Demonstrations in the Middle East are spreading as Muslims protest an American film that some say insults Islam. The violence highlights cultural differences and raises questions about the relationship between Muslims and the Western world. Those questions are personal for Muslim American children at one Minnesota school.
The Az Zahra Madressah and Academy in Brooklyn Park opened its doors for this week for orientation. The small gym buzzes as parents and kids register for classes.
Eighth-grader Anissa Salemohamed chats with her friends. She stands out in the crowd, wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey and matching green headscarf.
"Being American, it's like we live here, so we know what the culture is, what the fashion is and all that stuff," Salemohamed said. "Basically I pick what I want to wear and then accommodate it to fit the long sleeves, long pants and scarf."
This is one way Salemohamed puts her cultures together. She's learned that at the academy, where she has attended classes for hours each Sunday for six years.
"It's just like Sunday school that I guess Christians go to," Salemohamed said. "We have a lot of fun here hanging out with friends. It's not all like study, school, all that."
It's tough sometimes to get up on a Sunday morning, but Salemomhamed said learning the Quran and history of prophet Mohammed is important to her.
"It's nice 'cause, like, we learn about our manners, what we should do in the world," Salemomhamed said. "How to show people our religion and our history, and I guess good things to know about your religion."
The madrasah began in the 1980s in a community member's basement. Over the last 20 years, the academy put up three buildings and enrollment has grown steadily. It has nearly 150 students now, said principal Batul Mehdi.
"And we tried to accommodate by increase teachers, increases classes — physical class space so that we can accommodate the kids better," Mehdi said.
Enrollment is growing because of the many Indian and Pakistani immigrants who have come to Minnesota for education and then stay to raise their families. The parents are youthful, social, and professionally successful. One of them, a doctor named Raza Khan from India said he doesn't know enough to educate his two children about Islam, so he brings them to the academy.
"I have not learned Islam in an organized way. My study of Islam is based more on what I tried to study or the speeches that I attended," Khan said.
Khan said his children are learning about Islam in a comprehensive way that gives them the confidence to be both Muslim and American.
"My kids by definition are Muslim Americans. It's tough, especially during this phase of American history, to be both. But I think that's the right thing," Khan said. "I want them to be good person, and I think Islam can provide that."
Maryam Khimji converted to Islam a dozen years ago, when she married a Muslim man. The school is part of what makes her family work, she said.
"It's a way of building your family and the structure around it. It's important that she has the support that she needs. And this will provide her that. Because I'm still learning myself," Khimji said, as her daughter Aaliyah Khimji, 6, tries on the school's mandatory blue jacket uniform.
"I know that there are so many questions that she has that I can't answer on my own, so the community really helps," Khimji said.
This community has been growing for 40 years. That's when Imam Hussein Warlji fled Uganda with his family and came to Minnesota with help of five Lutheran churches. He served as the first imam here and is proud to call the school by its Islamic name: madrasah.
"Madrasah is a word used in Islamic terminology for and when you are bringing your children for religious upbringing," Warlji explains. "As they grow up, they have the privilege of having the academic and religious values together. That is what a madrasah is all about."
That way when Muslim American children are confronted by clashing cultures, they have the knowledge to answer questions for themselves, Warlji said.