can benefit from.