[This is a summary of a panel discussion held at the Cato Institute on February 1, 2018 featuring Shafiq Siddiqui (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) and Sabith Khan, California Lutheran University discussing their newly publishedÂ book on their research on Islamic schoolsÂ in the U.S. The discussion was moderated by Neal McClusky.]
Shafiq Siddiqui opined thatÂ Islamic schools were more energized by the events of 9/11 and the Great Recession. The economic crisis had a negative impact but prompted Muslims to look at the experiences of other educational institutions and led to more public engagement.
Sabith Khan described the methodology of their research. TheyÂ had to create a comprehensive database of Islamic schools. The sector is not exceptional. They comply with tax laws and some are accredited; they struggle within the community. It is an unsettled question: what is an Islamic school? Some donâ€™t apply for subsidies of school choice because they donâ€™t want to or know how to deal with the paperwork.
Siddiqui noted that there is no majority ethnic group among Muslims in America. This is the seventh wave of Muslim immigrants and the first to survive. Within the broad ethnic spectrum there are seven schools that are African-American. There are two or three Shia schools. Shias will attend the Sunni schools, which is reflection of the economic difficulties of setting up schools, but it also reflects the Qur’anic verse “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).” (49:13)
Khan reported that the schools also have non-Muslim students and teachers, and that they often are started at mosques or Islamic centers and often remain as part of them, whereas in other cases they become separate institutions. The degree of diversity varies. There seems to be a lot of ecumenical behavior, more concerned with hiring those who believe in the mission than those who believe in the faith. Siddiqui added that one can find teachers who do not practice the faith instructing children in their responsibilities in the faith.
Siddiqui said that all four of his children graduated from public school but went to Islamic elementary school so they could learn Arabic. They memorized at least one thirtieth of the Qur’an. The biggest criticism is that Islamic schools are trying to isolate their children but the administrators of those schools work to achieve the opposite, arranging sports leagues and debate competitions with other schools.
Khan noted that it has been said that Indians live simultaneously in the 13th and 21st century and opined that the challenge is how to be true to your traditions in the current era. Civic engagement within a religious community correlates with civic engagement with the broader community.
Neal Mcclusky observed that there is evidence that private schools do a better job of teaching the civic values we want public schools to teach but that the popular perception is different. He asked how Islamic schools deal with the fear that they may be inculcating extremism or violence. Siddiqui quoted one Islamic school administrator as saying, “We don’t have time to teach extremism.”
Khan reported that some schools are going away from Islamic branding.Â Siddiqui said thatÂ Islamic schools look for ways by which they may be accountable such as tax filings, accreditation and applying for government funding and voucher money. Many schools use the same textbooks as public schools, except for Islamic studies.
I asked whether their systematic research supports my personal anecdotal observation that the Islamic schools tend to increase in diversity as they grow and then split into more homogeneous schools that again diversify as they grow. Siddiqui replied that divisions are more over ideas or personalities than ethnicity.
Siddiqui said that there are Muslim accrediting agencies. He was uncertain as to the fraction of graduates who go on to college and graduate schools, but believes it is the 90% range.
Siddiqui observed that when there is a scandal in the nonprofit sector it affects the whole sector and when there are charges of extremism against an outlier Islamic school, whether true or false, it affects them all. Yet, at the same time the number of allies and defenders against such generalized attacks has grown.
Noting that there are Christian schools that have used controversial books, McClusky asked if there is a benefit to society to including a wide variety of schools in a school choice program. Siddqiui replied that since funding is the number one barrier to Islamic schools, administrators would support school choice. As a participant in two schools that went from pre-choice to a choice situation, he has seen its success as an equalizer. He thinks the UK, Germany, and Belgium allow designation of where some tax dollars (not a lot) can be directed, and argued that we have to trust our country a little more, saying that it was established on a set of ideas, the positive power of market forces among them. He thinks we have enough regulations and civic society oversight to deal with the risks of choice without fearing inclusion of Islamic schools.
Siddiqui noted that there was a big push to establish Muslim charter schools, but he recommends against creating a charter school only as a means of funding because you will face lawsuits if your intention is to preserve Qur’anic Arabic and Islamic studies. However, if, like the Gulen movement, you do not wish to establish an Islamic school but rather to “enhance the society,” then charter schools are appropriate.
Khan acknowledged that there is a definite lack of special needs education. He asked a cab driver how he was able to send three children to Islamic schools and he said they waived 80% of the charges. Once a school reaches a certain maturity it can start to offer such benefits.
Siddiqui noted that by and large Islamic schools are less expensive than secular private schools and more affordable, relying on philanthropy. School choice laws are complicated; vouchers allow you to increase tuition and some programs would prevent discounts to the poor.
Siddiqui reported that no Shia schools responded to the survey. They did not ask questions along ideological lines. There are a small number of schools that break down along those lines. He doubts one could get enough liberals or salafis to make a purely ideological school as they do in England. He joked that you canâ€™t even find another person in the community who likes the same sweetness in his tea as you do.Â Khan explained that the operating definition for the survey was schools that defined themselves as Muslim.
Siddiqui opined that by and large people send their children to Islamic schools do better than those who go to other schools, but that Muslim nonprofit organizations in general have to be better nonprofits. Khan quoted aÂ board member of a mosque and Islamic school in Tennessee who asked, “Why should I file with the IRS when I am only accountable to God?” Siddiqui thinks that he is an outlier.
Khan said that there are schools and mosques challenging the norms of gender segregation. He added that there are enough sources within the tradition to challenge these norms without having to go outside the tradition.
They didnâ€™t study weekend schools, which are products of Islamic centers. Islamic centers are not regulated. In the schools studied, principals and teachers are predominately women. The challenge of gender within the Muslim community exists but the challenge of gender within this country exists. KhanÂ fought for women as an attorney and knows the horror stories; but he said to apply them to all 2,200 of these schools is not justified. Gender inequity is aÂ problem both Muslims and Americans have to solve.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute