SHAFAQNA (Shia News Association) - Dr. Mohammed Saleem, a 12-year veteran of the U.S. educational system, brings a wealth of experience to his new position as the principal of Abraar School in Ottawa, Canada. Here, in his first interview since he moved to Ottawa at the end of last year, Dr. Saleem discusses his plans for the Abraar School and shares his views on the state of Islamic education in North America.
Q: How are you enjoying Ottawa so far?
MS: Ottawa is a great place to be! My family and I really like how different cultures are celebrated here in the city. Coming from a relatively small town in the U.S. Southwest, we are still getting used to living in a metropolitan area and of course the cold! It’ll take a while to get used to the traffic…but it is a price worth paying considering the several opportunities the city affords regarding Islamic/Muslim venues and other recreational resources.
Q: What did you expect to find when you arrived at Abraar School?
MS: Well, as a former principal of an Islamic school in the U.S. and a founding member of the MAS Council of Islamic Schools, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many Islamic schools in the U.S. So I had a pretty good idea of what I would find at Abraar School. I was pretty sure that I was going to see the same type of students, dedicated team of teachers, caring parents who are trying to make ends meet but still willing to pay the cost of an Islamic education for their children, a dedicated, core group of people working day and night to make sure the school is running smoothly. And all of that of course in an environment of limited resources! I was also expecting the school to be struggling with student enrollments, you know, it is sometimes difficult to convince parents to send their children to an Islamic school. Issues of credibility, quality of education, etc. make parents hesitate to commit their children to an Islamic school.
Q: How did your expectations fit with reality?
MS: Well, I was right on the dot when it comes to the type of students, teachers, parents, and that special group of people that make things happen despite the limited resources. I just happened to visit another Islamic school in Vancouver last month and when I came back to Abraar School, I told the students, “Guess who I saw at the school? I saw students and teachers that look exactly like the good folks here at Abraar!” Having been involved in Islamic education in North America for the last fifteen plus years, I really see this as a common thread that unites the many Islamic schools in the West.
Now, as far as the expectation that Abraar School will be struggling with student enrollments, I was wrong! I was pleasantly surprised to find that several classes were at capacity and there were students on the waiting list in many grade levels. In fact, parents were enrolling their kids in the daycare program and some parents registering their kids even before they were born just to reserve a spot for their child at Abraar School! SubhanAllah (Glory be to Allah)! This is definitely the result of the solid reputation in academic excellence that Abraar has within the Muslim community in Ottawa. Of course that is directly related to the consistent high academic performance of our students over the years.
Q: What sort of experiences and skills prepared you for taking over the principal role at the school?
MS: Believe it or not, I actually started off as a chemical engineer! I was teaching at a local Islamic school to pay for my bachelors in chemical engineering. I loved teaching so much, in my senior year of my bachelor’s degree, I decided to change my major to education and become a teacher instead. My family was surprised, to say the least. But I have never regretted that decision. I went on to teach in the public schools in the U.S. and then became a founding principal of an Islamic school there. I completed my Masters in Education Administration and worked as a principal of an Islamic school for seven years. I left my principal position to complete my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin. My research focuses on Islamic education and education of Muslims in the West. I worked as an assistant professor of education for three years at West Texas A&M University prior to joining Abraar School. I guess those are my formal experiences that have prepared me for my role as a school principal.
More importantly; however, are my informal experiences as the president of several student clubs such as the Muslim Students Association and various local community organizations over the years. These experiences really prepared me for a leadership role within the Muslim community. As an executive committee member of the Muslim American Society Council of Islamic Schools, I was privileged to visit many Islamic schools and provide consulting as well as professional development services to them. This has afforded me a much deeper understanding of the challenges Islamic schools face and the unspoken stories within their walls.
Q: What are your goals going forward?
MS: My personal goals are to continue my research on Islamic schools and the education of Muslim children in the West and continue to serve the Muslim community and the wider community. My goals for the school are to make it one of the best educational institutions in the country. The school is already in the right direction. With the proper guidance, research driven practices, dedication, and sincerity, we can make Abraar one of the best schools in Canada… a model not only for Muslim but also for non-Muslims.
