It all began with a column in the Star Tribune. Katherine Kersten started by asking whether taxpayers were paying for a religious public school, and, in a later column, concluded that they were.
The press coverage resulted in school officials receiving threatening calls and emails with death threats.
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy was founded, according to its mission statement, to “recognize and appreciate the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of the eastern world (Africa, Asia and Middle East).” Kersten claimed, however, that the school did not honor state regulations that prohibit publicly funded schools such as charter schools from endorsing religion.
Following Kersten’s second column, crews from television channels 5 Eyewitness News and KARE 11 descended on the school. A letter from the Department of Education indicates that the department has “corresponded with and conducted site visits at Tarek to ensure that the school is adhering to Minnesota charter school laws, including a requirement that a charter school must be ‘non-sectarian’ in nature.“
Tarek officials, who were not available to comment on this story, told KARE11 reporters that, “We are fully aware of the obligations that come with that public money. And we take care to insure that we operate a non-sectarian program. None of the public money is spent on any religious activities.”
While Tarek is treading a thin line between culture and religion, one thing remains clear: families, whose only interest is an education for their children in a culturally sensitive environment, were caught in the middle of press coverage that shook them to the core. One such parent is Mohammad Zafar.
In a week’s time, Zafar will be graduating from Metropolitan State University in Social Science and a minor in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In his last semester, Zafar, a former U.S. Marine, divides his time between writing his final thesis and raising his children.
When he saw the news on Tarek, he was outraged, and then distressed once he heard about the death threats the school was receiving. Worse yet, the situation affected his daughter.
“She is only eight,” Zafar said, “and she is afraid.” The charges, the police cars outside the school, and the adults’ reactions frightened her.
Two years ago Zafar and his wife moved from St. Paul to the suburbs of Inver Grove Heights so that their daughter could go to school in what they deemed, a culturally sensitive environment. To Zafar and his wife, this presented a perfect opportunity for their daughter’s education.
“She came home one day [from her public school in St. Paul], and said she did not want to be associated with the bad god, and did not want to identify as Muslim.”
Distraught at this revelation from their five year-old daughter, Zafar found out that a child at school had been told by her mother that “Allah was the evil god.”
Shortly after, Zafar’s daughter had no playmates and her isolation, he thinks, led to her poor performance in school.
Zafar, like every parent, wanted the best education for his child, one that included not only a comprehensive academic curriculum, but also one that would allow his daughter to flourish as a proud American. Zafar remembers fondly serving in the U.S. Marines.
“Dietary and religious accommodations were made for different religions,” Zafar said of his time in the Marine Corps. This accommodation allowed him to feel part of the larger Marine Corps community. Because there were very few Muslims in his unit, Mohammad says there was no mosque at that time, although there
was a church and a synagogue. (Now that there are more Muslims on the California base, a mosque has been built.) were two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant. (Now the Muslims on base have a room for prayer.) However, he could pray even in public without fear of retribution. He is afraid that in a public school, this option was not open to his daughter.
“At Tarek,” he says, “my daughter learns Arabic and freely wears a hijab… her choice.” He explains that his daughter saw her mother wearing a hijab, and wanted to wear one, too, even though her parents did not pressure her to do so.
In the last two years, his eight-year old daughter has noticeably improved her performance. A proud parent, Zafar says, “Last year she was reader of the year in her class, while this year she has been recognized a couple of times as a reader of the month.”
Zafar, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, fears that a few hateful people damage an otherwise happy American society.
“Don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be alright,” he sings to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, expressing his desire for a diverse and accepting society.