As Muslims across the nation battle the perception that they intend to destroy America, the peers of Muslim students in Toledo area schools have a more accepting attitude about their religious and cultural differences.
The result is an assimilation process into what’s still very much a Christian society that’s made much easier for young people who are Muslim. And when they’re asked about those differences, a good dose of self confidence in young Muslims helps.
"When I’m asked about my clothes, I say it’s a part of my religion and that as I get older I have to wear the scarf. It protects you and keeps you beautiful," said 11-year-old Tisata Ashar Muhammad, a sixth grader at Toledo Islamic Academy.
Her 10-year-old sister, Mecca, a fifth grader, has found that others’ questions are not always kind. "They ask whether you are bald-headed," she said.
These sisters are accustomed to such questions, added Tisata Ashar, an aspiring lawyer who runs track at the academy.
"They ask if I can show them my hair," she said. When she says she cannot, the curious try to intimidate her by calling her names.
The sisters have a 5-month-old sister, Taahira, and four brothers, three of whom also attend the academy.
Their parents, Daniel Poole and Sakinah Muhammad, have instilled in all of their children so much assurance that adults meeting them for the first time are struck by their maturity and confidence. Elijah, 13, is in the ninth grade, Abdul, 8, is a second grader, and Jakim, 6, is a kindergartner. Another brother, Faheem, is 3.
The family attends the Masjid Saad Foundation mosque. According to Mohammed S. Alo, editor and owner of ToledoMuslims.com, about 10,000 Muslims live in the Toledo area; the population mushroomed from the Syrian and Lebanon immigrants to representatives from more than 20 nations today.
Mr. Poole and Mrs. Muhammad, who are married, brought their family to Toledo from Cincinnati five years ago. He works with an inmate re-entry program, a nonprofit organization called the New Home Islamic Re-entry Society. She is a stay-at-home mother who was compelled to come to Toledo to remove her children from violent neighborhoods.
Media reports often show that many non-Muslim Americans are nervous about fellow Americans who are Muslims. Non-Muslims’ prejudicial views could be influenced by reports about religious extremists and lately, about congressional hearings on the radicalization of the American Muslim community.
In this region, Muslim youths said that there is less contention from their school peers.
Elijah Muhammad, who plays football at the Toledo Islamic Academy, said he doesn’t have a problem when others learn his religion.
"People know that not all Muslims do the things that Muslims in the news have done," he said, referring to terrorists and extremists.
Students at public, private, and parochial schools also said that once they satisfy their peers’ curiosities, they have little problem assimilating into the wider culture.
Adeel Aris, a Perrysburg High School senior whose friends call him Syed, said his peers accept him for who he is.
"For the most part, you cannot say the world is perfect. The exceptions I think are not specifically just targeting my religion, but they feel superior to any race or religion, even Christianity," said the son of Syed Zabar and Fozia Aris, whose family attends the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg.
‘What’s wrong is wrong’
On Sept. 11, 2001, Syed was in the third grade. Now, he is more aware of others’ responses to high-profile news events about Muslims, such as the controversy about the Christian pastor who wanted to burn the Qur’an.
Syed’s friends don’t ostracize him. They recognize that there are extremists in all religious groups.
"There are people like that everywhere. My Christian and white friends know what’s wrong is wrong," he added.
Another senior at St. Francis de Sales High School has had no experiences challenging his religion. In fact, Danny Barazi said that being Muslim is simply considered as being part of another culture.
"There are not many differences besides the daily prayers at school, and I just go along with it and am respectful toward them," said Danny, who has attended Catholic schools all of his life.
The 17-year-old plays lacrosse and said that during Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting for Muslims, the curious seem satisfied with his explanations of the religious observance.
"I get a few questions on what it is and I tell them and they are respectful," said Danny, whose parents, Maher and Iman Barazi, are from Syria. His father owns Ferdos Mediterranean Restaurant. During the Christian holy seasons of Lent and Christmas, Danny is not made to feel uncomfortable.
"I do basically nothing," during those times, he said. And if anyone tells him "Merry Christmas," the Toledo native simply returns the greeting.
"At Easter, I look more forward to spring break like other kids," he added.
It’s one thing to see Muslim girls in the hijab in school hallways and classrooms. But it’s quite another to see them adorned in the head scarf and fully clothed as athletes or cheerleaders.
At Maumee Valley Country Day School, different cultures are much less unusual than at most schools in the region. Differences are celebrated and appreciated but that does not dispel curiosity.
Maumee Valley senior Yasmin Abdelkarim, a member of the girls’ basketball team, has been asked how she manages playing on the girls’ basketball team wearing the scarf, long soccer socks, and a black shirt under her jersey.
"I got used to it," the 17-year-old said. "It’s not difficult for me and it doesn’t bother me."
Yasmin grew up playing basketball, even though there was no girls’ basketball program at the Toledo Islamic Academy, where she was a student from the second grade until she was a junior.
Yasmin, who was born in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, has been in the United States since 2000. Her parents, Ghassan and Fatima Abdelkarim, encouraged their daughter to play basketball.
"I was afraid to play because of the whole scarf issue," she said, adding that she didn’t know of another Muslim girl who plays basketball and wears a scarf.
"It was normal at the other school because all the females wore scarves."
Though there are still occasions when non-Muslims stare — she smiles in return — now that she’s outside that Islamic school comfort zone, she said, "People are so used to seeing girls with scarves that it’s becoming normal."
Fifteen-year-old MVCDS sophomore Amal Mohamed is a cheerleader who doesn’t know of other Muslim girls who wear the hijab while cheerleading. She enjoys the all-embracing environment at her school.
"Being at a school like this, I don’t feel much different," she said. Of course, like Tisata Ashar Muhammad’s parents, Amal also said, "My parents instilled a lot of faith in me."
And that’s necessary for a cheerleader who in addition to the scarf wears tights with her uniform skirt. At MVCDS, though, long-sleeve shirts are part of the cheerleaders’ uniforms. Typically, those uniforms include short skirts and sleeveless shirts.
Amal agrees with her schoolmate Yasmin, that seeing Muslim girls well covered is less of an issue in some areas.
"People in cities around here, such as Detroit, are used to it," said Amal.
But in other regions, people are not always accustomed to seeing Muslim girls fully covered. During a visit to Tennessee with her family to see other relatives, Amal observed others gawking.
Nevertheless, Amal, who has visited Lebanon and Egypt, the homes of her parents, Fadia and Ashraf Mohamed, prefers her American homeland.
"You don’t find many girls playing sports" in those countries, said the native Toledoan.
After all, Amal said, in America "Girls are more independent."