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The Color of Islamic Education: Rising Above Racism

Omaira Alam –

Almost 20 years ago, I worked at my first Islamic school as your typical overworked, underpaid and starry-eyed novice Islamic school teacher. In addition to the myriad of courses that I taught, I also designed a modified community service element where juniors were paired with freshmen as a tutoring team.

One freshman, a Somali girl, remarked how her math teacher always overlooked her. Initially she didn’t think much of it, because she didn’t usually know the answer, she said, but after a couple of months of tutoring she gained the confidence to raise her hand and answer in class. After still being continuously overlooked – many times her hand being the only one raised – her tutor asked the teacher why. The teacher, a South Asian lady, responded, “She will never know the right answer, so there is no point in wasting everyone’s time.”

I confronted the teacher after the freshman student approached me with tears in her eyes. Her answer: “Because she’s black.”

I was furious, and worked as best as I could to change her attitude and that of other teachers like her.

Last year, a group known as Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative did a survey stating that “59% [of Muslim respondents] reported experiences of ethnic or racial discrimination from other Muslims.”

In Islamic schools we focus on the teachings of one of the most diverse religions in the world. Islam as a faith, and Islamic education at its foundation, is defined by the principles of open-mindedness and inclusion, yet internal racism is rarely addressed.

At an Islamic education conference a few years ago, there were no African Americans present even though the local area is known for its large number of Clara Muhammad schools.

A communal responsibility

While our faith encourages love and support of Prophet Muhammad’s beloved companion Bilal, and although it’s been more than 50 years since Brown vs. Board of Education, our Islamic schools and our communities remain segregated based on ethnicity and socioeconomic status. There are number of Islamic schools in urban centers where the students live in poverty, and where teachers struggle to make ends meet and live off of food stamps. It is our communal responsibility to focus on these communities and schools through funds and resources, and not just the ones in which we’re comfortable and familiar.

The color of our students’ skin does not determine the intention, piety, intellect, ability or the potential of the student. While the greater society struggles with the issues of racism, our Islamic schools need to set the example of openness, inclusivity and spirituality that is reflective of the diversity of Islam and aspires towards authentic Islamic education.

How many Islamic schools relegate black history to one month out of the year and continuously fail to harness the richness of the African American Muslim experience? When students call each other “abeed” or “kallu” or worse, what are we doing to stop it, or are we?

As Islamic school educators, when we teach our students to loudly affirm that #blacklivesmatter, we do not negate the rest of the community; we simply ensure that all of the community is acknowledged, appreciated and welcomed.

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