Islamic Education in the Current Social & Political Climate; Speech from the ISNA 2017 West Coast Educational Forum’s Opening Ceremony

Bismillah Al-Rahman Ar-Raheem wa Salatu wal Salamu 3la Rasulluah

As-salamu ‘alaykum

It is truly an honor to be here this morning alongside, not simply fellow educators, but individuals who have made it their life’s work to preserve the sanctity of the open-mind,, to protect and raise the most vulnerable and cherished element of society – our children.

Speaking here today is especially humbling considering the critical time in which we now find ourselves. While I was gathering my thoughts, I found myself retracing the path of Islamic Education, marking the areas of growth. It is essential that as we move forward and are possibly forced to react to a reality that we had not envisioned, that we don’t inadvertently find ourselves regressing, rather than progressing.

Through the years, the lines defining the role of the educator have been redrawn numerous times. The lines have blurred into those of parents, counselors, coaches, nurses, and social workers. We have learned about food allergies, attention deficit disorders, anxiety disorders, parental abuse, autism, how to recognize drug use, and perform CPR. Through it all, educators nation-wide have demanded and received training so that they became better prepared to respond to the issues facing their students. Schools were safe places where educators needed to be able to recognize, report, and respond to the challenges created by the outside world.

Today, we face a different kind of challenge, one that, if I were to be honest, often sends a cold chill down my spine. Teachers now find themselves being trained to “Run, Hide, and Defend” in the case of active shooters, how to barricade in the case of intruders, and other related defense roles. We now train as guards, as first responders.

This is not an entirely new role for Islamic school educators. Those brave, inspired souls who dreamt up and then established our first schools saw, fundamentally, the need to provide a protective environment to help our young Muslims establish their identities. Our communities worked hard to ensure that our most vulnerable had protective walls and curricula that embraced our Islamic teachings. Some time passed before we came to realize that the protection we envisioned, the isolation we imposed upon ourselves, did not protect our children from the realities of society – not alcohol, drugs, or even bullying.

Early graduates of Islamic schools entered into prestigious universities sometimes unable to connect to the wider student body, taking refuge in their local MSAs. Inadvertently, we robbed our students of the deeper understanding that comes from exposure to a rich and diverse environment and deprived society of the opportunity to interact with us. We may have adopted a street and maintained it religiously, but we failed to make connections on the individual level. Today, we have “Meet a Muslim” events, because tragically, many Americans have not met us, their neighbors.

We adapted to this reality and have slowly reached out and learned from our neighborhood schools and programs how to educate our students about these challenges, arming them to make good decisions rather than relying on the fleeting protection of ignorance. Communities debated and considered and finally, Islamic schools began offering programs such as DARE to educate about drugs and alcohol abuse and Project Cornerstone to combat bullying in our schools. We began affiliating with public and other private schools, and as a result found commonalities and built bridges. I have seen invaluable exchanges such as Islamic schools hosting students from non-religious private schools at their monthly values assembly and sending their students to robotics and Model United Nations trainings at the partner school.

We now know the immense value of holistic education. We recognize the growth that happens when our children connect to the community and the natural world, and are afforded the opportunity to practice our Islamic, humanitarian values rather than simply learn about them in theory.

And just when we thought that our biggest problem was our Boards of Directors, the 2016 elections happened.

As a result, the holist education that has served our students so well is at risk. It would be very easy to return back to the original concept of protection upon which our Islamic schools were first founded and the isolation that comes with it. As we install security cameras, hire armed guards, and run background checks, it would be very easy to rebuild those invisible walls that surrounded our first schools.
In taking the easy path, we would ignore the reality that isolation hurts our children, limits their understanding of Islam, and their growth as individuals.

We can consider that today’s social and political climates threaten our ambitions for our children, or we can consider them an opportunity to cement those bridges, to strengthen our students, to do what we do – educate. Of course, it is essential to do what we can to become protectors for our young charges, but the best protection that we can offer is to strengthen their relationship with Allah (swt) and their desire to serve humanity.