Getting involved in the public school system is a religious obligation! |

Getting involved in the public school system is a religious obligation!

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

(First Amendment, United States Constitution).

Shabbir Mansuri says getting involved in the public school system is a “religious obligation” for Muslims.

“Meaning that Allah in my humble understanding will ask me that I have given you so much and what did you do with all of that?” explains the founding director of the Fountain Valley, California-based Council on Islamic Education.

“He gave me the freedom of expression, freedom to practice my religion, having access to information. All of these are gifts of Allah to us. My saying [it is a] religious obligation [to attend] a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meeting and the school board meeting [is] because these are the avenues whereby I can have some say where my child's educational future will be decided upon.”

“What happens is my lack of participation perhaps will be reason for the [public school] system not to respond to the special needs of my child and then of course I am to be blamed for it,” he adds.

Religious freedom in public schools is guaranteed to students in the United States. However, providing religious accommodation must be done without preaching the superiority of one religion or the other. The separation between church and state in the U.S. means strictly maintaining a secular public school system.

The Nashville, Tennessee-based The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center points out “public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The same is true in Canada. Faisal Kutty, a lawyer with the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association notes that “under the various [Canadian] provincial codes there's a duty to accommodate reasonably that's supposed to be an objective test.”

“[But] because it's a secular system, they can't encourage one religion or preach but they should make it easy to practice their [students'] faith, that duty is imposed on them.”

“[The Canadian] Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] applies to any government body,” he says. “Schools are government [bodies] so they are covered by the Charter.” This means they must allow freedom of religion and they cannot stop people from practicing religion.

Not only do Muslims have the freedom to practice within “reasonable limits”. They are also encouraged to be actively involved.

Involvement as a parent

Parents are the most influential people in the public school system.

“The system is set up in such a way that one entity that has more power than anyone else, including the principal of the district, is the parent. The parent has more right than anyone else, period,” says Mansuri. “Knowing that gives me the confidence to certainly bring my input into the process.”

The means to involvement are primarily through Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and school boards.

PTAs usually meet on a regular basis to discuss issues pertaining to their individual school. School boards, on the other hand, are responsible for schools in a given district.

Participation in school boards or their meetings give Muslim parents the opportunity to influence and represent the needs of Muslim kids in more schools.

“Parents can participate in the election of the school board members, and so by having potential candidates, I as a parent can set up a meeting with my community of the potential candidates who are running for office,” says Mansuri.

As a student

Students would have the right to assemble peacefully, or establish a Muslim Students' Association, for instance, and they would also be allowed to get a prayer room as well as make arrangements for Juma.

Students can make demands that are within reasonable limits, which do not infringe on others' rights.

What often helps in making requests for accommodation, Kutty notes, is having the support of a teacher. If there is a Muslim parent in the school's PTA or in the school board, that person's support should also be solicited.

Students should approach the principal diplomatically and politely, with no rudeness or aggressiveness. Such an approach would be counterproductive.

As a public school teacher

Muslim public school teachers can have a more difficult time getting involved in seeking accommodation and representation for Muslims in the system.

This is because they are often perceived to be the “guardians” of the secular system, and their involvement may be seen as infringing on this duty.

Khadija Haffajee is a retired teacher from Ottawa-Careleton public school system. During her teaching years, she established a Ramadan program for Muslim students at her school, where they would spend lunch hour in the library and recite Quran to her. In the last ten days of Ramadan, she would present Tafseer.

Haffajee says the school principal came to talk to her about the program, explaining that the school's staff had complained she was teaching religion in the school. She noted the Ramadan program was not being imposed on everyone, and it was open, there was no force involved. Nor did she deprive the students from spending part of their lunch hour on the playground to get some fresh air, instead of in the school.

Haffajee notes that Muslim public school teachers can help Muslim students as well simply by being good role models.

“Just be, quietly who you are and gently say you're particular views on things,” she says, noting that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) always led by example.

She adds that when Muslim children see teachers who are Muslim in their public school, this also teaches them that Muslims can and are in authority positions. Normally, they see only non-Muslims. The Muslim presence builds their confidence.

“They can identify that there is someone here in a position of authority and they can identify with this person,” she says.

A Muslim public school teacher can also build a Muslim child's self-esteem.

Haffajee recounts the case of one Muslim boy in her school who was a refugee from Afghanistan. He knew no English. But he was part of her Ramadan program.

The first day he attended, he recited all of Sura Rahman from the Quran beautifully. She discovered, by speaking through his translator, that he had learned how to read from Shaykhs in Afghanistan.

“His [the boy's] homeroom teacher at one point would say, ‘Oh these dumb kids who don't know English',” recalls Haffajee. “After I heard this, I went to this teacher and said I would like to take your class (teach for him). I could do that because I was the teacher librarian. And I also said I want you to be in the class.”

She started off that class explaining what Ramadan was. Then she asked the Afghani boy to recite Quran. The students were in shock.

“Their mouths kind of dropped, they were stunned,” says Haffajee. “What is this?”

When he finished, she says they were all “wowed”. Haffajee explained to the class that what he recited was in a language not his own.

“I want you to know none of you can do this because its the effort that's required. I don't want you to ever say he is dumb or stupid,” Haffajee told the class. “The teacher was silent because I think he was taken aback.”

“I think it was kind of a turning point for the refugee student,” she notes.

“For me, having Muslim teachers in a public system is crucial because there are many many parents who would never send their children to Islamic school. It means their children lose out,” says Haffajee.

Photo Attribution:  Beth Rankin  -

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