TiZA is gone, but lawsuit and questions remain

  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 4:51 PM

How is it that so few were willing to challenge a public school with an overtly religious curriculum?

How did it come to this?

In America today, we rush to fumigate our public schools at the slightest hint of religion. Yet until recently, a Minnesota public charter school -- Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) -- operated in our midst as an Islamic school at taxpayer expense.

At TiZA, students and teachers attended Friday prayer services in the school's on-site mosque. Female teachers and students (though not males) were required to be covered from neck to wrist and ankle, in accordance with Islamic law. The school cafeteria served only halal (religiously pure) food. Buses left only when after-school "Islamic studies" classes were over. At school rallies, students sometimes chanted "Allahu Akbar," God is great.

Six years after TiZA opened its doors, the ACLU of Minnesota finally dared to ask the question few others would: Why was an apparently religious school receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer funds every year?

In January 2009, ACLU-MN challenged TiZA's constitutionality in federal court. On Oct. 3, 2011 -- after the case had generated 150,000 pages of documents and a bitter two-year battle had soaked up 8,000 hours of Dorsey & Whitney lawyers' time -- the ACLU announced a settlement with two defendants in the case: the Minnesota Department of Education and Islamic Relief USA, TiZA's former sponsor. Though the school itself is now closed, the suit against it will go forward, according to Chuck Samuelson, ACLU-MN's executive director.

The three settling parties' "stipulation of facts," and related documents, provide a host of new details about the case. They describe, for example, how TiZA used its mandatory Arabic curriculum as a vehicle for religious instruction. The school used textbooks marketed as having "a very strong focus on Qur'an, Haddith and Islamic values." The books teach prayers and blessings, describe activities at the mosque, and picture various kinds of veils for women. In a video shown in one class, the characters in a story are described as "realiz[ing] that dying as believers in Allah is better than all the bounties of this world."

The stipulation of facts also reveals TiZA's dubious business operations. These include commingling of funds with Muslim organizations, using taxpayer money to "renovate buildings to the benefit of [the school's] religious landlords," and forged signatures on documents, including those on which the Education Department relied in approving TiZA's charter school application and site and grade expansions.

Though the stipulation adds details, TiZA's religious orientation was evident from its earliest days. How could the Education Department have failed to investigate, when TiZA's founders -- both imams, or Muslim prayer leaders -- applied to launch a charter school named for the eighth-century Muslim conqueror of Spain, and housed at the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota?

As TiZA grew, its Islamic identity became public knowledge. In 2004, for example, a TiZA teacher told the Pioneer Press that "children feel comfortable here asking questions about their own religion." Asad Zaman, the school's director, added that when TiZA students had family problems, he could call on a "network" of imams for help. A 2007 Minnesota Monthly article praised TiZA, noting that "a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school."

Despite such revelations, many in the media, education and political establishments continued to lionize the school as an outstanding example of multicultural education.

Why did TiZA get such "kid gloves" treatment? You'd think a public school that received about $25 million in state and federal funds over the years would face some accountability for following the law.

The answer lies in the fact that, in a world where "judging" others is off-limits, one label is still feared: No one wants to be tarred as a "bigot." And in post-9/11 America, the lowest basement of bigotry is reserved for "Islamophobia."

Samuelson has experienced this blowback: "The first thing the TiZA people said is we were motivated by racism," he said in an interview. "They see us as a white organization, so anything we do is racist. The next thing they said is we were religiously bigoted." Samuelson chuckled. In fact, "If this school had been Catholic, we would have sued them years ago."

I faced similar allegations as a Star Tribune columnist when I raised questions about TiZA. Rep. Mindy Greiling -- then chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee -- publicly called on the paper to fire me for "gross distortion of the facts." TiZA is "a school to be emulated, not hated," she told the Minnesota Independent.

Thanks to ACLU-MN, those who tried to hold TiZA to the same constitutional standards as other public schools have been vindicated. But charges of anti-Muslim "bigotry" remain a powerful weapon in the hands of those willing to use them in an effort to play by their own rules.

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Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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