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U.S. EDUCATION > The U.S. Education System > Religion and Education > Muslim Students in California

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Muslim Students in California
By Mary Rourke
Mary Rourke, a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times newspaper, specializes in
reporting on religion.  Copyright ? 2001/Los Angeles Times Company
Muslim students in California
Shabana practices her spelling in California's Huntington Beach Union School District where Arabic is taught in a pilot program. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times Photo)
Muslim students in California
A young high school basketball player, who is Muslim, breaks his Ramadan fast after sundown. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times Photo)

Boys in front with their arms folded across their waists, girls in back with scarves covering their hair. This arrangement fell into place as naturally as if the classroom where they had gathered were a mosque. Fourteen Muslim students were ready to begin their midday prayers.

Surrounded by desks, books, maps and slide projectors, the group paid no attention to the classroom chaos, nor to the racket outside the door. It was lunchtime at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, and the campus was buzzing. More important for these boys and girls, it was Ramadan, the sacred month-long period during which Muslims are required to fast from sunup to sundown. This year, these students, ages 14 to 18, are determined to stand up for their faith through prayer in this quiet yet public way.

They say that praying together during Ramadan is one way they can show their commitment to a religion that has recently become the most discussed, criticized and defended of any in the world. "I feel that it's important to show people what my religion is all about, especially at a time like this," said freshman Rehan Muttalib, 14, whose parents are from India. "We need to clear up stereotypes."

The terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the barrage of news about Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist network changed life on the campus of this upper-middle-class suburban public school, where about 285 of the 3,300 students are Muslim, according to the school's administration office. About five years ago, a small group of the school's Muslim students formed a Muslim Student Union; the organization has taken on new resonance this semester, and the Ramadan prayer sessions are just one part of that.

The Union almost didn't exist this year-the students were so affected and distracted by world events that they missed the school's extracurricular activity registration deadline. "After Sept. 11 they were in shock," says James Maechling, the group's faculty advisor, "they couldn't get it together." Maechling is chairman of the religious studies department, as well as the world history department, which introduces major religions as part of the curriculum.

When it finally met, Maechling said the group was more focused than he has ever seen it. "Last year, there were only five or eight kids, and they met sporadically. This year, they've had an average of 20 students at meetings." A typical meeting includes a talk about some aspect of their religion by one of the students, prayers and lunch.

Two other clubs gather regularly to pray on the Palos Verdes campus: the New Life Club and the Servants of Christ Club, both organized by Christian students. Members of any religion are free to form a group, as long as they do not preach their religion or try to convert anyone, according to California's Board of Education guidelines. The study of religion is also within the boundaries of public school education, as long as the subject is presented in the context of history and culture, not religious instruction.

Most of the Muslim students at Palos Verdes High were born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated from Iran, Egypt, India and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Like their schoolmates, they face the usual social and academic peer pressures, but this fall they are also contending with a pervading mistrust of Muslims.

"At first, they scattered," Maechling said. "The day of the attacks they had a lump in their throats. It was too much for them." Some of the students who planned to join the Muslim Student Union were advised by fellow Muslims on campus to avoid calling attention to themselves. "They said, 'Don't do this,"' recalled junior Josh Mansour, 16, one of the leaders of the student union. The advice to blend in came from non-practicing Muslim students, he said. "They think Islam is a radical religion."

He sees it another way. "There are a lot of Muslim students on campus," he said. "Some of us decided it's important to practice what we believe, together, as a sign of unity." Though their backgrounds vary, these students are from observant families, and practicing their religion is not new to them. However, this year Ramadan carries larger responsibilities and commitments.

On the first day, several of the students recited from the Koran in Arabic during prayer time. One of them, Zeyad Maasarani, 16, learned the language at home. His mother taught it to him. He keeps up with it by watching Arabic language television. He and several other students said for them it seems urgent to stand up for their faith. But they also admitted to teenage insecurities about being judged by other students.

"I want to be seen as a regular teenager on campus," Muttalib said. "But I also want to be accepted as a Muslim, not something different or wrong." He said he is attending the Ramadan prayers on campus because he might not get to them on his own. Other students, however, said they feel safer, praying together. "We need morale building," Mansour said. "A lot of Muslims here and around the world are having problems. We want them to know they're not alone."

Asked about Bin Laden and al Qaeda, some of the students turned red-faced. "I don't think there are Muslim fundamentalists," Maasarani responded fervently. "There are corrupt governments and extremists."

Muttalib was a bit more objective. "I see the Taliban and Osama bin Laden not as Muslims who practice the religion correctly but as people who misunderstand the religion," he said. "Most Muslims try to practice the core of the religion. I do."

Just last month, Maddy Ghorob, 14, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, made a big decision about her style of dress. Women are not required to wear a head scarf, which is seen as a sign of modesty and a signal that they are trying to live by Muslim teachings that forbid sex outside of marriage and alcohol, among other things. While most of the girls who attended the Ramadan prayers wore Western clothes and only covered their hair to pray, Ghorob changed her entire wardrobe when she "took the veil." She now wears a long skirt and long-sleeve top as well, to completely conceal her figure.

"I swore I never would wear the veil," she said. As for her figure-concealing dress, she added, "my goal used to be to wear a size two, date and go to proms. Now, I want to be identified as Muslim. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

Ghorob and others in the Muslim Student Union say that the vast majority of the Muslim students on campus are steering clear of anything that identifies them that way. "They're trying so hard to fit in, I can't tell the Muslims from everyone else," said Dania Arafeh, 14, one of Ghorob's best friends.

Arafeh started covering her hair with a scarf three years ago. Born in the U.S, the child of Egyptian-and Palestinian-born parents, she refers to women as precious jewels, citing the Koran as her source. "It doesn't mean a woman is any less if she covers herself," she said. "It's for her protection. Why give yourself away too soon?"

For decades, progressive Muslim and other religious leaders in the U.S. have advised new immigrants to leave their religious garb at home and dress Western style to fit better into U.S. society. Arafeh's fervor for traditional garb suggests a different vision for the future. "It'd be so cool if people from every faith wore their religious clothing," she said. "We'd all learn more about each other that way."

As Arafeh and Ghorob stood talking outside Maechling's classroom after the first day of Ramadan prayers, Bahareh Shayegan-Fatemi introduced herself to them. She had attended their prayer gathering but sat on the sidelines, watching.

"I came here four months ago from Iran," she explained to the other girls. "I didn't know any Muslims, so I hid myself and my ways." Her T-shirt and jeans helped prove her point. In Iran, women are required to wear a veil and robe that covers them. "I am so surprised," she said, suddenly giggly and breathless. "When you are alone, you are a drop of water. But here with the other Muslim students, you are part of the sea, one of many drops."

Shayegan-Fatemi couldn't say whether she would ever dress in traditional Muslim dress in the U.S. She wasn't even sure whether she would join the students again for Ramadan prayers.

"I'm so surprised," she said. "I need some time."






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