How schools can help meet needs of Muslim students

Sunday, August 9, 1998

When school doors open later this month, America's exploding religious diversity will fill the classrooms. One of the largest—and most challenging—examples of this explosion is the significant number of Muslim Americans now sending their children to public schools.

What has been the case for some years in Fairfax, Va., Dearborn, Mich., and Orange County, Calif., (places with large concentrations of Muslim Americans), is now true of Tulsa, Okla., Huntsville, Ala., and many other cities and towns across the nation.

Muslims in Alabama? Yes, and they want to be heard. Just like other religious and ethnic groups before them, Muslims want to be taken seriously in America's schools.

This isn't going to be easy, especially in places where many Americans think “Muslim” is a word that precedes “terrorist.” Since we don't learn much about Islam in school, most of what we know about Muslims comes from their superficial and stereotypical portrayal in the media.

That's unfortunate, because misunderstanding Islam now may mean misunderstanding your neighbor or the child sitting next to your child at school. There are now millions of Muslim Americans—perhaps as many as six to eight million—and the numbers are growing rapidly. Muslims will soon be, if they're not already, the second largest religious group (after Christians) in the United States.

What do schools need to know about Muslim children? First and foremost, like children of many other faiths, Muslims don't leave their religion at the schoolhouse door. They have significant religious needs and requirements that they carry with them into the classroom.

Some of the needs are easy to accommodate, for Muslims or for any child. For example, since Islam places emphasis on modesty in dress, there's no legal or educational reason why Muslim students can't be permitted to wear modest clothing in physical education classes or why Muslim girls can't wear head coverings at all times.

Other requests for accommodation may require more thought. During the Islamic month of Ramadan, for example, many Muslim students will abstain from all food and drink from dawn to sunset. School officials may need to find a place other than the cafeteria for Muslim students to spend lunch time. And gym teachers may need to provide alternatives to strenuous exercise during Ramadan. The First Amendment may not require schools to make these accommodations, but it is the right and sensitive thing to do.

Unlike the students of most other faiths, Muslims have worship obligations that must be fulfilled during the school day. One or two of the times for daily prayer (depending on the time of year) fall within school hours. Many schools meet this need by allowing Muslim students to use an empty classroom during lunch period or breaks.

More difficult to accommodate is the congregational worship that takes place midday each Friday and lasts for 30 to 45 minutes. Some schools set up a released-time program that allows students to leave campus to attend the service at a local mosque. Other schools let students perform the service themselves in an empty room during their lunch hour. Both approaches are permissible under the First Amendment.

Meeting religious obligations, of course, is the responsibility of parents and students, not of school officials. But schools can make it difficult or easy for families to practice their faith, depending on how flexible administrators and teachers are willing to be (and how committed they are to accommodating claims of religious conscience).

The good news is that help is readily available. The best resource for information on the needs and requirements of Muslims in public schools is the Council on Islamic Education, a national, scholar-based organization that provides guidelines. (For more information, call 714-839-2929.)

The visibility of Islam in our schools is a dramatic reminder that the face of America is rapidly changing. More than 1,500 mosques and Islamic centers now dot our landscape, and many more will follow. The religious-liberty protections of the First Amendment have opened the door to Islam in America. Now applying the First Amendment fairly and fully will make Muslims feel welcome in the schools—and in the nation.