Published: November 26, 2007

Begin the Debate: Nine-Point Guide to Discern Islamist from Non-Islamist Schools

By M. Zuhdi Jasser


Islamism is a veiled political insurgency


Last month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released specific concerns about the Saudi Academy in Northern Virginia. The USCIRF raised a number of issues of concern for American security in their October 19 release not least of which is the operation of a school for high school age children, The Islamic Saudi Academy, on American soil in northern Virginia administered and funded by a foreign embassy. The USCIRF also specifically brought attention to hate and violence against other faiths expressed in some of the texts used at the Academy.


The Commission press release stated, “Several studies, including by Saudi experts themselves, have pointed to serious concerns that these texts encourage violence toward others, and misguide the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the “other.” This is only one example poignantly raised by the USCIRF on the heels of their recent trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a nation whose metastatic Wahabism is arguably the primary cancer cell in global militant Islamist ideology. It should, however, just be the first step in an American journey toward a public accountability for “Islamic” educational institutions in the United States.


Islamic education or Islamist education?


America’s public attention to the curricula and texts of Islamic parochial schools should not only be limited to this single foreign school on our soil, but also more comprehensively to the curricula of all Islamic schools in the United States. This is not about profiling much as Islamists may try to say in their protestations to this debate. But rather it is about understanding the penetration of an ideology which consciously and subconsciously teaches the superiority of a political system of governance at odds with the American political and justice system. This is also centrally relevant in the conflict against militant Islamism. At odds with the American way of life is not only the more obvious militant ‘jihadist’ fringe component of political Islam but also the less obvious, more pervasive and more insidiously dangerous movement of political Islam as a way of life.


For the Islamic educational institutions in America founded only with the purpose of teaching our Muslim children the love of God, righteousness, Islamic theology, pluralism, humanitarianism, character, humility, charity, and other personal religious principles as it applies to God, I see no threat to our freedom in the U.S. However, the more relevant questions are how these institutions of Islamic education handle topics of American government and law. As an anti-Islamist Muslim, I am waiting anxiously to hear a public debate about what is taught in their U.S. history and government classes as compared to the Islamic jurisprudence classes of these “Islamic” schools. The schools around the country are all relatively new and wasting no time in creating a generation of students which are more likely than not to be defenders of Islamism over anti-Islamist systems based in universal liberty. While only a minority of Muslims send their children to these schools, they are a growing and significant minority countered only by a silent majority of Muslims.


Most American Muslims are not products of Islamist education


Having grown up in a small Midwestern town, I am a product of K-12 and undergraduate public education in northeastern Wisconsin. While I mostly learned the personal rules of my faith and theology from my family and weekend school at the mosque in my youth, I gained the foundations of my appreciation for the sanctity of our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and American legal system through that Wisconsin public education system. For example, I recall participating in the American Legion Constitution contest- an annual competition of Wisconsin high school students best able to memorize the U.S. Constitution. Islamic schools will similarly have Koran memorization contests which are also admirable, but will they also have Constitution contests? More importantly will their government classes teach primary allegiance to it over the Koran in as far as guiding documents for governments?


Permeating my own educational experience was the preeminence of America’s pluralism and Constitutional legal system based in individual liberty over all other systems from communism to fascism to theocracy. I was taught the value of criticizing authority and proving my ideas in the public arena of debate. Do Islamic schools teach their students to question the authority of their imams (teachers)? The Enlightenment was taught as a liberation of the human mind over the suffocation of the theocrats. How do Islamic schools teach Enlightenment compared to an Islamist theocratic society?


It is time to discuss in a comprehensive public manner, the context in which Islamic parochial schools teach Islamic history. Is the Islamic state and its history with a caliphate, Islamic dynasties, and Islamic law taught to nave Muslim children as the ‘glory days’ of Islamic dominance? Or was it simply a period of historical advancement in the context of mankind’s evolution toward the far more free and humanitarian western societies of today based in real religious liberty?


This historical paralysis is manifested in two basic areas. First, Islamic law as it exists in our Muslim theological texts today is frozen in basically the 13th or 14th Century when ijtihad (modernization of Islamic law) ended. Additionally, do these Muslim youth learn in their formative years that access to government and political leadership should be open to every citizen equally regardless of faith or religious education (as it is in the west)? Or do they contrarily learn that government and rule-making is the domain of the self-appointed Islamist scholars (ulemaa) who seek to control societal law?


Schooling which teaches the ‘preeminence’ of a sharia-based legal system (Islamic jurisprudence) over any other governmental system should raise profound concern in non-Muslim and Muslim Americans about the creation of an insidious political insurgency.


Discerning Islamist from non-Islamist Schools - a guide to begin the debate


The only way to counter such an insidious ideological insurgency is for us as a nation to undertake a far-reaching analysis and public discussion about what students at these Islamic schools are actually being taught about ‘sharia’ law and its role in the society. Here are a few questions American communities may want to pose to principals and curriculum coordinators of local Islamic schools in order to understand whether the school has a political agenda in its teachings or not.

1.         How does the school teach American history and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights? What is taught about the struggle of our founding fathers against theocracy? Is European Enlightenment ideology taught? Are students encouraged to learn from non-Muslim philosophers especially those who influenced our founding fathers and taught liberty and freedom?

2.         Are students taught that sharia is only personal or that it also specifically guides governmental law? Does their answer change whether Muslims are a minority or a majority?

3.         Do they view non-Islamic private and public schools as part of a culture of ‘immorality’ and decadence since they are not Islamicized or can non-Islamic schools be morally and equally virtuous?

4.         Do they teach their children that ‘being American’ and being ‘free’ is about moral corruption or is being American and free about loving the nation in which they live and sharing equal status before the law regardless of faith tradition?

5.         Is complete religious freedom a central part of faith and the practice of religion? In the Islamic school, how are children treated who refuse to participate in school faith practices?

6.         Are the children taught Muslim exclusivism with regards to the attainment of paradise in the Hereafter? From that, are the children also taught that government and public institutions must thus be ‘Islamic’ in order for the community as a whole to be able to enter the gates of Heaven?

7.         How are student discussions, debate, and intellectual discourses approached regarding American domestic and foreign policy? Do the teachers have a political agenda? Does that agenda demonstrate a dichotomy between Islamist interests and American interests?

8.         Is the historical period of Muslim rule of Spain (Andalusia) taught in the context of the history of the world during the Middle Ages or is it looked upon as superior to current day American ideology even after the advances of the Enlightenment?

9.         Is the pledge of allegiance administered every day at the beginning of the school day?


Certainly, this analysis and exposure would not be in any way to limit the freedom of Muslims to establish and operate these private educational facilities. But rather, quite the contrary, with exposure of the political Islamist agenda of many of these schools, Islamist schools will be slowly marginalized or obligated to reform. Then the non-Islamist and anti-Islamist schools will flourish while teaching reasoned pluralistic Islamic thought wholly compatible with the foundational principles of America.


It is not too much to expect schools operating on American soil to manifest an ideology which is not politically anathema to the founding ideals of our nation.


The scope of the problem – taxpayer complicity


A recent 2004 study by the NCES documented 182 Islamic private schools in the United States. Just last week the Voice of America trumpeted a report that, “Muslim Americans Establish own Schools in the U.S.” This statement of fact was presented with the apparent assumption that such a fact was good for Muslims and good for America. That would be the case if Islamism was not being taught and they would in fact be an asset if anti-Islamist ideas were being encouraged and debated. However, the simple fact that the schools taught Arabic seemed enough to the VOA reporters. Someone needs to inform them that translation services are often only as good as the ideological and political agenda of the translators themselves. In today’s oversimplified discourse on Islam it seems to matter little to the media or government whether Islamic schools are creating growing legions of pro-Islamist Muslims or not.


Let us also not forget that many of these institutions are operating with tax benefits and tacit government endorsement. A few receive direct government support as charter schools which is incomprehensible in the setting of what should be a separation of religion and state in America. Others, however, receive indirect government support through tax incentives as exists in Arizona or voucher programs as have been implemented in Ohio. There needs to be a greater public awareness of whether the ideology taught at these schools is compatible with Americanism and freedom as we know it.


Islamic schools are an important front in the battle of ideas


Many are finally realizing that as a nation we are not simply fighting a tactic of terrorism but rather an ideology—militant Islamism.  The origins of that malignant ideology is political Islam and the dreams of an Islamist state and Islamic hegemony over Muslim dominated lands and for some Islamists over the western world.


