Call me Halima. I am a mother who will do anything to protect her children. And I know how vulnerable they are, because I was once like them… and I paid the price. This is why I agreed to write for this website and share some of what I have seen with my own eyes.
Recently, my 8 year-old Maryam has been waking up at night screaming. The screams come only after it takes her two hours to fall asleep. My fearless daughter, who loved playing in the evening in our backyard by the woods. My beautiful girl who enjoyed walking home from school alone, taking the winding path shaded by trees. My little princess, who could never on her own imagine horrible forces lurking in the dark – now she has fears that are jolting her awake in panic.
These spasms are thanks to the imam at Maryam’s Sunday school. The teacher decided to teach her about Jinn’s: beings made of fire that live in the trees and at night come down into our world. He warned that if she would not say the “Ayat Ul kursi” – a prayer to guard from dangerous evils – before going to bed she would be exposed to the horrors of the night. She should ask Allah’s protection to draw a circle of fire around her, so an angel would sit protecting her as she slept.
I am devastated about losing my once-fearless beti. For years I tried to raise her the opposite of the way, I was raised. I encouraged her to ask questions and would always try to give honest answers. I wanted her to not fear the dark the way I did. I explained that darkness is just the absence of light. Her favorite tree which nests the birds, the beautiful giant that gives us the bright green color, a comfort to our eyes, remains the same even in the dark.
I had not introduced her to things I have no belief existed. I sent her to Sunday school to appreciate the beauty of our faith and our heritage. I wanted her to have a positive identity. I had thought that here in the West – unlike in my native country – she would not be abused at madrassa… the way I was.
If I close my eyes, I can re-experience it like it was yesterday. I am a child at the madrassa in our masjid. We kids are being taught rote memorization of Koranic verses – we come every day for half an hour after school. Qari sahib paces with a stick. If one of the children in the classroom forgets the correct pronunciation of an Arabic letter… THWACK! A hard hit to the back.
No one was safe (although children from poor families were beaten more than the others). All of us were beaten. The stick would sting our back. Once when I was hit, I couldn’t stop a tear from falling down my cheek. I was hurt and humiliated.
My parents – everyone’s parents – knew about the beatings and did nothing. I do not know why they had accepted this maltreatment at the hands of the so called pious people. But I told myself I would never stand by silently the way my parents did. Just because the teacher was an imam, it did not give him the right to abuse children.
But now here in the West I failed to protect my daughter. Yes, I spared her the physical abuse – but not the emotional abuse. I assumed things would be different here. I assumed our community’s teachers would be men and women familiar with the scientific method, rationality, and free inquiry. I thought they would teach my child to be inquisitive and curious, that she would be taught about the kindness of our Prophet (PBUH) the reformer who came to end jahiliyya, the thinker who revolutionized the fragmented and superstitious Arab society and formed them into a moral nation.
Instead my child was taught to mistrust, to fear the unknown. The Jinns were just the beginning of the mistrust and the belief in unexplained conspiracies. They were the first little drop of poison in my daughter’s mind. The imam was sowing the seeds of conspiracy theories, of mistrusting good things around you, of never feeling comfortable. This is how they imprison us in superstitions that only they can protect you from.
I could not sit and do nothing like my parents. I tried to bring up the matter with the School administration. My requests for a meeting of the board to discuss the curriculum were rejected. The administration thinks I am trying to reform Islam, that there could be no better way to teach about unexplained extraterrestrial beings and that if the children are taught to fear they are also taught the antidote to fear, the koranic verses.
My encounter with the school administration unsettled me. I assumed they would be shocked the way I was. Instead they defended the teacher and the curriculum. I decided to do more research on curricula to see what we are teaching our innocent young children. The findings are sad and frightening.
I looked through Maryam’s textbook and found an assignment for young kids to throw Dawa tea parties, inviting non-believers kids to Islam. I found other textbooks telling children that to assimilate with America is to disrespect and dishonor Islam.
I have to ask my fellow parents: Should we trust the teachers at our Islamic school and the textbooks they use? Is teaching our kids to fear “the other” teaching them to be good?
I have taken Maryam out of the school. She needs therapy now. I will try to help my daughter heal by spending more time outdoors, hiking through the woods, bringing back our love for nature. That’s where Halima helped raise the Prophet (PBUH) when he was a vulnerable child.
And I won’t be silent anymore.