The Model School, Islamic Style

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GRADE TWO: Noor Shalabi's class learns all the basics, but takes a break once a day to focus on their prayers

The boys, with some affection, call their school "the box." It is an acknowledgment that their modern, gray concrete building with 36 classrooms and a basketball court is both protection and containment. Outside the box, says senior Ali Fadhli, there are "problems." He means temptation — and bigotry. The temptation is sex and the way the culture outside the box is saturated with it. "That's why Islam has repentance," he says with a laugh. The bigotry is from fellow American citizens who the students believe are watching them with suspicion. Since 9/11, "there's been extra pressure on them," says Hanan Abdallah, their assistant principal. "Anytime they're out, whatever they say counts 110%. They are young adults at an earlier age."

The place that's preparing these young Americans for life in their own country, "from crayons to college," as its slogan promises, is the Universal School, an Islamic institution teaching 638 students in pre-K through 12th grades in Bridgeview, Ill. The suburb, 16 miles southwest of Chicago's downtown Loop, lies in the heart of one of the U.S.'s largest Arab communities, where an estimated 25,000 Islamic residents pursue an uneasy assimilation into secular, suburban life. The school's goal is to give its students such a solid grounding in their religion and education that they will be able to go forth and succeed in mainstream American life without compromising their values. "Proud to be Muslim, proud to be American," says Safaa Zarzour, vice chairman of the school's board and its former principal.

Universal takes pride in the fact that it is a model Islamic school. "Being a Muslim is synonymous with excellence in every area," its parent-and-student handbook says. Day-to-day life as a model student, however, has been an "edgier" balancing act ever since 9/11, says Zarzour. "Our acceptance as Americans is on far shakier ground." Last year, after a student's picture appeared in a local newspaper as the winner of a regional spelling bee, the school received a series of bomb threats. Meanwhile, from inside the box looking out, fear and anger have grown among many students, teachers and parents as the Iraq war and the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners have provided further reminders of the conflict between cultures. "We never looked at it as Americans doing something to Muslims, but rather, how can Americans do something like that to anybody?" says Abdallah. While the moderate Islamic community's typical response is to take a low profile, the Universal School gave Time an unusual degree of access for a look inside a community searching for its identity. "We're telling our kids they're American," says Farhat Siddiqui, Universal's principal. "But the doors of opportunity have been shut since 9/11. What's the password to open them?"

The roots of Universal School go back to the arrival of a wave of new Muslim residents in the southwest Chicago suburbs during the 1970s and '80s. Many were Palestinian immigrants who had fled the violence and lack of economic opportunity in their homeland. Busy pursuing the American Dream, they assumed Islam could be passed on to their children around the dinner table. What began to show up at mealtime instead was dyed-green hair and requests to start dating, like the other kids in the public schools. The Islamic students faced discrimination as well, to which they responded with a different but just as American idea: forming gangs. "Tap boys," they were called, which stood for Tall Arab Posses. "The parents realized their children were drifting from what was holy and valuable to them," says Zarzour. "They were getting involved with everything from drugs to Halloween."

Organized by community leaders and built with donations from Muslims across the U.S. and a loan from the Islamic Development Bank, Universal opened its doors in 1990. Since then it has become a fully accredited institution, with 95% of its graduates going on to college. The growing sense of harmony was abruptly reversed on the morning of 9/11. After a frightened parent called the school, a classroom TV was wheeled into vice chairman Zarzour's office, where he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "As soon as the terrorism speculation started," says Zarzour, "the parents came and took their kids home. The head of the FBI came out from Chicago. The mayor and police chief of Bridgeview stopped by. After all the kids had gone, I sent the staff home."

Prompted by anti-Muslim demonstrators marching toward Bridgeview from a neighboring suburb, local police secured the area around the school and the mosque next door, manning the barricades for three days. "That day changed my life," says Zarzour, an immigrant from Syria. "Up until that time, Arab-American Muslims were the new kids on the block, going through the same adjustment as the Jews, the Irish and the Hispanics before us. A little discrimination was part of the process of integration. Now people don't think there is any such thing as a good Muslim."

What's being taught to children inside the Universal School, however, is based on a moderate philosophy that puts an emphasis on assimilation "to prepare them for their future roles in society as responsible citizens," says the handbook. (Tuition ranges from $4,500 to $4,900.) The school has a mainstream curriculum and a wholesome range of activities: school newspaper, science-fair club, volleyball, math league, spelling bees. The boys'varsity basketball team won the championship trophy in the Chicago Unity league, an interfaith conference. Students take part in community-service outings with other private schools, bag food twice a month for two homeless shelters in Chicago's inner city and work as volunteer nurse's aides at the local hospital.

Principal Siddiqui, 35, a mother of three whose parents came from India, contends that the strain of Islam taught at Universal is one that is free of provincial baggage. Certain features of regional Islam — arranged marriages, a ban on women driving — are not part of the program here. "It's a constant battle, separating cultural issues from religious values," says Siddiqui. The school does teach how to avoid being seduced by those parts of American culture many parents consider un-Islamic. "What we're up against in movies, television and music," she says, "is profanity, sex and violence. The whole teenage phenomenon in the U.S. is one of personal power — claiming their own voice, their own soul, their own spirit. We don't want to crush that. We want to guide it."

