Students deserve equal religious rights under the law


by Fedwa Wazwaz and Marcia Lynx Qualey • On April 9, we read Katherine Kersten’s column in the Star Tribune, and the e-mail exchange between Kersten and Asad Zaman, executive director of Tariq ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), and were compelled to respond.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

I (Fedwa) have an eight-year-old daughter. I visited TIZA and decided not to enroll my daughter, choosing instead Al Amal School in Fridley. The primary reason is that I was convinced TIZA is not an Islamic School and does not teach Islamic Education to kids. I pay from my own pocket to put my daughter in Al Amal, the only Islamic school in the Twin Cities.

I (Marcia) have a four-year-old son, enrolled in a private Montessori school in St. Paul. While the school is housed adjacent to a Jewish temple—as TIZA is housed adjacent to a mosque—my son has learned nothing about Judaism by mere contact with the building. The school’s vacations are, as you might imagine, focused around Christian holidays.

Both of us work at the University of Minnesota, a public institution that receives taxpayer money. This school also closes on Christian holidays. Tests and school breaks are planned around Christian holidays to allow Christians time to celebrate. The floating holiday this year was on the Christian Good Friday, right before Christian Easter. There are “holiday parties” around Christmas Day—not, for instance, Ramadan.

However, the University of Minnesota presents itself as a secular university.

I (Fedwa) live in Brooklyn Park. The community center receives public taxpayer money, and they have a very large Christmas tree every Christmas. They close on Christmas holidays and have “holiday parties” around Christmas day.

However, the community center presents itself as a secular institution.

Kersten is upset that “Friday prayer” is allowed at TIZA, although the right to practice one’s religion is protected by the U.S. Constitution. Where, on the other hand, is her challenge to the system that allows public schools to close on the Christian holy day, Sunday? This was designed, of course, to facilitate the religious needs of Christians. All public schools and public institutions are closed on Sunday, the Christian holy day. Christians do not pray five times a day like Muslims, but set aside special time to pray and reflect on Sundays. However, when Muslims ask for small accommodations to allow them to pray—as Christians do, on Sundays—some express a fear that Muslims are imposing Shariah.

While Christians are allowed space and time to go to church and celebrate religious holidays, commentators like Kersten grill minorities for wanting the same thing. Many Muslim students study for finals on Muslim holidays, while Christian students relax and celebrate Christmas with their families. Many Muslim youth are afraid and embarrassed to pray in school, and do not go to Friday prayer, while Christians have the day off to take their children to church.

Would Kersten call for allowing some public schools to close on Thursday and Friday instead of Saturday and Sunday so that the students attend Friday prayer not at school, but at a mosque with their parents?

Would she and similar commentators call for having public schools open on Sundays? Christians could pray in a small room as Muslims currently do. Are Kersten and others who are upset at TIZA similarly upset by the presence of Christian symbols such as Christmas trees in public institutions, and the institutions’ adjusting their schedules to accommodate Christian holidays?

We are not. In fact, we are not calling on schools to remove special accommodations for Christians. We ask only that the Minnesota Department of Education—and the public—extend equal treatment to non-Christian students, allowing schools to make small accommodations so that students can exercise their constitutional right to observe their religion.

The division between “church” and “state” is illusory—and, for most Minnesotans, not at all desirable. Last December, the Minneapolis Public Schools launched a faith-based initiative that encourages students to participate in church-led programs. (Read about it here.) The city’s school board has praised the initiative, which works with mostly Protestant churches, a few Catholic institutions and temples, and no mosques. However, to their credit, School Board Director Pam Costain, and program directors Hedy Lemar Walls and Jackie Starr, have stated a desire to reach out to the Muslim community.

We believe Asad Zaman’s statements that TIZA is not an Islamic institution. At the same time, attempts to accommodate Christianity in our schools go unnoticed, while Kersten uses a fine-tooth comb to demand an iron-like separation of prayer and state for Muslims.

What we ask for is fairness.

Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Marcia Lynx Qualey is a writer and mother who lives in St. Paul.