Organization aims to educate others about Islam

Saturday, June 3, 2006

There are ways to teach about Islam in public schools without crossing any constitutional boundaries, but dressing students up as Muslims and having them role-play is definitely not one of them.

Azra Hussain, the head of the Phoenix branch of the Islamic Networks Group, said that in her attempts to teach students about Islam she encountered one teacher who had all of her public school students dress up as Muslims and reenact Islamic practices — a teaching method that clearly oversteps First Amendment prohibitions against government involvement in religion.

The problem with teaching about Islam, or any other religion for that matter, Hussain said, is not that teachers are incapable of teaching about it, but that they do not understand how to do so in accordance with the First Amendment.

Hussain’s Phoenix-based organization is a part of the larger Islamic Networks Group, headquartered in San Francisco, which melds its goal of teaching objectively about Islam with a concern for First Amendment principles of religious freedom and church-state separation. ING trains and provides speakers to schools, police departments, newspapers and other groups seeking to learn more about Islam.

To guarantee that ING’s speakers understand how to present Islam in a constitutionally sound manner, about a third of the training they receive concerns the First Amendment, Hussain said.

More often than not, she said, when public school teachers are informed of the ways they can present religion in an academic manner, they are very receptive.

As part of their presentation, ING speakers give teachers First Amendment guidelines so they are aware of the method the speakers will be employing to educate about Islam. The guidelines are based on the First Amendment Center’s A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, said Maha ElGenaidi, the founder of ING and director of its San Francisco speakers’ bureau.

“The First Amendment guidelines give us a way to approaching [our audiences] in a way that is not on the basis of religion, in a way that is not offending anyone, or that isn’t preaching or proselytizing and is very much within the law,” ElGenaidi said.

ElGenaidi founded ING in 1993 to counter what she perceived as anti-Muslim rhetoric in mainstream American news. Originally called the Bay Area Media Watch, the organization initially monitored the news and responded to problems it identified in various news stories.

“It was at the tail end of the first Persian Gulf War and we were experiencing a lot of hate crimes and we thought that the media was exacerbating the situation in the way that it covered events,” she said.

However, after six months of approaching producers, editors and reporters every time a report was made that reflected negatively on the Muslim community, ElGenaidi had what she called an epiphany.

“Six months into (running) the organization, I realized after talking to a lot of media reporters and producers and galvanizing the whole community that we were approaching this all wrong, that we needed to step back and actually find out first how much these media reporters knew,” said ElGenaidi.

She said her group decided it would be more effective to be proactive and preemptive, to prevent problems before they happen — through education.

“We started thinking, ‘What are other institutions that have the greatest impact on the quality of life of Muslims here in the United States and that really influence public perception about who Muslims are?’” ElGenaidi said. “Of course education immediately came to our mind.”

ING is funded primarily by donations, investments and profits made from its educational kits and publications, which are sold through the organization. As a nonprofit organization, ING makes all of its financial records public and available upon request, ElGenaidi said.

From the outset, the First Amendment Center’s guidelines for teaching about religion were an integral part of the approach that ING wanted to take in educating about Islam.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, praised ING's efforts to educate Americans about Islam.

“Ignorance about Islam in the U.S. contributes to discrimination and acts of violence directed at American Muslims,” Haynes said. “By educating people about Islam, ING dispels stereotypes and helps fill the gap left by inadequate treatment of religion in our schools. What is most impressive about ING is the careful First Amendment training given to every speaker, especially those who give presentations in public schools.”

Said ElGenaidi: “When we implemented the new program, we had the First Amendment guidelines for speaking about religion in the public square. We incorporated that in the training that we did with the speakers.”

As ING began to recruit speakers and expand, ElGenaidi said, the emphasis the organization placed on teaching through the First Amendment guidelines never wavered. ElGenaidi called the guidelines the “root of all our success.”

The key distinction, Hussain said, is “teaching about religion, not teaching religion.” She added that the lectures ING puts on are not religious education, but education about a religion, a difference that all lecturers at ING are told to emphasize.

Jenny Sutton-Amr, executive director of the Kentucky Islamic Resource Group, also affiliated with ING, gave the example of how her speakers are instructed to say “Muslims believe,” rather than “I believe.” Attention to such small subtleties, Sutton-Amr said, has helped her affiliate offer successful presentations.

Sutton-Amr said that before speakers go out into the community, they are given an exam that tests the presenters’ abilities to respond to difficult questions that may arise.

One question both Sutton-Amr and Hussain said they had both dealt with is how to respond when students ask for further information about Islam, such as where they can go to pray.

Hussain said she directs students to their teachers, who can then contact the parents. If the parents give their children permission to learn more about Islam, only then can the teacher redirect the student to Hussain for more information.

A complicated process, yes, but one that Hussain said helps maintain ING’s reputability.

By teaching about Islam in the context of the social sciences, ING says it has been able to open people’s minds to learning about Islam simply as a religion. If Islam is treated like any other academic subject, they say, audiences can learn about it without feeling as though they are being proselytized.

“You notice often when you first walk into a room that people can be apprehensive, they lean back, they have their arms crossed,” Hussain said. “But towards the end of the presentations, these same people will be leaning forward, approaching me to ask questions.” Hussain said she felt that this academic approach enabled her and other speakers to get through to their audiences, rather than turning them off to the material being presented.

For the most part, ING’s presentations have been well received. Tom Eblen, managing editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader, said KYIRG approached his newspaper last year and offered to present a program to the newspaper, not because it had been misrepresenting Muslims, but as an educational exercise.

“About 30 staff members attended the informational session, and all the feedback I received from the staff about it was very good,” Eblen said via e-mail. “The dialog has been helpful in understanding the Islamic point of view on local, national and international events, and I think it has helped us improve our coverage.”

“Overall, [it was] one of the best and most positive reader-interaction efforts we have had in some time,” Eblen said.

KYIRG said it had a similarly positive experience speaking to groups of Lexington police officers.

Although ING’s main focus has been schools and news media, the organization also has speakers trained to present Islam to hospitals, social service agencies, government offices, faith and community-based organizations and businesses. Each presentation is tailored for the organization.

The impact the ING presentations have on their audiences is tangible and long-lasting, Hussain said.

“One time, I was pulling into the drive-through of McDonald’s and when I got up to the window, the boy at the window said “Assalamu 'Alaykum” [the traditional Islamic greeting],” Hussain said. “I said to him, 'Do I know you?' and he replied, ‘Yeah, you presented to me last year.’ I was totally taken aback, but so happy. I passed on information, and he remembered it.”

Vanderbilt University senior Laura Breslin was an intern at the First Amendment Center in 2005-06.

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