My kids’ best friends and their mom, one of my best mom friends, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are a lot of things I love about that. At my kids’ preschool, parents often talked over the unexpected challenges of parenting. I quickly found that I could relate best to Melinda (not her real name), who saw moral guidance as a critical aspect of parenting. She was comfortable with references to faith, humility, surrender—concepts I often feel that I need to edit from casual discussion.
It turns out Melinda had, and continues to have, a lot to teach me, both as a human being and also as a largely misunderstood and marginalized religious minority in America. Here’s just one example: Jehovah’s Witnesses do school differently than a lot of other kids. They don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance and they don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays. I don’t mean that they don’t bring in cupcakes on their own special day or they don’t go trick or treating on Halloween. They really don’t celebrate—they don’t sing the Happy Birthday song and watch your kid blow out a candle and they don’t do the Halloween parade in the school hallway. They do things differently.
And, although they aren’t much for secular governments, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long, successful track record of defending their, or more precisely, their children’s, rights to religious freedom though American courts. They have, over several generations, refined the process of explaining their sometimes unpopular practices to others. They produce pamphlets for parents to take to teachers to explain these practices, produce videos for both parents and children on how to both understand and relate their positions and beliefs to others. These days, as Muslim parents in America, we all have a lot to learn from our Jehovah’s Witness friends and neighbors.
This year, as the 2016 election season heats up, I was increasingly worried about sending my young children off to their preschool and elementary schools. I could not imagine sending my children into the care of people I didn’t know in schools that were new to us in a broader national climate of anti-Muslim bigotry. So I did what many Jehovah’s Witness moms do before school starts each year. I emailed my children’s teachers and administrators and asked for fifteen minutes of their time:
Hello Mrs. xxxx,
I hope you both are enjoying your summer! I was wondering if I could steal a few moments of your time early in the school year (or before if you’d prefer).
Given the unfortunate level of Islamophobia in our country, I’m reaching out to all of my kids’ administrators and teachers, to see if I might offer some basic information about our Muslim traditions and also answer any questions or concerns that you may have.
Even a year ago I would have assumed that children at the preschool level would not have developed any biases or animus toward people of another faith. But given this year’s election rhetoric, I want to offer myself as a partner in compassionately addressing issues around tolerance and pluralism should they arise.
Thanks so much for reading, and look forward to seeing you soon!
And then, at the scheduled meeting, I reiterated my concern that election rhetoric might affect the school environment and offered myself as a resource and a partner in case any issue relating to Muslim students or Islamophobia should come up during the school year. I also offered them each a one-page sheet that looked like this:
We are so excited to be part of the xxxx School community! We know that xxxx School is a welcoming and nurturing community. Unfortunately, out in the larger community, there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam and Muslims these days. I wanted to let you know that our family is Muslim, and to offer myself as a resource to consult about or dispel misinformation about Islam and Muslims at school (or even elsewhere). I can be reached, at your convenience, with any questions, at xxx-xxx-xxxx. A little bit about Xxx…
Food: Xxx does not eat meat products not brought from home. In particular, Xxx does not eat pork products of any kind.
Dress: Xxx does not observe any special dress requirements, but our family tries to be reasonably modest.
Holidays: We celebrate two main holidays on the Islamic lunar calendar, which rotates back about two weeks every calendar year. This year we celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr, which comes after the month of fasting, or Ramadan, in June.
We will celebrate Eid-ul-Adha, a celebration of sharing food with family, community, and those who are in need, on September 12th. This is a Monday, and Xxx will not be able to attend school on that day. I understand that this will be early in the school year, during orientation, and would like to coordinate with you to make sure this absence is not disruptive.
We are very open to celebrating with our friends from, and learning about, other faiths and traditions. Eid ul-Adha falls during the start of the school year, when we understand there may not be time to incorporate a lesson or mention of it. Please do let us know if you would like us to offer a brief lesson on it later in the school year, or if you would like us to give a brief lesson on Ramadan when it begins, at the end of the school year.
Vocabulary: There are a few words Xxx uses that may not be familiar. For example, Xxx may occasionally say:
Allah Saeen (pronounced like ‘sigh’): This is what Xxx calls God; ‘Allah’ means God and ‘Saeen’ is a term of adoration or respect. For example, he might say, “let’s not step on the worm, it’s Allah Saeen’s living creature!”
Eid: A holiday or celebration, as above.
Zikr: A kind of meditation or prayer. We do this regularly, so Xxx might mention it.
Thank you for reading, and offering such a beautiful school environment for Xxx; we look forward to a wonderful school year!
I tried, in general, to provide useful information about my children without creating any unnecessary burdens on teachers or administrators. I made clear that I had a great deal of respect for their work, which I see as both important and demanding. I included information on issues that might come up at school (for example, our dietary restriction on pork), but I did not offer extra information that wouldn’t ever come up in a school environment (for example, the prohibition on alcohol). My children are still a bit young to observe daily prayers, but I imagine that might be an important accommodation to negotiate for an older child.
My meetings had several results, all positive. I was invited to provide information about Eid or Ramadan in my children’s schools. Teachers independently set up a small display about Eid ul-Adha, and offered Eid greetings in the monthly newsletter. All of the teachers and administrators I met with made note of my phone number as a resource.
Perhaps most importantly, our meetings gave my children’s teachers and administrators the opportunity to see our family as human, as more similar to themselves than different. If they had not yet, my children’s teachers and administrators could say that they had met a Muslim and that it was, for them, a positive experience. The meetings gave me an opportunity to get a sense of my children’s teachers and administrators, and, I hope, signaled to them that I am an engaged parent and citizen.
Our children are far more vulnerable than we are, as adults, to rising Islamophobia. They lack the same liberties that we exercise freely as adults–to leave an uncomfortable or dangerous situation, or to challenge authority. Their classmates may not have had any exposure to cultures or traditions different from their own; they may be exposed to and shaped by adults with racist or xenophobic perspectives that they mimic. As Muslim parents, we have some obligation to be our children’s allies and advocates. Meetings like these give parents an opportunity to develop relationships with teachers and administrators before a problem or a conflict arises. Ideally, they help set the expectation for a school environment in which diversity will be respected or even celebrated.
These are, no doubt, strange times for Muslims in America. But the great diversity of America is truly its strength. It is also our strength. The struggle to believe, practice, and be as we choose are struggles that have been fought by several groups before us right here in America. The way forward, which will inevitably be difficult, becomes easier with friends and allies who have gone this way before.
School conference season has begun; please feel free to adapt the templates above for your children’s teachers and administrators.
Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer and writer. Her recently viral post, “Dear Non-Muslim Allies,” and other writings can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.