Founders, Students Defend Islamic College
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There's a new college starting classes this summer in Berkeley, California. It's called Zaytuna College, and its motto is: Where Islam Meets America.
It's the first Muslim college in the United States, and its very existence brings up questions and controversy.
Reporter Lonny Shavelson has our story.
LONNY SHAVELSON: It's a pretty standard California college scene: Students walk across a sunny courtyard into classrooms, take seats next to friends. But then, the women sit on opposite sides of the auditorium from the men, who are mostly heavily bearded, heads covered in skullcaps. Only one woman's hair is visible. The rest wear modest, Islamic scarves.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Arabic spoken)
SHAVELSON: The language is Arabic. They're offering summer language classes in preparation for an official fall opening. Hardly news, you might think, since the U.S. is filled with religious colleges, but...
Unidentified Man #1: Muslim scholars launching the first ever four-year accredited Muslim college in the United States of America.
Unidentified Woman #2: But is this controversial school being set up to educate or indoctrinate young Americans?
Unidentified Man #2: What I call the stealth jihad America, Islam's insinuating itself into our academic institutions.
SHAVELSON: That's Fox News. Their main criticism of the college has to do with the teachings of one of the founders, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. He's an American convert to Islam and a kind of celebrity preacher of rock star proportions. His opposition to the U.S. war in the Middle East has drawn much of the incoming fire against the college. Here he is on Al Jazeera English.
Mr. HAMZA YUSUF (Co-Founder, Zaytuna College): When you have states that bomb people, you're going to have people that are at the brunt of those bombs that are going to be very upset. Somehow, we legitimize state terror, and then vigilante terror is demonized.
SHAVELSON: But another founder of the school, Imam Zaid Shakir, says Zaytuna's goal is to teach a diversity of opinions, not preach a single answer.
Mr. ZAID SHAKIR (Co-Founder, Zaytuna College): I think you hear things that, oh, these people, they're radicals. They're going to teach fundamentalism or things of that nature.
SHAVELSON: Imam Shakir says the voices of opposition to the college are a U.S. minority opinion responding to an Islamic minority.
Mr. SHAKIR: Because you see these foiled bomb plots, a lunatic fringe, and I think this is why Zaytuna College is so important. If we prove ourselves, even those more vocal critics will be silent. It's up to us. The ball is in our court.
SHAVELSON: Holding that ball are Zaytuna's incoming students, who find themselves not only studying at Zaytuna, but defending it.
Mr. DUSTIN CRAUN: Islamophobia is so entrenched at this point in this country that for Muslims to do anything at this point, there's some level of defense that has to take place. But that's not to say that we should have to defend ourselves.
SHAVELSON: Dustin Craun is a 30-year-old convert to Islam. He's already gained a bachelor's degree, but that, he says, missed something. So he enrolled at this Islamic college.
Mr. CRAUN: The beauty of Islamic knowledge is that it balances between the mind and the heart and the soul.
SHAVELSON: His professor, Imam Shakir, says another balance at Zaytuna is with American and Muslim culture. Most teachers of Islam in America, he says, have come from other countries. So even though there are millions of American Muslims, the religion seems foreign here. But teachers at Zaytuna, he says, will be people like him.
Mr. SHAKIR: People who are trained and educated right here, who understand the nuances and complexities of our society, and who also are comfortable with their Americanness on the one hand and comfortable with Islam on the other hand.
SHAVELSON: Many of the students at Zaytuna are, like Imam Shakir, converts to Islam.
Take Monica Hernandez, of mixed Mexican, Irish, Italian heritage. She found Islam when she was 13. Now 24, she says Zaytuna is the first school she's attended where she can...
Ms. MONICA HERNANDEZ: Practice Islam and at the same time be American, and that's really the essence of this religion is being true to yourself.
SHAVELSON: Classes this fall for Zaytuna College's first 14 students include legal issues in the Quran, Islamic business law, American constitutional law and English composition.
For NPR News, I'm Lonny Shavelson.