Q: With the majority of Muslim youth in public schools, why should the community support Abraar School?
MS: Institutions like Abraar School are connecting our youth back to their Islamic roots. They are preparing the future leaders for the Muslim community and our nation. In Islamic schools, character development is not just one of the aspects of the curriculum; rather, it is the raison d’être. Additionally, schools like Abraar School are playing a very important role of not only reviving the recitation and memorization of the Holy Quran amongst our youth but also inculcating in them the spirit of the Quran and the sunnah (tradition) of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. We teach our students about the importance of obedience and service to our parents, to each other, and to our community. We expect our students to give back to their community by becoming contributing citizens. These are all good reasons why the community should support Abraar School. It is an investment that will bring back many returns for the community.
Q: What do you say to those who argue that isolating Muslims in their own schools will limit their abilities to later interact with people of all faiths and backgrounds?
MS: I would say that those fears are not completely unfounded because I have seen some Muslim communities and some schools that have unfortunately done just that and have become isolated from the majority culture and community. Therefore it becomes absolutely necessary that we understand that one of the purposes of an Islamic school is to help our youth to judiciously negotiate the various tensions that may arise due to cultural, ethnic, social, and religious differences in our pluralistic society.
You see, regardless of whether our children are in a secular school or in an Islamic school, they will be forced to make choices and consequently to continuously negotiate between their Islamic/minority identity and the majority culture. I say that from my own personal experiences of growing up as a teenager in the U.S. and attending high school and later on teaching in the public school system and also from findings from research related to social justice and cultural issues.
Youth that do not attend Islamic schools are constantly challenged in regards to their Islamic identity and without proper guidance, many youth have a tendency to react in an extreme manner in regards to the majority culture; either they will completely reject the values of the majority culture in order to staunchly hold on to their Islamic identity or embrace the values of the majority/secular culture and let go of their Islamic identity. Those who let go of their Islamic identity tend to live two lives; at home they endure the Islamic/cultural values imposed upon them by their parents and as soon as they are amongst their friends at school, they discard them for the values of the popular culture. Very few youth attempt to critically analyze their positions in regards to the majority/popular culture. It is much easier to react irrationally or without thinking rather than to question the status quo or to burn your own trail.
One of Islamic school’s most important roles is to provide that nurturing environment that can guide our youth to critically analyze their own positions in regards to others and to teach them the skills of negotiating differences with understanding, respect for others, and with compassion and love. However, that cannot happen without our youth having a high self-esteem and self-confidence. That can most easily be provided in an environment that already affirms their Muslim identity. Therefore, Islamic schools can actually play a vital role in raising a generation of Muslims that are well adjusted in regards to their Islamic identity and their role in a pluralistic society.
Q: What are your concerns about the future of Muslims in the West when it comes to their education?
MS: The Muslim community in the West must focus on building/establishing a variety of educational and education related institutions. We should not be satisfied with establishing mosques and graveyards! We must also establish colleges, universities, schools, youth and community centers, counseling centers, women centers, research and information powerhouses, etc. If you examine how minorities in the West have established themselves, you will see a similar pattern; they have primarily done so by establishing institutions that serve their particular communities. We must do the same.
One of the challenges that Muslims in the West face in regards to education, especially here in Ontario, is the cost of private education. Less than five per cent of Muslim youth attend Islamic schools. We need to increase that number. It is a catch 22 situation, low enrollments mean high costs and less revenue that has a direct impact on the quality of education and perpetuates the cycle of low enrollment. It is within the grasp of the Muslim community in the West to provide affordable quality education in an Islamic environment to its youth. However, that requires a commitment from a greater number of Muslim parents to send their children to Islamic schools.
In my opinion, the Islamic education of the Muslim youth is strategically the most important endeavors the Muslim community can undertake. It is an endeavor that is directly linked to the very existence of the Muslim community in the West.
Q: Any final thoughts?
MS: For those who are not yet convinced about Islamic schools, especially Abraar School and the quality of education that we provide to our students, I invite you to come to our Open House on June 12, 2012 and see for yourself.