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Katherine Kersten, March 9: Are taxpayers footing bill for Islamic school in Minnesota?

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • Star Tribune
  • April 9, 2008 - 10:26 AM

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) -- named for the Muslim general who conquered medieval Spain -- is a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Its approximately 300 students are mostly the children of low-income Muslim immigrant families, many of them Somalis.

The school is in huge demand, with a waiting list of 1,500. Last fall, it opened a second campus in Blaine.

TIZA uses the language of culture rather than religion to describe its program in public documents. According to its mission statement, the school "recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of the eastern world (Africa, Asia and Middle East)."

But the line between religion and culture is often blurry. There are strong indications that religion plays a central role at TIZA, which is a public school financed by Minnesota taxpayers. Under the U.S. and state constitutions, a public school can accommodate students' religious beliefs but cannot encourage or endorse religion.

TIZA raises troubling issues about taxpayer funding of schools that cross that line.

Asad Zaman, TIZA's principal, declined to allow me to visit the school or grant me an interview. He did not respond to e-mails seeking written replies.

TIZA's strong religious connections date from its founding in 2003. Its co-founders, Zaman and Hesham Hussein, were both imams, or Muslim religious leaders, as well as leaders of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN).

Since then, they have played dual roles: Zaman as TIZA's principal and the current vice-president of MAS-MN, and Hussein as TIZA's school board chair and president of MAS-MN until his death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in January.

TIZA shares MAS-MN's headquarters building, along with a mosque.

MAS-MN came to Minnesotans' attention in 2006, when it issued a "fatwa," warning Muslim taxi drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that transporting passengers with alcohol in their baggage is a violation of Islamic law.

Journalists whom Zaman has permitted to visit TIZA have described the school's Islamic atmosphere and practices.

"A visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school," reported Minnesota Monthly in 2007. "Head scarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them." The school has a central carpeted prayer space, and "vaguely religious-sounding language" is used.

According to the Pioneer Press, TIZA's student body prays daily and the school's cafeteria serves halal food (permissible under Islamic law). During Ramadan, all students fast from dawn to dusk, according to a parent quoted in the article.

In fact, TIZA was originally envisioned as a private Islamic school. In 2001, MAS-MN negotiated to buy the current TIZA/MAS-MN building for Al-Amal School, a private religious institution in Fridley, according to Bruce Rimstad of the Inver Grove Heights School District. But many immigrant families can't afford Al-Amal. In 2002, Islamic Relief -- headquartered in California -- agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school, TIZA, at the same location.

TIZA claims to be non-sectarian, as Minnesota law requires charters to be. But "after-school Islamic learning" takes place on weekdays in the same building under MAS-MN's auspices, according to the program for MAS-MN's 2007 convention. At that convention, a TIZA representative at the school's booth told me that students go directly to "Islamic studies" classes at 3:30, when TIZA's day ends. There, they learn "Qur'anic recitation, the Sunnah of the Prophet" and other religious subjects, he said.

TIZA's 2006 Contract Performance Review Report states that students engage in unspecified "electives" after school or do homework.

Publicly, TIZA emphasizes that it uses standard curricular materials like those found in other public schools. But when addressing Muslim audiences, school officials make the link to Islam clear. At MAS-MN's 2007 convention, for example, the program featured an advertisement for the "Muslim American Society of Minnesota," superimposed on a picture of a mosque. Under the motto "Establishing Islam in Minnesota," it asked: "Did you know that MAS-MN ... houses a full-time elementary school"? On the adjacent page was an application for TIZA.

In addition to the issues raised by TIZA's religious elements, there are reasons to be concerned about the organizations with which it is connected.

Group linked to Hamas

Islamic Relief-USA, the school's sponsor, is compared to the Red Cross in several TIZA documents. In 2006, however, the Israeli government announced that Islamic Relief Worldwide, the organization's parent group, "provides support and assistance" to Hamas, designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.

Meanwhile, MAS-MN offers on its web site "beneficial and enlightening information" about Islam, which includes statements like "Regularly make the intention to go on jihad with the ambition to die as a martyr."

At its 2007 convention, MAS-MN featured the notorious Shayk Khalid Yasin, who is well-known in Britain and Australia for teaching that husbands can beat disobedient wives, that gays should be executed and that the United States spreads the AIDS virus in Africa through vaccines for tropical diseases.

Yasin's topic? "Building a Successful Muslim Community in Minnesota."

TIZA has improved the reading and math performance of its mostly low-income students. That's commendable, but should Minnesota taxpayers be funding an Islamic public school?

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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