Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.
MUSLIM PRAYER IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
By Mandy Sadler, Andrew Roussos, Faith Schneider, and Krystole White
What is Islam?
The 9/11 attack on America changed a lot of things for the Muslim community, especially American-Muslims. Many forget that there were American-Muslims in the casualties of the tragedy. Edward Curtis says in his work Muslims in America, that for many American-Muslims, “the attacks inspired national solidarity in the face of fear and insecurity (167).” Muslims were quick to denounce the terrorist acts and support the victims. After the attacks there were many Muslim organized anti-terrorism movements and many Muslim people opened their doors and gave fellow Americans information sessions on Islam to show how peaceful it was. In addition, American-Muslim communities raised many donations for the victims of 9/11.
Still Muslims were worried that their whole religion would be blamed for the few radical terrorists associated with it. Their worries were not unfounded. Many Muslims were the targets of angry Americans looking for revenge. Some non-Muslims were even targeted just because they looked like what Americans think of as stereotypical Muslims. Curtis writes that, “as many as seven people, including an Arab American Christian, were murdered in revenge for 9/11 (200).” Now even though it has been established that the Nation of Islam and the Muslim religion is as peaceful as any other, people still carry these unfavorable stereotypes. Because of these misunderstandings, many American-Muslims have had to face numerous obstacles as practicing Muslims in America.
So if the stereotypes are wrong, what exactly is Islam? Islam is an Abrahamic religion, as are Judaism and Christianity. All three of these religions believe in the monotheistic God and all trace their origins back to Abraham and his religious affiliation. The Muslim religion is based on the Qur’an, which is a divine message revealed to the prophet Muhammad by an angel. After his death, the Muslim community split into two different sects; the Sunni and the Shi’i. Though the sects are different they still share some essentials, such as the pillars of Islam. There are five pillars of Islam, one of which is prayer, or Salat. According to the Qu’ran, this means praying five times a day, at specified times. Muslim worship is held at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. For Muslims, this is a natural part of the rhythm of the day and that rhythm is essential. In fact, many Muslims see the time of day the prayers are held to be almost as important as the prayers themselves. Keeping that in mind, let’s introduce the current issue of American-Muslims and their battle with the right to pray in public schools.
What is the issue?
Now that we understand a little more about Muslims it will be easier to discuss the issue of Muslim prayer in public schools. Muslims want the ability to pray, like their religion requires, while attending a public secular-based school. The reason for their request like mentioned earlier is that one of the most vital of the five pillars is Salat. It is because of Salat, which instructs Muslims to observe five time specified prayer rituals a day, that many Muslim students feel it is essential for them to have the ability to pray during school time. It is a custom to pray regardless of the location, as long as you face Mecca, and is viewed as a symbol of dedication to Allah and Muhammad. The prayer is a major part of connecting and communicating with Allah. Without prayer there is no connection between Allah and the practicing Muslims. For this reason, prayer is very important to the Muslim culture and is instilled into the Muslim mind at a very young age. Altering the time of prayer for school could affect the next generation’s view of what is essential to Islam causing change within the religion. Also, if students are singled out in class it might steer them away from the religion as well, to avoid bullying and other forms of discrimination. Therefore, American-Muslim parents seek a safe environment for their children to practice their religion in.
The First Amendment in the United States Constitution states that any student has the right to freedom of speech as well as religious freedom. Being religious is not seen as the problem, but rather the issue is with keeping a separation of church and state. American-Muslims, like other religious Americans, want to be able to have the same freedom of religion promised in the Constitution extended to the school systems. Still because of the issue of separation of church and state they have come up against problems with this. Yet the religious restrictions Muslims have with prayer time make this separation more of an issue for them than some other religions.
American-Muslims only want their right to exercise religious freedom in the public school sphere. They do not need to have their religion promoted or favored, they just need a solution where they can practice Islam in a way that suits their religious needs. With this in mind we might ask ourselves this, what is to come if we allow Muslims to pray in school and should we let them?
What is the Opposition?
Some say no, we should not allow American-Muslims the right to pray in public schools. While accommodating Muslim prayer time within the American school system might seem a reasonable expectation to some, there are those that would argue this violates their right to an education that does not endorse a specific religion. By allowing American-Muslims prayer time in addition to other components of their worship, one could make the case that other religions are not given the same type of “special treatment.” Pamela Geller’s blog gives an insight into what some conservative Christians are saying concerning the American-Muslim prayer in public school issue. In one of her posts entitled “Mosqueing the Public School,” she argues that there is an effort being made to “islamize” schools. It could appear as though a special effort is being made to integrate Islamic law into the public space. For example, the University of Dearborn intends to construct footbaths, while other public schools and universities provide prayer time and space for the adherents of this religion.
So what designates something as a reasonable accommodation? The issue has become more complex than just the question of rights to religious freedom. Many argue their rights are being violated by the allowances being made for American-Muslims. However, those in opposition might consider that they are not being forced to practice Islam and by denying American-Muslims these accommodations, the American-Muslim rights are also violated. The Minnesota Independent and USA Today have both run stories involving this conflict. In addition, the ACLU, who has a history of suing institutions they feel go beyond respecting an ideology are currently supporting this type of allowance.
Why they should be allowed to Pray
If institutions that are usually opposed to these types of allowances are okay with it, then why shouldn’t we be? The freedom to chose and practice any religion we want, as Americans, is a right embedded in one of the most important documents in our nation’s history. The first amendment of The Bill of Rights states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This has been a very significant statement for many Americans since its creation of this amendment in 1789. Immigrants still flock to the United States for this very reason. For the right to chose and exercise their religion no matter what it is. The recent issue of banning Muslim children from praying in schools is a clear violation of this Amendment.
The official stance of public schools on prayer was created in the Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale (1962). The ruling of the court was that public schools cannot sponsor religious activity. This verdict has no effect on the right for children to practice their religion as individuals in public schools. So children still maintain “the right to pray on their own.” A Christian student is allowed to fold their hands and silently pray anytime they like, so then there should be no reason a Muslim student should be denied their right to pray. Yes, Muslim prayer is more involved than in Christianity but according to Principal Cheryl J. Logan of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, Maryland although “public schools are not religious… [they are] legally allowed to accommodate students to practice their religion in some ways.” If the legality of accommodating students to practice their religion is no longer under question then why do American-Muslim children still get denied this right? As stated in the previous paragraph, schools cannot sponsor religious activity. If a school denies the right for one religious group to practice and is indifferent of the actions of other groups, isn’t that the same as sponsoring those other groups? The actions of public schools must be equal for all religions. Realistically it is impossible to take religion out of public schools completely, so shouldn’t the role of the school then be to make sure that each religion is equally represented? American-Muslims are not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment in the act of freely practicing what they believe in, just like everyone else.