Editor's Note: Scroll down for the most recent updates to this ongoing blog post.
Of the several problematic Arabic-language schools in the United States, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy stands out as the outstanding example of a taxpayer-funded Islamic school. Not being a traditional public school but a charter school, it has more room to maneuver, but it shows alarming features.
First, its principal, Asad Zaman, is connected to the Muslim American Society, the American branch of the Muslim Brethren, founded in Egypt in 1928 and perhaps the largest, most dangerous Islamist organization in the world.
Second, the three-year old school has a distinctly Islamist tone, as Kevin Featherly reports in a Minnesota Monthly article, "Brothers' Keeper":
a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school. Arabic as a second language is mandatory. Headscarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them. There is a carpeted prayer space in the middle of the building that is similar, Zaman says, to spaces provided by several Minneapolis public schools. And there is the vaguely religious-sounding language used in the school. At one point, a conversation with Zaman is interrupted by the intercom: "Sister Zamia, please call the office. Sister Zamia, 2-2-1." "[Muslims] refer to everyone as a ‘brother' or a ‘sister,' " he explains. "We are all children of Adam."
For more local color, note details in an article, "A Place to Belong," by Tammy J. Oseid, in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press on November 7, 2004:
Boys in uniform khaki pants and girls in headscarves and modest dresses line up neatly to go to Arabic class. The mostly Somali class carefully circumnavigates the carpeted prayer area in the middle of the school as they follow a scarved teacher. Tarek girls aren't required to wear hijab, or headscarves, but almost all do—they say they want to imitate their mothers or teachers. About half of the teaching staff is Muslim and wear hijab; the others are mostly Christian and dress modestly but with uncovered heads. During Ramadan, all the children follow the traditional dawn-to-dark fast, so there's not so much temptation for each child, [parent Eman] Ibrahim said.
Fourth-grader Najma Ahmed says she feels more comfortable at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy than at Highwood Hills in St. Paul, which she attended previously. She always had plenty of Muslim students to pray with there, but she likes that at Tarek almost all of her classmates are Muslim and many of her teachers are, too. …
About 1 p.m. every day, Tarek students stream out of classrooms, clean up in the restrooms, kneel down facing the east and begin to pray. Zaman says he doesn't track students' religion, but almost all children participate in the daily prayer. … The school's calendar and day are set up to accommodate Muslim students. Classes break during the noontime prayer; vacation days are scheduled on Muslim holidays instead of traditionally Christian ones. The cafeteria is free of pork and other foods Islam prohibits.
The name of the school itself is also based in religion. General Tarek ibn Ziyad's bloody battle marked the beginning of the Muslim rule of Spain in the eighth century. He famously burnt the boats his army used to cross the Mediterranean sea.
(March 8, 2007)
June 20, 2007 update: Two specialists on charter schools, Lawrence D. Weinberg and Bruce S. Cooper, note the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy as a pathsetter in terms of bringing religion into charter schools. From their article, "What About Religious Charter Schools?":
What happens when a religious association, such as a Muslim group, opens a new charter school outside Minneapolis supportive of and sensitive to the culture of Islam—its values, beliefs, and leaders—without its being a Muslim religious charter school? How does this school walk the fine line between serving a public purpose (educating children in a sensitive, culturally specific, values-oriented program) and being an Islamic religious school?
The authors answer their own question: "The existence of a religious charter school like the Ziyad Academy could well lead to a string of new religious/cultural charters. Its mission, as stated on the school's Web site, is clear and values-oriented, but not related solely to religion."
Aug. 24, 2007 update: With a reported waiting list of about 1,500 students, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy has decided to expand beyond its Inver Grove Heights base and open a second Arabic-language school on Sept. 4 in Blaine, Minnesota, a northern suburb of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. "Parents in the north suburbs have been watching our progress over the last four years and suggested that we come to their neighborhood," said Asad Zaman, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy's executive director. The Inver Grove Heights school has 375 students in K-8; the Blaine school will serve 75 students K-4 students initially and then add a higher grade each year; it will offer the same program, rules, and curriculum as the Inver Grove Heights original.
