By REID FORGRAVE
Emily Miller, an energetic elementary schoolteacher in Des Moines, loves to sing. So one recent morning, after her first-graders put away their backpacks and sharpen their pencils, she sits them in a semicircle and sings a variation of a song she learned growing up Catholic in southwest Iowa.
"Allah told Noah, there's gonna be a floodie, floodie!" the 22-year-old sings. The children join in. "Allah told Noah, there's gonna be a floodie, floodie! Get those animals out of the muddie, muddie! Children of Allah."
It's a typical morning at New Horizons Academy, a private day care and school at the Islamic Center of Des Moines. But for Miller and Jennifer DeMuynck, classes here are like nothing they've experienced before.
From the planned Muslim community center near ground zero in New York City to a Florida pastor's threat to burn Qurans, the debate over Islam's place in America persists.
It pains Miller and DeMuynck to hear all that. When they walk into their jobs every morning and see their young students - some who wear hijabs, some who ask about the difference between the teachers' Christian God and their own Allah, all of whom are schooled in a religious environment shielded from today's charged political climate - they see their jobs as a privilege. Working here gives them an outsider's view into the everyday life of Iowa Muslims.
"It's similar because they're in desks, and they're kids, and I'm their teacher, and we have a whiteboard," DeMuynck said. "Everything else is different."
• The reminder DeMuynck frequently gives her five female students, all of whom wear the hijab: "Your hair is showing." Their embarrassment is as if they just learned their fly is down.
• The Arabic banner hanging inside Miller's classroom, with a prayer asking Allah to multiply their blessings.
• The daily schedule on the wall: reading, Arabic, math, Islamic studies, lunch, Quran, nap, prayer, snack.
• The numerous brochures and posters in the hall, such as one for tour packages for the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, or another for a program that aims to deliver copies of the Quran to everyone in America ($100 buys 50 English translations).
• The home countries of Miller's six students: Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan and the Palestinian territories. Each speaks a different language at home.
"We're small in size, but we're more diverse than any school you'll find in the state of Iowa, and that's priceless to us," said Luai Amro, a Palestinian-American who is director of the Islamic Center of Des Moines and who hired the women earlier this year. "It means real life. It's not going to be a foreign concept for them, dealing with people of different faiths, different races, different colors. You must plant the seed at an early age."
New teacher admires 'devotion to their God'
Nobody is more surprised that Miller and DeMuynck teach at this 35-student Islamic school than the two teachers themselves.
Miller, a recent Central College graduate from Corning, embraces religion in her classroom more than DeMuynck does. Miller considers herself a liberal Catholic who "has some bones to pick" with her church, mostly with its hierarchy and strict interpretation of the Bible. Miller said she once feared Muslim men who wore long beards and prayed fervent prayers. When she started teaching here, she began to analyze Islam, and the religion seemed like a possibility for her to convert to. But when Miller read about what she sees as the subjugated role of women in Islam, she decided it wasn't for her. Since then, Miller has rejuvenated her Christian faith, and she loves working in a school where Allah - God - is spoken of constantly.
She sings her students Christian children's songs like "My God is So Big," substituting the word Allah for God. She has prayed with her students in the school's prayer room. Miller attended an Iftar meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and wore a hijab out of respect.
"I tell people I work at the Islamic Center, and one person asked, 'Has anybody threatened you?' " Miller said. "If I didn't know better, I'd say these people are such wonderful Christians. I admire their devotion to their God, and I believe it's the same God as mine."
Evangelical Christian feels faith strengthen
DeMuynck, a 36-year-old who went back to school for a teaching degree and has been substitute teaching in public schools for a couple of years, is less comfortable with Islam. She tries to keep religion out of her classroom altogether, although she's found that difficult.
She's the more evangelical Christian of the two teachers, attending Grace Evangelical Free Church in Huxley and speaking of her faith in the language of a born-again. She said a blessing over her classroom when she was first hired. She asks other Islamic Center employees to escort her students into the prayer room so she doesn't have to. She teaches reading, writing and arithmetic; religion, she believes, belongs to the specialized teachers down the hall.
