I first met Asad Ziman, principal of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, at a meeting of local interfaith dialogue leaders. He is a delightful man: well-spoken, engaging and hilariously quick-witted, with a fine mind and a sophisticated approach to school administration and community leadership. We met for coffee, talked about ways in which our communities might want to work together and about the possibility of studying sacred texts of one another's traditions. I felt great pleasure in getting to know him, as he and I were reaching across the sometimes-uneasy boundary that separates his community and mine. Plus, he is a delightful and fascinating person.
Since those initial encounters, I have sat in many meetings with Asad Ziman, participated in public panel discussions with him, and heard him speak at length about his passionate commitment to maintaining strict compliance with all federal, state and local requirements at the TIZA school.
I can understand that some people with deep feelings about the separation of church and state would be initially suspicious of a charter school serving a predominantly Muslim (or Jewish) population. (When I first heard of a Jewish charter school in Florida, in some ways similar to TIZA, I was concerned.) But knowing TIZA's highly accomplished and conscientious principal, I cannot believe the stories that have been rehearsed in the press. In fact, I do not know how anyone who knows Asad could take seriously the charges that are being made against the school.
I am inclined to believe that what may have begun as a set of legitimate church-state questions has turned into a discriminatory attack on this school, an award-winning and fast-growing institution serving hundreds of Muslim families in the Twin Cities. I find it likely that TIZA has received impossibly intense media scrutiny and negative publicity not because it has been sloppy about church-state mandates but because it serves Muslim students, and we live in a society that is still all too ready to assume the worst of its Muslim citizens and institutions.
The school has been investigated again and again. As is the case with many other charter schools (some of which rent space from Christian churches, just as TIZA rents space from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota), minor violations have been found, and the school has addressed them. But now, a civil suit interferes with the school's ability to do its job, and there is persuasive evidence that the state has acted in a discriminatory way toward the school, requiring that students be retested when test results were surprisingly high, and denying the school access to documents it needed to respond to charges made against it.
I am neither a school administrator nor a constitutional lawyer. But I have followed this story, and this smells like prejudice. Such religious and racial bias has no place in Minnesota.