Mar. 8, 2008 update: Katherine Kersten, the Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist who has done to much to keep tabs on her city's lively Islamist scene, takes a look at the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy today in "Are taxpayers footing bill for Islamic school in Minnesota?" Although the school's principal, Asad Zaman, would not allow her to visit the school, and responded to neither interview requests nor e-mails seeking written replies, Kersten adds to our knowledge of the academy:
TIZA's strong religious connections date from its founding in 2003. Its co-founders, Zaman and Hesham Hussein, were both imams, or Muslim religious leaders, as well as leaders of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN). Since then, they have played dual roles: Zaman as TIZA's principal and the current vice-president of MAS-MN, and Hussein as TIZA's school board chair and president of MAS-MN until his death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in January. … TIZA shares MAS-MN's headquarters building, along with a mosque. …
In fact, TIZA was originally envisioned as a private Islamic school. In 2001, MAS-MN negotiated to buy the current TIZA/MAS-MN building for Al-Amal School, a private religious institution in Fridley, according to Bruce Rimstad of the Inver Grove Heights School District. But many immigrant families can't afford Al-Amal. In 2002, Islamic Relief—headquartered in California—agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school, TIZA, at the same location.
TIZA claims to be non-sectarian, as Minnesota law requires charters to be. But "after-school Islamic learning" takes place on weekdays in the same building under MAS-MN's auspices, according to the program for MAS-MN's 2007 convention. At that convention, a TIZA representative at the school's booth told me that students go directly to "Islamic studies" classes at 3:30, when TIZA's day ends. There, they learn "Qur'anic recitation, the Sunnah of the Prophet" and other religious subjects, he said. TIZA's 2006 Contract Performance Review Report states that students engage in unspecified "electives" after school or do homework.
Publicly, TIZA emphasizes that it uses standard curricular materials like those found in other public schools. But when addressing Muslim audiences, school officials make the link to Islam clear. At MAS-MN's 2007 convention, for example, the program featured an advertisement for the "Muslim American Society of Minnesota," superimposed on a picture of a mosque. Under the motto "Establishing Islam in Minnesota," it asked: "Did you know that MAS-MN ... houses a full-time elementary school"? On the adjacent page was an application for TIZA.
Not in her article but in a private communication to me, Kersten further explains the importance of the academy-MAS shared building
I spent an hour and a half in the parking lot of the school last Monday[, March 3]. The building is a former elementary school – TIZA's name is on one side and maybe 30-40 feet away is Muslim American Society-Minnesota's name. An aerial photo shows the structure is one building.
I watched parents come in and go out of this building and they did not differentiate between the part ascribed to TIZA and the part ascribed to MAS-MN, i.e., more parents brought kids out of the MAS-MN side than out of the school entrance before 3:30, when the school day supposedly ends. Actually, very few children came out of the building before 4:15, when religious instruction is over. In other words, the students moved from TIZA classes to "Islamic studies" inside the building, and didn't need to exit to get from one side to the other.
No buses (there are apparently 7; I saw 6 that day) leave before 4:30 p.m., though the school day ostensibly ends at 3:30. A bus driver told me that "the students have Islamic studies till 4:15," though some do opt out. I noted that the kids at the Blaine campus also stay until 4:30.
TIZA uses the language of culture rather than religion to describe its program in public documents. According to its mission statement, the school "recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of the eastern world (Africa, Asia and Middle East)." But the line between religion and culture is often blurry. There are strong indications that religion plays a central role at TIZA, which is a public school financed by Minnesota taxpayers. Under the U.S. and state constitutions, a public school can accommodate students' religious beliefs but cannot encourage or endorse religion. TIZA raises troubling issues about taxpayer funding of schools that cross that line.
The school is in huge demand, with a waiting list of 1,500. … TIZA has improved the reading and math performance of its mostly low-income students. That's commendable, but should Minnesota taxpayers be funding an Islamic public school?
