There are approximately 6,000,000 Muslims in the United States. Their backgrounds lie in 80 nations but an increasing percentage of U.S. Muslims were born in the United States, and they and their children will be educated here.
American Muslims face a bifurcated and frequently confusing environment. They are advised to integrate themselves as quickly as possible into the American mainstream; they are told that Islam is a dangerous religion and that Muslims are enemies of the United States; they are welcomed by local communities that seek to increase information about Islam and Muslims in their curricula and are invited to work closely with local police and FBI offices. The children of the roughly 75 percent of Muslims in "immigrant" communities (approximately 25 percent of American Muslims are African Americans) often reject "immigrant" cultures that appear incompatible with American mores but at the same time seek to adhere to the tenets of Islam.
The speakers at an all-day conference, organized in large part by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Division of U.S. Studies, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and its Initiative on Religion, Politics and Peace as well as its National Resource Center on the Middle East, emphasized that above all, Muslims in the United States are trying to define and carve out an American Islamic identity. They do so in a post-9/11 environment in which many public schools have become more sensitive on the subject of Islam but are still venues where Muslim students all too often face negative social forces such as racism, racial discrimination, treatment as the "other" and, particularly in the case of girls and young women wearing headscarves, harassment.
For this reason, and because some Muslim parents feel that the public schools teach moral relativism and do not inculcate the values of family, community, and duty that are part of the core of Islam, the number of full-time Islamic schools in the United States has increased in the last two decades. The best estimate is that there are 235 such schools in the United States and the Virgin Islands, with an enrollment of approximately three percent of this country's Muslim students.
These schools were the focus of the conference. The participants grappled with the question of what an American Islamic curriculum should look like, asking whether an Islamic education (rather than an education in Islam) should merely add the study of Arabic, the Koran, and Islamic history to the kind of curriculum found in U.S. public schools or should seek to integrate what are now taught as separate subjects with the tenets and spirit of Islam. The theme of community service as an integral part of education ran through many of the presentations, with examples being given of such service as a part of the curriculum of Islamic schools from the earliest grades up through high school.
Reacting to the criticism that Islamic schools contribute to the ghettoization of Muslim children and interfere with the integration process, a number of participants noted that the multiplicity of national backgrounds represented in Islamic schools make for a multicultural experience, while the safe environment in which Muslim children are not made to feel like outsiders enhances their learning experience. This, it was argued, is similar to the historical experience of children in American Catholic and Jewish schools. In this sense, Islamic schools can be viewed as part of the American story, as they create a space that is free of the moral relativism of the larger society.
While some Islamic schools have enrichment curricular and low student/teacher ratios, and are able to send up to 95 percent of their students on to college, many others grapple with a constant lack of funds. The result is that only about 50 percent of teachers in Islamic schools are certified by state education boards and many schools cannot offer a full range of courses. This leads parents to send their children elsewhere, and that in turn contributes to the schools' financial plight. Islamic schools frequently are organized by mosques or Islamic centers but, as they mature, they become increasingly independent. Only an estimated 21 percent of such schools are run by mosques today.
There have been a few African-American Islamic schools in the United States since the 1930s. For the most part, however, Islamic schools are a new phenomenon in this country. As the conference participants suggested, their history and the study of such schools has barely begun.
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129