Muslim Marine meets prejudice at home

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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 new McCarthyism & rightwing media attacks

Media attacks both feed and express anti-Muslim and anti-Arabic prejudice. In New York City, Debbie Almontaser was forced out as the founding principal of New York City’s first public Arabic-language school last fall, as a direct consequence of media attacks that misquoted her and mischaracterized both the school and Almontaser. Read the exclusive Democracy Now interview with Debbie Almontaser, broadcast April 29, republished by TC Daily Planet.

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.“

TC Daily Planet talks to CAIR-MN

The Council on American-Islamic Relations answered questions from TC Daily Planet writer Julia Opoti:

Since the Star Tribune and television segments on TIZA have you noticed/or have records of increased anti-Muslim sentiments?

After the article appeared in the Star Tribune accusing the public charter school of being an Islamic school, the school started receiving harassing phone calls and emails and threats directed towards the school, students, and the principal. Most of the messages were profane. One called the school principal a “son of a pig.” Another said, “If you persist we will destroy you, your family and your country” as documented on Kare11. CAIR-MN has been contacted by Muslims expressing their concerns over the anti-Muslim sentiments the TIZA stories have created.

What examples of hate crimes have people reported to you? How was law enforcement in different Minnesota cities reacted to this?

The reaction of the Inver Grove Heights Police to the threats and hate incidents the school received has been excellent. When CAIR-MN contacted the local police, they were very concerned and immediately sent a Sergeant to the school to meet with school administrators. They also increased patrol around the school. Further, CAIR-MN informed the FBI of the hate incident and they also expressed concern and immediately got involved in the investigation.

What is the Islamic community in Minnesota doing to integrate or educate the majority culture on their religion. What challenges does this bring?

The issue is not integration. We have Muslims in this community who serve on school boards, Muslims who are college professors, doctors, lawyers, we even have a congressman who is Muslim. The issue is a lack of knowledge of what Islam is and who Muslims are. There are many groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that are working to build bridges of understanding. The Islamic Center of Minnesota holds an interfaith dialogue with the MN Council of Churches. The Islamic Resource Group gives hundreds of educational presentations to churches and other groups across the state. CAIR-MN holds community dinners and interfaith events on a regular basis.

Someone mentioned to me that some of the adversarial attitudes towards Minnesotan Muslims is a reaction to the settlement of the growing Somali population. What is your comment on this?

With an influx of new immigrants to any community there can be issues related to mutual adjustments. However, I disagree with the sentiment that adversarial attitudes towards Minnesota Muslims is a reaction to the settlement of the growing Somali population. Adversarial attitudes towards Muslims are rampant around the nation, not just in communities with large Somali or other new immigrant populations. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home to the Mother Mosque of America has a community of Muslims who are the descendants of some of the first Muslim immigrants to America and they too are not immune to hate and bias crimes. Their Islamic Center has had swastikas painted on it, as well as other vandalism and hate crimes targeting Muslims. Adversarial attitudes exist because misconceptions of Islam are rampant, which leads to fear and hostility against Muslims.

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.

Nekessa Opoti is the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper.