In the U.S., we’re used to seeing religious private schools: Catholic preps, fundamentalist Christian schools. Now, there’s a newcomer: private Islamic schools. In step with America’s growing Muslim population, the schools are growing fast—but not without bumps. Critics call them cocoons raising Muslim outsiders, while the schools’ leaders argue that blending Islamic studies with an American context reflects a deeper integration in the U.S.
We visited a tiny Islamic high school—a start-up, really—located in California, where high schools can house thousands of students. It’s called Averroes Institute and is perhaps one of the state’s smallest high schools.
Reem Bilbeisi is the principal of the tiny private Islamic high school in Fremont, just south of San Francisco—and the first of its kind in the area. Like so much in Silicon Valley, it’s a start-up: just nine students total, its inaugural freshman class. It’s even in an office park, an odd—yet affordable—location.
At least 250 Islamic schools like this exist in the U.S. and growth has been quick in recent years. At the university level, the first accredited Muslim college in the U.S. debuted just north of here in Berkeley.
Bilbeisi says her school combines academic and devotional rigor. She also considers it a “safe space.”
“If students aren’t comfortable in their space, then they’re not going to learn,” she said. “If they’re too concerned with people judging them or assuming they’re one way and trying proving that they’re another way, then they’re really not focused on their studies.”
The school is mostly one big, airy room. There are prayer rugs, and the book collection ranges from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to the Quran and Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun,” about a Syrian immigrant and Hurricane Katrina.
The students’ origins are also diverse, with parents from Afghanistan, Fiji, India and Pakistan. All of this appealed to Sonya Maharaj. She’s 13, could have attended a top high school, but chose the Averroes Institute.
“I found it really fascinating,” said Maharaj. “For high school, I really wanted an experience that I could learn from—and that I wasn’t just another person, just another person that you see in the hallway. That I meant something to somebody.”
She’s also fine with the dress code, which requires a headscarf. “I feel like what you wear and, like, how you dress doesn’t really have an impact on you as long as you’re still a good person,” Maharaj said. “What you wear doesn’t define you.”
Sonya’s mom, Irum Maharaj, who is from Pakistan, did get pushback from her family. Her sister said that she was putting her daughter “in a bubble.”
“But I haven’t felt that with her,” said Maharaj. She said that she appreciates that students must volunteer within the community and that the school arranges to have speakers come in almost every week.
Principal Bilbeisi gets that students cannot live in a vacuum. Students must volunteer at non-Muslim non-profits and there are exchanges with other schools. Meantime, students are pushed academically and groomed as leaders.
“I do feel like this school has the opportunity to really blaze a trail and show that this is what it means to have an Islamic school,” said Averroes teacher Zaki Hasan.
But Islamic schools can be branded as extreme and isolationist. And on occasion they are met with intolerance. When administrators at an Islamic high school in Texas recently tried to join a private school sports league, they were asked why Muslim students would want to meet Jewish and Christian students if “the Koran tells you not to mix with infidels?”
Such prejudice will continue, says Charles Hirschkind, a scholar of religion at the University of California at Berkeley. “I think many people don’t really know how to think of those schools, whether this is the intrusion of some sort of dangerous sleeper cell of some kind into American society.”
There is one freshman who some critics of this school might fear. His name is Edrees Meskienyar and he was born and raised in America. He has also lived in Egypt and Yemen, and his parents are originally from Afghanistan.
“I’ve been doing religious studies overseas,” said Meskienyar. “It’s my number one priority. I believe we’re here for a reason. God and religion always come first.”
It disturbs Meskienyar when he hears news of the suspicions people have about Muslim students, such as when reports came out about the New York police spying on Muslim student groups. He wishes more Americans would see him as a typical teenager and tries to have a tough skin about it.
“People say stuff like that, but it doesn’t really faze me because I’m not always here,” said Meskienyar. “I’m always outside. I’m always playing basketball. I’m always going to the mall.” After high school, Meskienyar said that he wants to play college basketball.
Plus, at Averroes Institute, unlike what he has done at public schools, Meskienyar does not have to excuse himself to go pray in the bathroom, kneeling and pressing his head to the floor.
Principal Bilbeisi, who attended a large public high school, said she would have cherished this school as a teen. “When I was at home I felt like I was one person and when I was in a school I felt like I was another person,” she said. “I shut off the world and became kind of a loner. I wasn’t able to recognize how to bring the two together and I regret that.”
Bilbeisi added that gay students share a similar struggle as Muslim students “because sometimes it’s not always outward that you’re Muslim, especially if you don’t wear the hijab. So how do you kind of feel strong and feel confident that it’s okay to be that way but still fit in and have friends and still be considered cool?”
But while Bilbeisi is excited to shape what Islamic education can look like in America, the day is far off when her piece of educational turf will not come with a healthy, if not hyper, amount of scrutiny.