New York, like other American States, regularly witnesses political campaigning on various fronts. Recently, Democratic Congressman, Joseph Crawley”s visit to Al-Razi Islamic school in Queens was not only part of his media electoral campaign but also an opportunity to educate the school”s 450 Muslim students about their political rights. The representative of Queens and the Bronx discussed taxation and import laws; while students were more interested in what the congressman would do to improve their living standards in New York. Within the congressman”s thirty-minute visit, many questions were posed by the students whose ages ranged between five and eighteen to show a political awakening amongst young American Muslims.
Following afternoon prayers, the Congressman opened his speech with the Islamic greeting, "Assalam Alaikum." He gave the students the opportunity to ask on-the-spot “unscripted” questions, directing this to a group of local journalists who accompanied him in order to portray Crawley”s attempts to get closer to the Muslim community. Unaware of the risk taken by the American politician in accepting uncensored and unprepared questions, some students asked Crawley what he meant by “unscripted," however they did not get an answer
Crawley focused much of his talk on the victims of the devastating South Asia earthquake. It was a clear attempt by the Democrat to show that he was aware of the suffering of these victims, many of whom came from the same countries as the parents’ of students at Al-Razi. The students asked him about his role as congressman and whether they too, could one day become congressional representatives themselves. Crawley was surprised when a young girl asked him whether one has to be an "original American" to become a member of congress. By "original American," the young girl was referring to somebody of European descent. Crawley”s response to the girl”s question was swift as he rhetorically asked, "Who is an original American?" Crawley added, "To become a member of congress one must simply be over 25 years old and an American citizen”. He referred to the fact that the official definition of American citizenship is precisely those who have citizenship regardless of ethnicity
The Congressman was keen to speak directly to some of the students after question time was over. He wanted to get closer to them and show his concerns regarding their well-being. Not all students thought along the lines of the young girl who asked about "original Americans," as many others were confident of their chances of entering the political arena and that opportunities to do so are not restricted to middle and upper class Americans of European origin.
Among these young hopefuls is seven year-old Mayar, of Egyptian origin, who during a conversation between teachers and pupils, stated that she wished to become President of the United States, and would "ban alcohol, pork and smoking!" Young Mayar added that she wanted to help Muslims and others and take part in charity work. Her sister Mahy who is two years older, also said that she wanted to become President of the United States but that she would need to "get all the Muslims in America" to vote for her. Despite her youth, it would seem that Mahy is aware of a political system whereby many voters usually choose the candidate who shares their ethnic origin.
Ashraf Al-Iskandirani, father of Mayar, Mahy and Minna (who also studies at Al-Razi school) said that he preferred that his daughters studied at an Islamic school so that they could learn both the principles of the religion and modern science." He added, "This school is one of the best schools in New York, which is why I have been able to give my daughters both an American and Islamic education."
Ashraf continued, "I do not fear that my daughter would be isolated from society. They play tennis, they swim, and the take part in martial arts. They socialize with different members of society within the perimeters of an Islamic upbringing."
Assistant director Shaheen Asrarapour further emphasized Ashraf”s point, saying "the school”s curriculum is approved by New York”s state educational authority and we fully commit to it. We add to it however, the teaching of Islam and the Arabic language. The school also offers the voluntary learning of Persian." The school teaches eight hours of Islamic studies and Arabic or Persian every week.
Al-Razi school is located in Woodside, central Queens in the same building as the ”New York Islamic Institute,” that offers education services about Islam and holds prayers in its mosque. As one enters the school, a strong atmosphere of dynamism is present amongst the young boys and girls who play and learn together without restrictions and without segregation of the sexes. However, the school does impose a uniform in which girls are obliged to wear headscarves. The majority of American schools do not specify a uniform, however, Asrarapour stated, "some schools now adopt a dress code to limit the reckless following of fashion trends." She added that since there are 34 different ethnic origins in the school, then there should be a unifying dress code, as "we want to unite them as much as possible."
When I asked Asrarapour about concerns that Muslim students may feel excluded from the rest of society, she said, "The real fear is that society shuts them off due to misconceptions. The threat becomes clearer whenever there is an incident in which the perpetrator is a Muslim. We really feel the reaction against us, especially women who wear the veil." She continues, "We also support dialogue amongst religious leaders so that our students are aware of the differences around them. In this respect, we make sure that we recruit teachers of other religions. We are open to and accept the opinions of others and this is what we want for our children, to be able to live here and interact with those who are different to them."
The issue of adopting an American identity remains a difficult one, especially amongst first generation migrants. Similar to the situation in other countries, the first generation adopts the identity of their home countries where as the second generation would usually adopt a dual identity. When we asked Mahy what her name was, she replied, "my name is Mahy, but everyone calls me Maggy. That is my American name and I prefer it. But here at school and at home they call me Mahy." When asked about her country, she says, "I am from Egypt but I was born in the United States. I love both countries, but my parents are from Egypt. I love Egypt." Asrarapour stated that such an explanation causes no harm because, "the US is made up of migrants from all over the world and we should respect the multiple identities. We come here and enjoy life here. We want to be American citizens but we would not like to lose our identities."
Mayar was chosen out of all the students to present flowers to Congressman Joseph Crawley. As she handed him the flowers, he asked her, "Where do you come from?" Mayar replied "Egypt", whereupon he asked the question again, and she repeated Egypt. Crawley repeated his question three times, hoping for a different answer each time. He had to be more specific in his question and ask, "Where do you live?" Her answer, "Astoria, Queens," was what he had preferred to hear originally. Crawley repeated this conversation to other students, stating that they should always be proud of their origins. Before leaving Al-Razi school, Crawley reminded the students that this was his tenth visit after September 11, 2001 and that he would be visiting again.
Asrarapour further stated that she once strived hard to get politicians to visit the school, whereas since 9/11, she receives many demands for visits. Congressman Crawley”s visit to the school raised political awareness amongst students that may manifest itself in the future for stronger communication between the residents of New York, in a country that may not always have friendly relations with the various students” countries of origin.
In Crawley”s speech, the congressman stated that the destructive earthquake in South Asia may be a good opportunity for the world to acknowledge the charitable nature of America. Crawley added that he intended to visit the afflicted areas before the end of the year "to show the citizens of your original countries that you care."
After Crawley”s departure from the school, Mayar expressed her opinion about him, saying, "He is a good man. He thanked me for the roses and wrote me a thank you letter." Mayar”s sister Mahy presented a letter that was given to her also from the Congressman. The two letters were identical; Crawley had given both girls the same letter as he could not tell who was who as they were both dressed in identical white headscarves.
This particular incident may be seen as indicative of the problem that faces many American politicians. They view Muslims as one large group, with similar features, between which they do not distinguish. Many do not invest the time to understand the differences between one person and another or the specifics to each community within the ethnically rich American-Muslim populations.