Some have begun to try and unravel the mystery of the generation of homegrown terror cells- despite protestations of American Islamist organizations. The recent NYPD report on “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat” began to peel the onion of the realities behind the transformation of nonviolent Islamists into militant ones willing to die for the cause and barbarically murder innocents in the process.  The LAPD recently announced a similar project to attempt to map the LA Muslim community by “assessing groups that might be susceptible to ideologically based extremism and propaganda.” In the predictable fashion of victimology the local and national Islamist groups including CAIR and MPAC immediately objected to the plan while providing little to no reassurance to American security agencies that the community would lead such an organized counter-Islamist effort on its own.


They know all too well that behind those who commit terror are not only organizations and individuals which have names that they generally refuse to specify in their condemnations but they are also driven by a political motivation which they refuse to intellectually deconstruct.

Simply denying that terror has anything to do with Islam or Muslims misses the diagnosis and thus avoids the treatment. However, realizing that Islamist terror arises from the transnational goals of political Islam will awaken Muslims to their responsibility of defeating Islamism from within the faith.


Militancy may be a tool of only a very small portion of Islamists who accept violence. But ultimately activists and specifically youth who are driven by an understanding that the “Islamic state” is superior to any other form of governance on earth will always remain apologists for the cause of militants whether they believe in the means or not. A far more effective treatment in the prevention of radicalism in the name of Islam would be to evaluate the origins, education, and inculcation of political Islam in the Muslim community and replace it with a different narrative separating the political from the spiritual from a very young age.


Muslim Youth of Islamic Schools - Finding an American nationalist Identity


The only logical way to defeat the transnational goals of political Islam in a lasting manner is to separate the national identity of Muslim youth, their Americanism, from their spiritual identity- Islam. But this must come from within the Islamic consciousness. I was able to do this in my youth growing up in a small Midwestern town, going to public schools, and learning my faith from devout conservative Muslim parents who had never equivocated about their American nationalism. They freely admitted to me and my siblings in our youth all the benefits of freedom given to them as they embraced American nationalism and the complete failure of Syrian nationalism in their own youth. There was never an equivocation in that battle of ideas.


I also somehow learned to internalize enlightenment ideas and to separate my faith identity and my personal relationship with God from my national and political identity as an American citizen.  If I have learned anything as an anti-Islamist activist in the Muslim community over the past 25 years is that youth who have not been irrevocably conditioned by Islamists are very receptive to this separation. Established Islamists are, however, as a rule intransigent in their willingness to look upon national identity through anything but a collectivist Muslim lens- the lens of the ummah (the Muslim nation). If Muslim youth are unable to wrap themselves comfortably in the warmth of American freedom and nationalism, defeating Islamism, whether militant or not, will be nearly impossible. One indicator would be to compare the number of American Muslim youth who join the American military out of parochial Islamic schools versus those who do so out of public schools.


While all Americans should be free to establish parochial schools. They should not be insulated from public scrutiny. While my personal belief is that Islamic schools contribute to the segregation and isolation of Muslims psychologically and physically, I will always endorse their right to exist especially as spiritual institutions. However, our national security interests demand that we not allow them to become incubators for political Islam where they can influence and control impressionable youth.

# # Contributing Editor M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and Chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix Arizona. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, a physician in private practice, and a community activist.

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Note -- The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.

Other Articles by M. Zuhdi Jasser...
Begin the Debate: Nine-Point Guide to Discern Islamist from Non-Islamist Schools
Islamism on Trial
What Ramadan Is Really About: Atonement and Renewal
Ideological Standards Needed to Confront Militant Islam: What Are They?
The Muslim World Needs Advocates for Freedom, Not Democracy
Which Islam? Whose Islam? All Muslims Own Interpretation of the Koran (Part Four of Four)
Which Islam? Whose Islam? All Muslims Own Interpretation of the Koran  (Part Three of Four)
Which Islam? Whose Islam? All Muslims Own Interpretation of the Koran
Which Islam? Whose Islam? All Muslims Own the Interpretation of the Koran (Part I of 3)
Fascism Spares No One

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