The first order of business is removing temptation. The codes of dress and behavior are strict. Students must have regular haircuts ("no bleaching or 'off' colors are allowed"). Students must wear socks and closed-toe shoes. Boys cannot wear earrings or have any body piercing. Students may not wear makeup during school. Through Grade 5, the girls wear plaid jumpers and leggings, but the head scarf called a hijab is optional; the boys wear navy dress pants and light blue shirts. Older girls must wear the hijab (light blue for middle schoolers, gray or white for high schoolers) and a calf-length navy top that resembles a raincoat. Wearing the hijab full-time is a big commitment, so some girls take it off as soon as they leave the building. Freshman Sarah Martini says, "I'm not ready to wear it yet. It has to come from the heart." Girls are separated from boys from sixth grade through tenth grade. As juniors and seniors, they mix again, although the sexes sit separately in the classroom. Casual conversation between girls and boys is discouraged at all times. Cell phones and iPods are banned, but the principal is realistic about it. "If I did a locker check," says Siddiqui, "I know what I'd find. So I don't. Better cell phones than drugs."

The second order of business is creating what Universal calls an "Islamic environment." The Koran and the sayings of Muhammad are taught two days a week, Arabic three days a week. Grades 2 to 12 break for prayer once a day. Beyond Scripture, a Muslim approach influences the traditional curriculum as well. When teacher Fuzia Jarad's English class read Romeo and Juliet, the girls wanted to know, "Is it love at first sight?" "Yes," the teacher answered. "As Muslims, we don't do that. The difference is lust versus love; appearance versus knowing. Islam protects you from mistakes." For assistant principal Abdallah, who is in charge of discipline, love is a big issue. "I've had students come to me and say, �So and so are in love. Everyone is gossiping about the girl. Her reputation is ruined.'I tell them, �If you care, show respect and stop the discussions.' Sometimes a girl or boy will tell me about a love letter they've received. It's always a letter. They can't socialize. They don't want the letter. They don't want to get in trouble. The feelings for each other are natural. Islam gives us a way to approach those feelings. Choose your spouse, but don't give your body or soul to someone until you're married."

What's central to the environment is a sense of Muslim family values. That's why Mohammad (Mo) Suleiman sent his daughter Samia, 18, to Universal. "Family means the older have mercy on the younger," says Suleiman, "and the younger respect the older." The students seem to make an effort, but cultural isolation is impossible. "My dad will hear the word love when I play my music, and he'll say that's against our religion," says freshman Ryan Ahmad. "So I'll stop for a week. But then one of my friends will start singing some lyric, and I start up again." When freshman Gulrana Syed watches TV, she tries to stick with family shows but gives in to the temptation to watch Fear Factor. "If swearing starts," she says, "I turn it off and hope God forgives me."

Though the school and the parents want their kids to be successful in America, the ambivalence of many Islamic parents sends mixed signals. The pull of their home country is a constant distraction from fitting into this one. "They are obsessed with foreign politics," says Steve Landek, who has been mayor of Bridgeview since 1999. "I come to talk to them about better sidewalks. They want to know how to run for Congress so they can change America's Israeli policy." Clearly respectful, however, of the economic and cultural contributions of Muslims to the community, he regrets to say 9/11 has set them back. "I still hear comments. I'm not going to repeat them. I'm not going to perpetuate the negative."

Some families have tried to turn back history. Martini's parents are Syrian, her father a doctor who finished his medical degree in the U.S. After 9/11, the Martini family went to the United Arab Emirates. "We weren't welcome here as Muslims," she says. "And my parents wanted my brother and me to experience an Arab culture." The experiment lasted only a year. "It was not as Muslim a country as we thought," says Martini. "There's lots of Western influence. And we missed our relatives here."

The Universal School makes clear its independence from the controversial institution right next door, the copper-domed Bridgeview mosque. Built a decade before the school, the mosque was started by moderates but then saw a power struggle in which hard-liners came out on top. Among its leaders, said the Chicago Tribune in an investigative report, "are men who have condemned Western culture ... and encouraged members to view society in stark terms: Muslims against the world." Last year a member of the mosque was indicted for allegedly funneling money, before 9/11, to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group.

The students next door sometimes give voice to the commonplace resentment that can be found among Muslims the world over. Assigned by his English teacher to write an essay about his own American Dream, a 15-year-old wrote that the occupied territories should be returned to the Palestinians and "the Jews should be left to suffer." More often, however, Universal's students feel resentment about being stereotyped, both in the media and on the streets. To senior Ali Fadhli, the Fox TV show 24, which had a plot this season about a Muslim terrorist cell, is "obnoxious," he says. "America has moved on to a new enemy. We're treated now like the Russians were during the Cold War." Being teenagers though, perhaps the worst slight of all is being regarded as outsiders. "The students are aware," says Dalila Benameur, head of the social studies department, "that they are perceived as different." Says freshman Gulrana Syed: "It's kind of impossible to blend in wearing a head scarf." Student Ryan Ahmad, whose dad is his toughest music critic, admits, "Americans seem to have more fun. Muslims try to be American, but we don't know how. The cultures are so different." A sense that U.S. life has its own contradictions provides some perspective. Senior Muna Zughayer, noting the use of women as sex objects, says, "I think it's funny people look at us and say we're oppressed!"

Vice chairman Zarzour has become more hopeful as time has passed since 9/11, believing that "it will be harder and take longer, but integration is possible. Unless ..." He trails off, reluctant to say what he fears: unless there is another attack on the U.S. "What will happen to us and our children?" he asks. "Internment?"