At what point does a publicly funded charter school with strong Islamic ties cross the line and inappropriately promote religion?
That's a question now facing us in Minnesota. For the past five years, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., has operated in close connection with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The school accepts public funds, and thus the broader constitutional requirements placed on all public schools. Nonetheless, in many ways it behaves like a religious school.
The school is named for the Muslim general who conquered Spain in the eighth century. It shares a building with a mosque and the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The cafeteria serves Halal food. Arabic is a required subject. There is a break for midday prayers.
On Fridays, many students join with Muslim teachers and attend religious services in the school's gym. There are voluntary Islamic Studies classes held "after" school, but before the buses leave to take the school's 400 students home. Most of the students are the children of low-income Muslim immigrants.
In March, substitute teacher Amanda Getz happened to be at the school on a Friday. She has said publicly that she was instructed to take her fifth-grade students to the bathroom for "ritual washing" and then to the gym for a prayer service. In the classroom where she assisted, an Islamic Studies assignment was written on the blackboard. Students were told to copy it into their planners. "That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other," she said afterward.
Since starting the school five years ago, Asad Zaman and co-founder Hesham Hussein – both imams – have held top positions with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and also with the school. The Muslim American Society, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, is the American branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood, "the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group."
Mr. Zaman is the school's principal, and Mr. Hussein was chairman of its governing board until he was killed in a car crash in Saudi Arabia in January. In 2004, Mr. Zaman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that when students have family problems, he can call on a "network" of imams for help. "Children feel comfortable here asking questions about their own religion," a teacher told a reporter at the time.
If the school is promoting Islam, it would be in keeping with the mission of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. Last year, the society featured Shaykh Khalid Yasin at its annual convention. Mr. Yasin is well-known for preaching that husbands can beat disobedient wives, among other inflammatory messages. When he spoke at the society's convention, his topic was "Building a Successful Muslim Community in Minnesota." And until I wrote about the issue in my column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in March and April, the society also had "beneficial and enlightening information" about Islam on its Web site, including "Regularly make the intention to go on jihad with the ambition to die as a martyr."
I've written just two columns critical of the school for the Star Tribune. But that was enough for State Rep. Mindy Greiling, the chairman of the Minnesota House of Representatives' K-12 Finance Committee, to publicly call for me to be fired from the newspaper.
After my columns appeared, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union began an investigation, which is still underway. The Minnesota Department of Education also investigated. Its report, released last month, concluded that the school is breaking the law by holding Friday religious services on school grounds; that it should stop Muslim teachers' practice of praying with students at that service; and that it must provide bus transportation home before Islamic Studies classes let out.
But the report was flawed in important respects. Most significantly, it was silent about the school's close entanglement with the religious organization with which it is affiliated.
It's a safe bet that if the school in question here were essentially a Catholic school, this wouldn't be a debate. Imagine a public charter located in the headquarters building of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Its principal is a priest and its board chairman is the archbishop. Catholic students there "are comfortable asking questions about their own religion." Latin is required, and the cafeteria serves fish during Lent. Students break for prayer and attend Mass during the school day, and buses leave only when after-school Catholic Catechism classes are over. Such a school would never open.
But with Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy we have something different. It's held up as a model, "religiously sensitive" public school. It is justified in terms of culture and "religious accommodation."
Minnesota education officials need both the backbone and the oversight tools necessary to prevent the blurring of lines between Islam and the public schools. If they continue their tepid response, a separate system of taxpayer-financed education for Muslims may take root here. Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy could be the first of many.
Ms. Kersten is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.