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Katherine Kersten: Affidavits portray TiZA as threatening

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 27, 2010 - 5:38 PM

Most of us occasionally have differences of opinion with our neighborhood public school. If you voice your complaints, you may risk a frown from the principal or a cold shoulder from other parents at a school softball game.

But at one Minnesota public school, critics may be in for something more sinister. Khalid Elmasry says in an affidavit that after he criticized Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), which his child used to attend, the school's executive director made a statement at a parent meeting that Elmasry took "as an attempt to incite violence against me and my family." Even more disturbing is what Janeha Edwards -- a former administrative assistant at the school -- says in an affidavit the director suggested after she displeased him: "We could just kill you, yeah tell your husband we'll do his job for him."

These bizarre developments are described in documents filed in a legal battle royal between TiZA -- a K-8 charter school with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine -- and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. Last year, the ACLU filed a federal suit claiming that TiZA impermissibly promotes religion.

In January, the ACLU sought a protective order, telling the court that intimidation by TiZA was discouraging potential witnesses from appearing. On Feb. 10, the court barred witness harassment or intimidation by either party.

Elmasry is one witness who sought such protection. In January, he testified about TiZA's financial entanglement with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota at a Minnesota Senate subcommittee hearing on charter school lease aid. Shortly thereafter, Elmasry says in an affidavit, he was informed by a friend and TIZA parent that TiZA authorities had called a parent meeting, where they showed a video of Elmasry's testimony. Then, according to the parent's account, Asad Zaman, the school's director and an imam -- or Muslim religious leader -- accused Elmasry of talking to the Minnesota Department of Education and "selling" his "Iman," meaning his Islamic faith, according to Elmasry's affidavit.

Elmasry was frightened, he says. "It is well-known in Islam that a Muslim who rejects his or her faith is committing an act punishable by death," according to his affidavit. "There are many accounts of Muslims taking matters into their own hands and killing people they believe have sold or rejected their Islamic faith or Iman."

Elmasry was worried, he says in the affidavit, because "the overwhelming majority of TiZA's enrollment is Somali, living in a community that has been troubled with many acts of random violence. I am concerned that Zaman could be exploiting this fact in the hope that word will reach a radical or unstable individual or group within the Twin Cities Muslim community that a Muslim has sold his Iman and is trying to shut down a Muslim school that serves Somalis."

TiZA denies that a threat was intended, according to documents filed with the court. "Even if the Court accepts the comment alleged by Elmasry," the school maintains, "such remarks have significance only when issued by a proper Islamic judge, of which Elmasry and Zaman are not."

Elmasry is not the only fearful witness. Edwards, who left her job at TiZA in 2009, also hesitates to testify about what she saw and heard during her years there.

During her tenure, she says in an affidavit, she saw "no real distinction" between the operations of TiZA and the Muslim American Society, with which the school shares a building. For years, "I watched [school officials] lash out in order to control those around them, and to retaliate against anyone who spoke poorly of the school, or otherwise challenged their authority." According to her affidavit, Zaman suggested that "we could just kill you" after becoming upset when she "challeng[ed] his authority."

Zaman has no recollection of making such a statement, he said in an affidavit.

According to the ACLU, the alleged pattern of intimidation extends to any "who might speak publicly about events at TiZA and its use of public funds." Even Chuck Samuelson, the ACLU's executive director, has been a target. In July 2009, the school filed a defamation claim in excess of $100,000 against the ACLU, citing Samuelson's simple statement that "[TiZA is] a theocratic school ... as plain as the substantial nose on my face."

Alan Dershowitz, a noted Harvard law professor, has described TiZA's defamation claim as "lawfare -- the use of law as a weapon of warfare." Controversial Islamic organizations "sue their critics for defamation, not with the intent to win the case, but with the hope of imposing an unaffordably high cost on criticism of their actions," he and Elizabeth Samson wrote in the British newspaper the Guardian.

In December, the court dismissed TiZA's defamation claim against the ACLU.

One more attempt at legal harassment averted. But we have to pinch ourselves to remember that we're talking here about a Minnesota public school -- financed with our tax dollars.

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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