everal related questions underpin much of the discussion about the growing presence of Muslim immigrants and their children in the United States. Will these immigrants and their children become loyal Americans? Will they instead emerge as a permanently disloyal opposition and a potential source of jihadist attacks? Or, in a question that assumes what could be called the liberal version of this concern: Should they be required to adopt a radically liberalized version of Islam in order to conform to the norms of the host society? Is Islam incompatible with democracy?
Our Boston University team has focused on one facet of the question: Islamic secondary schools. We have done this as part of a broader study of American schooling. The study was designed by sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia to explore “the relationship between schooling and the formation of moral sensibilities and habits among the young.” For our part of this study, my graduate students—three of whom are Muslim—and I visited seven schools in different regions of the country. These represent about one in four Islamic high schools in the United States. (The great majority of the three hundred or so private Islamic schools, serving about 32,000 students, are elementary grades.) We interviewed students, staff, and parents and observed daily practices in classrooms and beyond.
Muslim teenagers we talked with were busy developing their relationship with Islam while also accommodating it to American society and culture. School staff, we found, were by and large concerned to advance this process; they had no illusions that their students could be isolated from the larger American context.
A number of students—and some parents as well—spoke of intergenerational tensions over how to practice Islam, and indeed over how to understand the claims that Islam made on their lives. Contrary to what might be expected, these differences do not necessarily reflect adolescent resistance to the more conservative norms of the parents. A number of teenagers told us that their parents confuse the cultural practices of their countries of origin with the essence of Islam, while they are concerned to practice a purer and more authentic version of their religion.
Students born and raised in the United States face a challenge that was not faced in such acute form by their parents who grew up in a coherently Muslim cultural environment. Much that their parents may have been able to take for granted must, in this new environment, be sought out and deliberately chosen. One student told us:
The older generation definitely come, a majority, from overseas. So they are kind of taught Islam in a way that brings a lot of their culture into it. And there’s a sort of, like, an understanding that goes around amongst the youth, that the older generation sort of believes in a cultural Islam. . . . It’s not a representation of Islam. Their parents or whoever taught them this Islam kind of got confused a bit, and kind of implemented, you know, things from the Indian culture into Islam, which are actually not part of it.
School staff are very conscious of this tension, and several reported that it is an opportunity to teach critical reflection. One of them told us:
The culture in the United States has many values that are lost in the Middle East, but in the Middle East there are values that they need to keep that are lost in the West or in the United States. [Young people need] analytical ability without emotions to look at something, to analyze it, to say this is right or this is wrong. . . . Because we don't have the capacity and time to teach them about everything, we teach them the tools on how to separate right from wrong and know this is something in culture that you don’t have to follow and this is something that you should adopt because it is aligned with your religion.
Students and staff alike told us that such discussions generally occurred in the Islamic-studies class. This is consistent with the research on Catholic and other faith-based schools, suggesting that religious instruction provides a better standpoint for critical engagement with the dominating culture than does a public school immersed in that culture.
he religious instruction experienced by students in the Islamic schools we visited is nothing like the rote learning that many non-Muslims imagine to be characteristic of Islam, though we should point out that students also take a Qur’an class that emphasizes memorization in Arabic. In Islamic studies and other classes, though, students reported: “We are encouraged, really encouraged, to think about right and wrong and what we think is right, what we think is wrong. . . . We get into really heated conversations and we really debate; we really like to talk to each other about these things.”
The willingness of teachers to engage in discussion of issues of faith and conduct makes a strong impression on their students. “Basically the thing [the Islamic-studies teacher] did is that he is so approachable and he does not talk about the textbook Islam,” one student told us. “He’ll talk about real-life Islam, like he’s always giving us real-life examples, real-life situations. He makes us do these plays in class where one of us is a non-Muslim and the other is a Muslim, and so the non-Muslim asks all the questions that a kid ever wants to ask but is too afraid to.” This constitutes a form of mentoring that the students find important. One student explicitly distinguished this approach to public school practices:
We have Islamic-studies class where it just, like, we do talk about history and stuff like that, and like, the Prophet and stuff like that, but a lot of it is based on questions and problems you have now. So if we’re having a situation, or something like that, we talk to our teacher, and he would give us personal advice. People in public school, they’re lacking that.
These teenagers experience something that has been observed in other religious schools as well. The shared worldview of a faith-based school provides a margin of safety for discussions on a deeper level than is often possible in a public school where such a common perspective does not exist. David Campbell, a sociologist of religion, has noted that in religious schools “an ethos of trust opens space for teachers to feel comfortable introducing contentious issues into their lessons and allowing debate and discussion of those issues among the students.” This contrasts with the climate of American public schooling as described by sociologist Anthony Bryk et al. in Catholic Schools and the Common Good (1993, 2009): “Mirroring the spiritual vacuum at the heart of contemporary American society, schools now enculturate this emptiness in our children. . . . The problems of contemporary schooling are broader than the ineffective use of instrumental authority. At base is an absence of moral authority.” The Islamic secondary schools that we visited unquestionably possess moral authority, which, paradoxically, is why they allow students more intellectual freedom.
But is this moral authority exercised in a manner that alienates students from American life and prevents them from becoming loyal American citizens? Concerns about the effects of Islamic schooling are one of the common themes of those who warn of Islamist subversion of Western societies and their democratic values. An online petition for a total ban on Islamic schools, because “such institutions are imposing religion and backward traditions on children,” was circulated in the United States in 2007. While such a measure would not meet American constitutional standards, it suggests the undercurrent of suspicion in some quarters.
