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Speaking for Islam


By Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News

Ameena Jandali, co-founder of the Islamic Networks Group
Ameena Jandali, co-founder of the Islamic Networks Group, talks with Lorraine al-Rawi

Standing next to an overhead projector, Maha ElGenaidi reviews a list of Islam's basic tenets with 22 students at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. Dressed modestly in ankle-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse, her head covered in accordance with Muslim custom, she tells the world history honors students about salat, the practice of praying five times a day.

``Now this is seven days a week, guys,'' ElGenaidi says. ``Weekends included.''

ElGenaidi, 41, is co-founder of the Islamic Networks Group (ING), which has trained and sent speakers into Bay Area middle and high schools for nearly a decade. The idea is to counter stereotypes by helping social studies teachers supplement and put a human face on their annual, required textbook unit on Islam. Increasingly busy in the post-Sept. 11 era, San Jose-based ING has 15 volunteer speakers who made about 750 classroom presentations about Islam last year. They also spoke at dozens of churches, senior centers, corporations and forums for law enforcement officers and healthcare workers.

ElGenaidi and co-founder Ameena Jandali are ING's engine and soul, running it as a passion without pay and turning it into a national model for teaching about religion in the public square.

In California, it has been almost 15 years since educational reforms set academic instruction about religion firmly into the world history and social sciences curricula, so that children will understand how major faiths have shaped history and civilization. Many non-public schools also observe these guidelines.

``The state made it a requirement to teach about religion,'' ElGenaidi says. ``But they haven't given teachers adequate resources to do that. Nor have they taught teachers how to teach about religion, which makes them reluctant to approach the subject. Some skip it or skim it, because they're afraid about the separation between church and state. What they don't understand is that, while they cannot promote religion, they can teach about it. That's where we come in.''

Since the reforms were made, ING has become a success story: Two Muslim women in Silicon Valley have built a one-of-a-kind educational group, spinning off a network of 18 affiliated, Islamic speakers bureaus in 12 states, from Arizona to Nebraska and New York, as well as two in Canada.

With so many affiliated bureaus cropping up during the past two years, ING has become a prototype: It doesn't proselytize, it describes the faith, and it emphasizes the commonalities among Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Speakers are trained according to secular guidelines, developed by the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom Forum and its First Amendment Center, for teaching religion in schools. Each bureau, though operating independently, receives training from ING and commits itself to the vision of teaching about Islam, never preaching.

``There's a sensitivity issue,'' ElGenaidi explains. ``If these were Muslim kids and you had a Christian or Hindu speaker coming into the classroom, how would Muslim parents want that handled? That's our standard. Faith is between the kids and their parents. I don't give students our office number or e-mail. I don't even give them our Web site. If a kid asks for a copy of the Koran, we always say, `Ask the teacher about it.' ''

Demand for information about Islam is growing nationally, and the new start-up bureaus are struggling to keep up with demand. The Phoenix bureau has half a dozen speakers. The one in San Diego has 10. In Boston, where plans for a formal bureau are on hold, 70 people showed up for training as speakers in October. Ten were selected.

In Minneapolis, bureau director Zafar Siddiqui had eight trained speakers available when Sept. 11 happened. ``We were a nascent group, just getting established,'' he says, ``and suddenly we found ourselves deluged with tons of requests for presentations on Islam from schools, churches, colleges, universities, book clubs, coffee shops, law enforcement agencies and hospitals.'' He now has 25 speakers working for him.

At a time of increasing ethnic and religious diversity in classrooms around the state and nation, demystifying religion is an essential, ElGenaidi figures. ``Because of changing demographics,'' she says, ``people and professional groups are interested in cultural competency.''

And at a time when Islam is held in suspicion by some people -- and when teaching about Islam in schools is being challenged by some conservatives -- ElGenaidi knows what a tightrope she and her colleagues are walking.

``Since Sept. 11, the presentations feel really different to me,'' she says. ``I feel that I have to begin by condemning terrorism, by disassociating myself from Osama bin Laden, and being clear that the hijackers are not martyrs.''

But walking into the classroom at Mitty, she deals with more mundane matters. She tells the students that she is married to a software engineer. She explains that Islam is the source not only of her religious belief, but of her cultural identity, her diet and style of dress. Born in Cairo, she is Egyptian, Arab, and, for more than 30 years, American. ``I'm not a woman living under the Taliban,'' she quips.

But, she adds, ``I wear my Islam. To understand my identity, you have to know about my religious beliefs and practices.''

ElGenaidi is visiting Mitty, a Catholic school, at the invitation of world history teacher Nick Bridger. Every year, in accordance with the California state framework for social studies instruction, Bridger's 10th-graders learn about the history of Islam.

This year's group, which is heavily Roman Catholic, already knows some of the basics: that Islam is a monotheistic faith; that it traces its origins to Abraham; that it holds up Muhammad as its principal prophet, though not its only one.

The students want to know whether Islam has a rite analogous to baptism -- it does not -- and whether Muslims are allowed to marry people of other faiths. Only men are allowed, ElGenaidi says. As ``primary provider'' at home, the man generally exercises more authority. And since Islam recognizes the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, a Muslim man who marries a non-Muslim woman would allow her to practice her faith freely. ``In fact,'' ElGenaidi tells the students, ``he is required to do so by Islamic law.''

