They’re part of a burgeoning immigrant community that often confronts bigotry and xenophobia. They’ve set up a growing network of academically effective faith-based schools. Those schools, often assumed to hamper their assimilation into American culture, may actually help them become better citizens.
That was the story of American Catholics before the turn of the 20th century. They faced an anti-immigrant backlash and a wave of religious bigotry that inspire Blaine Amendments and spurred the creation of Protestant-controlled common schools.
And it may be the story of American Muslims today, as Ashley Berner, of Johns Hopkins University, and Charles Glenn, of Boston University, argue in The 74:
Muslims in the 21st century are in a position similar to that of 19th-century American Catholics. To the majority culture, their beliefs may seem perplexing and their loyalty suspect, although, according to the Pew Research Center, American Muslims are overwhelmingly “mainstream and moderate” and 82 percent report being satisfied with their lives in this country. Despite the high educational attainment and remarkable economic success of America’s immigrant Muslims and their children, however, some Americans consider their presence a menace. Islamic schools have become a focal point for rumors and vandalism, and some otherwise sympathetic legislators have retreated from supporting school-choice programs because they don’t want to fund Islamic schools.
Such sentiments are intolerant and unwise. Islamic schools constitute a powerful antidote to the alienation from American life fostered on the Internet and by marginalized groups. More than 200 Islamic schools exist across this country, and they are growing in number and adding grades and academic heft each year. Their academic outcomes have not yet been explored in depth, but if they continue to provide high-quality instruction and robust character education, we should expect to see a new version of the “Catholic school effect.”
Berner and Glenn are among the leading proponents of the idea that these private, faith-based schools help serve the public good. Indeed, Canada and many European countries have reached that conclusion and now offer public funding to those schools.
Research, the writers note, has shown Catholic schools can be uniquely effective at promoting civic virtue. Their new article, which is worth reading in full, highlights new research showing Islamic schools might have similar benefits for young Muslims.
Catholic schools have also demonstrated an ability to help low-income students academically. There hasn’t been as much in-depth research on Islamic schools. But data from a handful that accept Florida tax credit scholarships (see appendix) suggests institutions like Nur Ul-Islam Academy in Cooper City and the Muslim Academy Of Greater Orlando are helping their low-income students make learning gains in both reading and math that are significantly above average.
And yet, American Islamic schools have faced attacks from both ends of the political spectrum. Liberal muckrakers at Mother Jones recently went after an Indiana voucher program for funding a “madrasa,” but apparently never bothered to learn that madrasa is simply the Arabic word for school. Conservative politicians have at times objected to Islamic schools receiving vouchers. Critics in both quarters would do well to look at the growing body of research, and the reality on the ground, that shows Islamic schools can form a bulwark against the very social isolation and jihadist provocations they fear.