Kersten also raises the issue of which Islamic organizations are connected to Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy:
Islamic Relief-USA, the school's sponsor, is compared to the Red Cross in several TIZA documents. In 2006, however, the Israeli government announced that Islamic Relief Worldwide, the organization's parent group, "provides support and assistance" to Hamas, designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, MAS-MN offers on its web site "beneficial and enlightening information" about Islam, which includes statements like "Regularly make the intention to go on jihad with the ambition to die as a martyr."
At its 2007 convention, MAS-MN featured the notorious Shayk Khalid Yasin, who is well-known in Britain and Australia for teaching that husbands can beat disobedient wives, that gays should be executed and that the United States spreads the AIDS virus in Africa through vaccines for tropical diseases. Yasin's topic? "Building a Successful Muslim Community in Minnesota."
Mar. 18, 2008 update: Kersten's article prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota to open its own investigation of the academy. It explains in a letter to the principal, Asad Zaman, its concerns about Establishment Clause violations. At a minimum, the ACLU requests, the school "must discontinue recruiting volunteers for Friday Prayers, and must not be involved in promoting or providing special treatment to groups providing religious instruction after school hours."
Apr. 8, 2008 update: Kersten published the twenty questions she posed to Asad Zaman, TIZA's executive director, followed by his replies.
Apr. 9, 2008 update: Kersten's March 8 article also prompted a substitute teacher, Amanda Getz, who worked in two fifth-grade classrooms at TIZA on March 14, to come forward with her experiences at the school. Her testimony concerns two matters, prayers and Islamic studies. On the first:
Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, she says she was told that the day's schedule included a "school assembly" in the gym after lunch. Before the assembly, she says she was told, her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform "their ritual washing." Afterward, Getz said, "teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap, who had been at the school all day," was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man "was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as the students entered." "The prayer I saw was not voluntary," Getz said. "The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred."
On the second:
Islamic Studies was also incorporated into the school day. "When I arrived, I was told ‘after school we have Islamic Studies,' and I might have to stay for hall duty," Getz said. "The teachers had written assignments on the blackboard for classes like math and social studies. Islamic Studies was the last one—the board said the kids were studying the Qur'an. The students were told to copy it into their planner, along with everything else. That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other."
After school, Getz's fifth-graders stayed in their classroom and the man in white who had led prayer in the gym came in to teach Islamic Studies. TIZA has in effect extended the school day—buses leave only after Islamic Studies is over. Getz did not see evidence of other extra-curricular activity, except for a group of small children playing outside. Significantly, 77 percent of TIZA parents say that their "main reason for choosing TIZA ... was because of after-school programs conducted by various non-profit organizations at the end of the school period in the school building," according to a TIZA report. TIZA may be the only school in Minnesota with this distinction.
Kersten goes on to point out the Minnesota Department of Education's education negligence in allowing this clear breach of use of public monies.
TIZA's operation as a public, taxpayer-funded school is troubling on several fronts. TIZA is skirting the law by operating what is essentially an Islamic school at taxpayer expense. The Department of Education has failed to provide the oversight necessary to catch these illegalities, and appears to lack the tools to do so. In addition, there's a double standard at work here—if TIZA were a Christian school, it would likely be gone in a heartbeat.
She concludes with this warning: "TIZA is now being held up as a national model for a new kind of charter school. If it passes legal muster, Minnesota taxpayers may soon find themselves footing the bill for a separate system of education for Muslims."
In response to the Kersten column, Channel 5 interviewed Getz and TIZA executive director, Azad Zaman. Getz observed: "I've been in a lot of schools and I've never been in a school where they had washing rituals, or they had prayer, or where they had a room where you had to take your shoes off." To with Zaman retorted: "It is most likely that this substitute teacher was sadly mistaken." He also stated that "TIZA does not endorse any religion" and that the school follows state and federal guidelines concerning religion. "We're required under the federal guidelines to allow students to pray when they wish to do so. And as Muslim students, they're allowed to pray around 1:30 p.m., so we allow them to do that."
Also this tidbit uncovered by Channel 5 reporter Beth Jett: Although Minnesota tate law requires schools to fly an American flag during school hours, TIZA flies no flag. Asked about this, Zaman explained that he does not know how to work a flagpole.
Comment: Thanks to Kersten's determined investigation of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, we on the outside know more about it than any other tax-funded American madrassah. This school, rather than the Khalil Gibran International Academy, about which we know so little, should be the one at the focus of a national debate.
Apr. 10, 2008 update: That tidbit about the flag had immediate consequences – leading to an American flag flying over the school a day later, and for the first time since TIZA opened doors in 2003. This occurred despite the school's lawyers insisting that a charter school need not fly the flag. A school attorney also admitted that staff and parents had a difficult time of it after the Kersten column, as outraged citizens around the country flooded the school with messages of anger.
Apr. 12, 2008 update: Thanks to the blogosphere, the Kersten article of April 9 has received close to a million hits – and a good number of readers have contacted TIZA to express their unhappiness. Zaman reports that the school has received harassing and threatening calls and the police are adding extra patrols in its area. We also learn that TIZA is projected to receive $3.8 million for the 2007-08 school year.
Apr. 14, 2008 update: The Council on American-Islamic Relations wants the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get involved, to investigate whether reported threats against TIZA are hate crimes.
Apr. 17, 2008 update: "These vile and vicious attacks on us have resulted in death threats against my students, myself and my family," says Asad Zaman. To which Katherine Kersten replies that while threats are "repellant," they should not "distract attraction from the central issue here, and that is, whether this publicly-financed school is skirting or breaking the law that all others must observe when it comes to religious endorsement. If this were a bunch of Baptists or Catholics with the kids being led to the rosary on Mondays through Thursday and led to Mass on Fridays there wouldn't be any question that this is crossing the line." said Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist.
As for Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, she has issued a statement that "We take seriously the concerns raised regarding Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy and are conducting an appropriate review."
May 19, 2008 update: Two major developments took place today.
(1) The Minnesota Department of Education sent TIZA a 5-page letter and 4-page "findings report" concerning the school's Islamic nature. While the department found "most of TiZA's operations … in compliance" with state and federal laws, the department "did identify items of concern" and "directs TiZA to promptly take appropriate steps to address these issues." Those items of concern are: Friday communal prayer and student transportation at the end of the day.
(2) To report on the MDE letter and report, television station KSTP sent a Channel 5 Eyewitness News team to TIZA, where it met a hostile and even violent reception.
In an attempt to report about the new findings from the Department of Education, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS went to TiZA. While on school grounds, our crew was attacked by school officials. Our photographer was injured while wrestling with the two men over the camera. Our photographer was examined by paramedics and suffered minor shoulder and back injuries.
May 21, 2008 update: According to a transcript provided by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ahmed Rehab of CAIR's Chicago office appeared on Fox News and defended TIZA's violations as minor or even trivial:
there's really no controversy here whatsoever. You guys are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Basically, there were allegations leveled against the school. There was a pending investigation by a neutral entity, and objective entity. That the investigative team by the State Department of Education. And the results of that investigation found only two minor violations, nothing major, nothing of the sort that was described in the segment. And so there is no problem. … there is no issue here.
Even more audacious was Rehab's defense of the man-handling of the KSTP news team. Here is his back-and-forth with host Laura Ingraham:
REHAB: … in regards to the so-called interview that they tried to carry with the school on the grounds, the camera attacked the grounds without further notification or prior notification. I think it is basic journalistic ethics.
INGRAHAM: Wrestling the cameraman to the ground. He had to get medical help.
REHAB: You don't film students in a playground, Laura. And you know that very well...
INGRAHAM: Well, two imams found this...
REHAB: ...you have admissions from the school or from the parents.
INGRAHAM: Yes, well, I mean...
REHAB: OK, and so they were trespassing. What do you do with trespassers? You hand them a bouquet of roses. They were trespassing on private ground.
INGRAHAM: Well, this was a charter school and funded by the taxpayers. So this is not private property. That's the big problem here.
REHAB: And it won an award for its management.
INGRAHAM: Taxpayers pay for it.