Also, Islam is a patrilineal faith: Children follow the religion of the father. Even if he marries outside the religion, the family's Muslim lineage will continue.

ElGenaidi explains that most of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims are Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi -- fewer than one in five is Arab. She shows them a page of Arabic and explains that it is read from right to left, like Hebrew. She adds that Moses is a prophet in the Islamic tradition, as is Jesus, though he is not considered to be the son of God.

Her presentation was ``so good,'' Bridger said later. ``Textbooks are kind of flat, and kids are inundated with media. But hearing this in person, they were able to toss ideas at her and see how she can be a very contemporary person and still practice this ancient religion. She had a good impact.''

ElGenaidi, whose father was a psychiatrist, grew up in a largely secular home, first in Cairo and then on the East Coast. Jandali grew up in an observant Muslim home in Fort Collins, Colo., the daughter of a Pakistani-born college professor and a convert mother.

As young women, both ElGenaidi and Jandali, now 41, were profoundly aware of negative depictions of Muslims in movies, on television, and in other parts of U.S. culture. Jandali remembers a family friend whose daughter complained of inaccuracies about Islam in textbooks: `` `Muslims pray by hitting their heads on the sand,' that kind of thing.''

The friend, it turns out, was Shabbir Mansuri, the founder and director of the Council on Islamic Education in Orange County. In 1989, Mansuri became aware of the new California state framework for teaching about religion in the schools.

That framework is for a social studies curriculum in which students in the seventh grade -- and again in the ninth or 10th grade -- learn about the rise and growth of Islam as a religion and civilization. In the past month, conservative writers have charged that the state framework overplays Islam, and a San Luis Obispo mother filed a complaint, saying that her seventh-grader's textbook was biased toward Islam. The study of Judaism and Christianity is part of the sixth-grade state curriculum and is woven into portions of middle and high school study.

Mansuri came up with the idea of establishing a bureau of Muslim speakers to go into the schools and talk about Islam. Working with the Freedom Forum, which advocates church-state separation as it lobbies for religious freedom, he began to train Stanford students as speakers in California middle and high schools. Always, Mansuri says, the speakers ``were to be there with the permission of the teacher, to make the presentation and leave. They were not there to proselytize or promote a religion.

``I am very, very strict about this,'' Mansuri says. His efforts served as the ``incubator'' for ING, he says. Mansuri continues to mentor ElGenaidi and Jandali and remains involved with the training of speakers and new bureau directors around the country.

``I go in there and make sure,'' he says, ``that we are very, very careful and within the First Amendment principles that give us a place at the table in America. We should never abuse our place at the table by proselytizing.''

It is imperative that speakers -- from any religion -- ``not take advantage of a captive audience in a state-sponsored institution,'' says Marcia Beauchamp, until recently the religious freedom programs coordinator for the First Amendment Center, an independent program of the Freedom Forum. ``I'd love to see other religious communities doing what ING does and training speakers in the same way.''

ElGenaidi and Jandali met a decade ago while raising funds for Bosnian relief. The Muslim community already had its political and civil rights advocacy groups. Education was the missing piece. In 1993, they established Bay Area Media Watch, which attempted to monitor -- and educate -- local media about coverage of Muslims and Islam. After three months, they changed the name to Islamic Networks Group and began to focus on education in schools.

ElGenaidi, who has a background in marketing, sent mailings to well over 1,000 social studies teachers and educators. She had a 17 percent response rate, and ING made 300 school presentations in its first year.

In the mid-'90s, the group put an emphasis on meeting with police. ElGenaidi recalls counseling officers that, when responding to a domestic dispute in a Muslim home, the wife ``may jump if you touch her. She may not want to be alone with you. They may not want you to step inside with your shoes on, so you might want to ask them to step outside. And you need to accept all of this as American. Muslims are now part of the social fabric of the American society that you need to learn about.''

Now, nearly six months after the September attacks, churches have become ``the new door'' through which ING reaches out to non-Muslims, Jandali said. Also, corporations concerned about employee discrimination lawsuits are starting to phone the ING office for advice about cultural sensitivity.

Even with the help of assistants, the two founders work 60-hour weeks, and still haven't been paid a penny -- by choice. However, they would like to see their staff grow.

ING has a $400,000 budget, but has never been able to raise more than $200,000 in a year. It recently hired a managing director, Dian Alyan, a former brand manager for Procter & Gamble, who is looking into foundation grants.

The organization is growing in stature. ElGenaidi and Jandali have become familiar faces on the podium at national Islamic conferences. On a recent afternoon at the ING office, ElGenaidi answered the phone, offered a few suggestions to the caller, then hung up, saying, ``Time magazine. They're doing something on Afghan women.''

After nearly a decade of hard work, Jandali is encouraged: ``For a lot of people, when we walk in the room, it's the first time they've met an American Muslim. Just humanizing this very mysterious religion for them, it's a positive thing. It's a pleasant surprise for them that Islam is not just this horrible, violent religion that oppresses people.

``They go, `Wow, I didn't know you guys believe in the prophets. I didn't know you believe that Jesus is a prophet. Wow, I can relate to this. It's not that different from what I believe in my own religion.' ''

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