"All my kids know I'm Christian, and all the parents know I'm Christian," DeMuynck said.
Once, the students asked the name of DeMuynck's God. "It's Jesus, right?" they asked. "No, it's God," DeMuynck replied. "God is the one and only God. You call him Allah. I call him God."
In some ways, teaching here has opened DeMuynck's eyes about Islam. She learned that Muslims don't worship Muhammad; the prophet is God's messenger. She learned the hijab isn't an affront to a Muslim woman's rights: "The hijab is modesty," DeMuynck explains. "A parent told me that in Muslim culture, the hair is a girl's prettiest asset. They cover it so they don't flaunt it."
In some ways, teaching here has strengthened DeMuynck's Christian faith. She's seen inconsistencies in Islam that don't appear in her interpretation of Christianity. She likes that her own two children grew up praying words they understand, whereas students at the Islamic school sometimes pray in another language.
One thing DeMuynck has also learned is that Islam and Christianity have many differences, but there are fewer differences between people - especially when you get past the media stereotypes and into everyday life.
"There's extremism in every religion," DeMuynck said. "Christians who want to burn the Quran, that's extremist. It's just more televised for Muslims."
Both teachers say their own Christianity hasn't wavered in the face of the natural spiritual tension of facing another religion every workday.
Miller has become more cognizant of the little things that might offend Islamic sensibilities: Once, she showed her students a photograph of her petting a pig, not considering that might offend. (Eating pork is considered haram, or forbidden by Islamic law.) In the school, Miller no longer reaches out to shake hands when she meets a male parent, nor does she use her left hand to eat, both considered offensive to some Muslims.
DeMuynck struggles with delineating the difference between her students' religion and her students' culture. DeMuynck has read parts of the Quran so she can better understand her students' lives, but at the same time she's been reading "The Case for Christ," by Christian author (and former atheist) Lee Strobel. For DeMuynck, the Christian book has given her concrete proof about the existence and the divinity of Jesus Christ. It has strengthened her view that the Bible is consistent, but the Quran is not.
Whatever the faith: Kids are kids
Maryam Iyer, a 6-year-old who is missing her two front teeth, sprawls on a beanbag in the corner of DeMuynck's classroom. Like all the students here, her shoes are off.
"Put your book away. It's time for Islamic studies," DeMuynck instructs her.
The girl pops up and walks down the hall. Her Islamic studies teacher, Zareena Basha, an Indian Muslim in Iowa since 1997, greets her with the traditional Islamic greeting: "As-salamu alaykum."
Maryam opens her book, "I Love Islam, Level 1." She skips past the five pillars of Islam, which she learned last week, and opens to a page that contains the story of the prophet. Maryam recites the names of Muhammad's four daughters and three sons - they recently drew a family tree of the prophet's family - then she reads a passage about the founder of her religion.
"Prophet Muhammad used to go to a cave called Ghar Hiraa," Maryam reads. "Ghar Hiraa was on the top of a mountain called Jabal-un-Noor, or the Mountain of Light. ... Muhammad was very scared in the cave. He was alone in the cave, and it was dark. This was the first time that he had seen an angel!"
The teacher puts on a music tape. The tune is from "Yankee Doodle," but the words are different, using an Arabic phrase that says only Allah should be worshiped.
"La ilaha illa Allah, Muslims say it loudly," Maryam sings. "La ilaha illa Allah, stand up for Islam proudly."
Then Islamic studies class ends, and Maryam walks back to her regular classroom. In one room, DeMuynck shushes a child who is talking while others take a test. In the classroom next door, Miller lets a girl sit on her lap as they go over reading. Miller's class goes out for recess, climbing on the jungle gym and taking turns on the swing set. On the way back in, her students get into a religious debate, one that shows that, no matter the religion, kids are kids.
Asks Amina Mackic, 5, whose parents are from Bosnia: "Do you know who made spiders?"
Jawad Ali, 5, whose parents are from Pakistan, replies, "Allah! Allah made the spiders."
Moltazam Aldow, 5, whose parents are from Sudan, chimes in, "No! Spider-Man made the spiders."
Rabu, November 24, 2010