x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US Muslim school pioneer scouts the UAE

An American pioneering US Muslim schooling is visiting to gauge interest in combining lessons and Islamic teachings.

ABU DHABI // An American helping to pioneer Muslim schooling in the US has visited the UAE to gauge interest in integrating school lessons and Islamic teachings. In 1998, Afeefa Syeed, 38, helped found Al Fatih Academy in Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, DC. She said she believed its concept of teaching Islam in a wider cultural context, which it has exported as far as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, would be ideal for the UAE.

She met officials of private schools during her trip this week, but did not get the chance to meet with government education officials. "When we say 'integrated Islamic studies', we mean we don't have an Islamic studies class," said Ms Syeed. "It is integrated into other subjects." Ms Syeed, an anthropologist by training, said, "We're very interested in the UAE because the resources are here. If we can expand this educational model here, the timing is right for that."

In the US, where it has proved challenging for Muslim or Arab children to connect with their history and identity since the September 11 attacks, Al Fatih Academy has had some success in teaching children what it means to be both American and Muslim. Children at the US school become comfortable saying their founding fathers are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, "but they also learn that Christopher Columbus had a Muslim sailor on the ship with him to work as an Arabic interpreter," she said.

"Explorers at that time knew they would probably run into Arabs and Muslims most places they sailed, so they usually had on board an Arabic speaker." The pupils also learn that Columbus was using navigational tools developed by Muslims and Arabs, she said. Last year, second-graders at Al Fatih Academy studied Native Americans, while fifth graders spent three hours every day for four weeks studying ancient Egypt.

"It was the mummification process, particularly how the brain was removed from the body through the nose, that fascinated them the most," said Ms Syeed. "They created a life-size oesophagus using lots and lots of toilet paper. Through it, they also learnt anatomy, chemistry and math without even realising they were learning it." The Al Fatih Academy model seems already to resonate in the UAE, where many Arab expatriates lament that their children attending private and international schools are not taught about their identity and background.

"It's unfortunate when Arab children grow up not learning their own culture and religion, even though they're living in an Arab country," said Suad Bushnak, a Palestinian mother of three living in Dubai. "I even know some of my friends' kids who hate to admit they are Arab, and have absolutely no connection to Islam. "We have some great private schools in Dubai, but I don't feel the kids learn about who they are as Muslim or Arab."

Another mother, also a Syrian expatriate, living in Dubai with two teenagers, said: "What is the point of them learning about polar bears when they learn nothing about the local and endangered species?" relass@thenational.ae