We should not underestimate the challenge faced by the teenagers we interviewed, and by their teachers and mentors. Finding the right balance between religion-based norms and the demands of adjusting to a society based on quite different norms would be difficult enough, especially given the students’ awareness that their immigrant parents bring both Muslim and ethnic sensibilities that need to be disentangled from each other. What Muslim youth face today in America is in many respects (and in contrast with the earlier waves of immigration) a situation in which they may find it difficult to discern any signposts of normativity at all. Of course, this lack of firm ground is experienced by non-immigrant youth as well, though they may not be aware of it. In this respect, immigrant youth may in some cases have a certain advantage because of their greater understanding of the need to work at making sense of their situation and to form the habits and attitudes—the social capital—that will enable them to resist the floods of relativism and consumerism.
Concern is often expressed that the children of immigrants will, when conflict arises between the homeland of their parents and their host country, side with the former. This anxiety has been nourished lately by reports of thousands of young men and women, mostly from Western Europe but also from North America, going to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State—and in some cases returning with new skills that might be used for terrorist attacks. They may have been persuaded to see their fundamental interests as distinct from—and even in some respects in opposition to—the society in which they have grown up.
More characteristic of the youth we interviewed, however, is an almost complete lack of interest in the “homeland.” They know about it only through half-understood stories from parents and grandparents. As a result, the culture that the children of immigrants acquire from their everyday experience is not that of the country of origin of their parents but rather a variation of what all American youth experience. Indeed, more than one parent expressed frustration that their children were becoming “just like the Americans.”
Assimilation does not, students told us, require abandoning the identity associated with the homeland of the parents, but clearly that identity tends to fade in importance as time goes on. One observed:
I’m very proud to be Palestinian and I’m so happy to be identified with my Arab culture, but at the same time I identify more with my American culture, because this is where I was born and raised and I’ve really never spent enough time in my Palestinian or Jordanian culture to identify with it. So [my parents are] sort of upset that I feel more American than I do Palestinian or Arab, but at the same time they’re proud that I want to have a place in my country.
Having a place in America does not require accepting every feature of American culture. At Islamic schools we found students and staff actively engaged in an ongoing assessment of which elements of American culture could be accepted and which should be rejected and, in the latter case, what form that rejection should take. In general, students seemed quite aware of the need to draw some lines in their personal behavior to avoid being sucked into the consumerist behavior of American youth. One told us that American Muslims should “still maintain their Islam and not be also peer-pressured and stuff.” They should “just maintain their good Islamic behavior.”
e found that school staff are very much aware of the siren song of jihadism and are concerned to shield their students from it. It may well be that the in-depth exploration provided by the Islamic-studies classes are an important prophylactic against becoming a mujahid. It is telling, perhaps, that the Boston Marathon bombers, the man who assassinated Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, the London bombers, and the great majority of young men and women seeking to join ISIS in Syria received a public-school education. In one study (from 2008) of hundreds of individuals arrested for terrorism-related offenses in the name of Islam, “the majority of terrorists” were found to “come to their religious beliefs through self-instruction. Their religious understanding is limited; they know about as much as any secular person, which is to say, very little. Often, they have not started reading the Qur’an seriously until they are in prison.”
Receiving a solid instruction in Islam by teachers who are secure and at home in American society is surely far better than the fragmentary knowledge available on Internet forums where jihadist wannabes congregate and encourage one another’s fantasies. Students told us that they appreciate teachers who possess a good understanding of American life as well as of Islam: “My teacher, he’s like one of the most knowledgeable people I know, but he’s not knowledgeable to the point where all he knows is Islamic knowledge. He doesn’t just know information and history that doesn’t apply to us.” In some cases, teachers themselves are converts to Islam, and this seems to be especially helpful in allowing them to interpret its relation to American life.
Contrary to our expectations, staff, parents, and students at the schools we visited did not have a great deal to say about the difficulty of reconciling their religious beliefs with the lives they lead as active participants in American society. Students seemed rather taken aback by the suggestion that such a reconciliation would be a major problem for them. They did, of course, identify in American life a variety of features about which they had strong reservations, but they seemed to have no doubt that they would be able to keep their heads above the turbulent waters of popular culture.
As one student put it: “America is kind of like a melting pot, right? And to be able to blend in, you have to stand out, in a way. I think faith gives you that edge.” Will Herberg made the same point in 1962: “Today, unlike fifty years ago, not only Protestants, but increasingly Catholics and Jews as well, feel themselves to be Americans not apart from, or in spite of, their religion, but in and through it, because of it.” For the European immigrants Herberg studied in his classic work Protestant, Catholic, Jew, “it was largely in and through religion that he or rather his children and grandchildren found an identifiable place in American life.”
Like immigrant Protestants, Catholics, and Jews before them, Muslim immigrant families are seeking to find their place in American society on the basis of their distinctive religious identity, not by renouncing it. Our study is a reminder that alternative worldviews based on religious convictions can be an important resource for engaging with difficult issues and for challenging aspects of a culture that so many of us accept without question.
We can safely assert that Muslim immigrant parents are not sending their children to Islamic schools so that they can learn to hate America, though they may well hope that their children will learn to be critical of aspects of American culture that conflict with their religious and moral convictions. In this, they share the expectations of many parents who send their children to Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, or Orthodox Jewish schools. These religiously motivated parents are critical of but loyal to their country.
Our visits suggest that we have nothing to fear from the influence of Islamic schools on the ability of Muslim youth to make positive contributions to American society. If these contributions include posing challenges to certain aspects of our society, their critical stance will be consistent with a long American tradition of principled reform based on religious convictions. As the distinguished Protestant philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has urged, “Christian education will have to be an alternative mode of education, not just in the sense of communicating alternative thoughts but in the much more radical sense of equipping students for an alternative way of life.” The goal of the American Islamic schools we visited is exactly that.
Charles L. Glenn is professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University.