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Terror Factories?

The Culture of a Madrassah

 

By  Fahad Faruqui

Writer and TV Presenter

 

Madrassahs are often perceived as the root cause of deviance in the Western world.

 

Inasmuch madrassah education is abhorred for implanting the seed of extremism and instigating terrorism in young minds, it is, nonetheless, gaining popularity among the Muslims in New York City. Although pricy, the school provides religious nurturing alongside state-prescribed curriculum, which is a great source of comfort for Muslim parents in the West. 

Establishment
In the borough of Queens, the marble-faced Muslim Center Elementary School (MCES), one of the most prominent privately run madrassahs in New York, stands out in a cluster of worn-down houses on Geranium Street. Every morning at 8 a.m., the neighborhood is treated to an unusual sight in the US: Cars fill the narrow street in front of the school to drop off students — young girls with plain white head scarves and boys with scull caps.

MCES was founded in 1997 by a group of people in the neighborhood that saw a growing need for an Islamic school in an area with more and more Muslim families. The inaugural class had 27 students. That number increased to 54 in the first year alone. By 1999, the class grew to 120 students and then 140 students at the turn of the millennium — reaching its capacity.

Muslim Environment

The school provides a venue for children to study in a predominantly Muslim environment. The students get to interact with children of the same religious background and social values. A fact that, parents claim, minimizes the possibility of discrimination and racism.

The madrassah in Queens is designed to promote Muslim identity by enriching a child's ability to have a clear and crisp understanding of Islam so that they can distinguish between what's right for them under the umbrella of Islam and convoluted cultural norms.

Antithetical

As a madrassah, MCES is an anomaly. Naheed Farooqi, the principal, claims that the schools aims in teaching Islam are antithetical to the schools often associated with fundamentalism and Islamic extremism 

Madrassahs bring various cultures and  backgrounds together, but they're still highly controversial. Share us your views.

In 2003, the then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked his audience in a leaked memorandum, "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassahs and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?"
The preconceived notion that madrassahs recruit terrorists and deploy them against the West is questionable to say the least. Madrassah education may produce fundamentalists who are sticklers about their rituals and live by the Qur'an, but it is not their aim to train the Muslim youth against the West.

While I was studying at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I interned at ABC's investigative unit, where I was asked to write profiles of terrorists involved in attacks against the West and, interestingly enough, I found that most of the attackers were not Madrassah-educated; in fact, they had secular education.

 After 9/11, MCES was confronted with some hatred, which died down overtime. The school remained closed on Sep. 11 and 12, and the New York Police Department patrolled the school's vicinity for two months after the attacks. The principal does not recount any substantial incident of hate or violence against the madrassah's administration, staff, and students, but she did receive a hate note pasted on her apartment door, located on the premises. "You will pay for this!" it read.

Comfort Zone

Madrassahs are often perceived as the root cause of deviance in the Western world. But Farooqi does not feel the need to defend her institution. "Our doors are open and anyone is welcome to come and see what we are doing here," said Farooqi. "We want the kids to learn to coexist with all religions and be tolerant toward other sects in Islam, stand against drugs and social deviance."

The jihadi sentiment is allegedly a product of radical madrassahs, but MCES — a madrassah in its own right — is a comfort zone for many Muslim parents, who want their children to have Eastern values and firm understanding of the Islamic creed.

I spoke to Abdul Ghani, the Arabic language and Qu'ran teacher at MCES, who is an immigrant from Morocco. He explained why the parents prefer to send their children to an Islamic school. "Muslim parents don't want to hear things like ‘none of your business' or 'I will call /911 on you' from their children," said Ghani.

David Omowale, a black American convert to Islam, is an educator by profession in the public sector. He sends 6-year-old daughter, Mennefer, to MCES because he fears what young girls have to go through in public schools. "Just the other day, a sixth grader held up a young girl's skirt," he said in dismay.

Sohail Ahmed, a physician of Pakistani origin, came to the US four years ago. He sends his son Ibrahim to MCES because he wants him to learn about his culture and religion in order to maintain his ethnic values. "Sending a child to MCES is a plus because of the Islamic training they get at school in addition to state-prescribed school curriculum," he said. He believes that MCES has all the ingredients of a good education system.  
 
Noura Castillion, a Dominican-American who converted to Islam four years ago, married an Afghani in Flushing, Queens, New York City. In order to amalgamate in an Eastern family, she learned her husband's native language, Pushto, which she speaks fluently with her mother-in-law. Islam is an integral part of her life and she wants her daughter to learn about the faith as early as first grade; hence, she goes to MCES. And, she feels that the environment, discipline, and curriculum of a madrassah are most conducive for the upbringing of a child, especially with Islamic values.

Qur'an and the Curriculum

The school focuses on broadening its pupils' horizons by integrating intellectual aspects of the Qur'an in the curriculum. For example, during the science week, the students had a session that incorporated lessons from the Qur'an into a discussion about astronomy in light of the Qur'an. In the workshop, the science teacher gave a talk on various aspects of the solar system using a portable planetarium, and then Ghani, the Qur'an teacher, read to the students verses in relationto astronomy in the Qur'an. Perhaps, it is the way Qur'an is unraveled at MCES that separates it from a radical madrassah elsewhere.
 
Despite the compulsory Qur'an lessons at school, some children put in extra hours to memorize it after school hours. As for their aspirations, these madrassah-goers want to become doctors, lawyers, journalists, and poets, and their parents have high expectations from them, too.

Accusations

A staff reporter of New York Daily News accused MCES and other madrassahs in the City of preaching anti-Semitism and condemning "Jews as a people, repeating old canards about the Jews wanting to kill Christ and faking their Holy Scriptures to mock God," which Farooqi rebuts categorically.

A Madrassah, be it in the US or Pakistan, is highly controversial, and the image of the students is debatable. Someone like US presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama had a thorny experience in explaining four years of schooling in a madrassah during his teens; therefore, it is debatable how other madrassah-goers in the US will be perceived by other schools and, later, employers.

 

 

Fahad Faruqui is a writer who read philosophy of religion at Columbia University. He then went on to pursue M.S. in journalism. He anchored a talk show on Aaj TV, a Pakistani TV channel. He can be reached via mff11@columbia.edu.

COMMENTS

 

Reform Islam

By Srinivas on 2008-06-03 07:04 (GMT)

 

 

There is an urgent need to reform Islam, by highlighting the more spiritual aspects of islam. Political islam should be rejected, at least slowly done away with.

No religion can exist and continue to exist without reform. Religion should be used to answer questions such the purpose of life. Politics combined with religion is like a fast moving train without brakes and will eventually crash somewhere.

Muslims should encourage critical debate : whether be it about the Koran or even debate on critical questions even about Mohammed. The minds of young kids should not be imprisoned by some body else's ideology.

Peace be upon all of us.

 

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