Greiling’s grandstanding

Yesterday I noted that, in her letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota state Rep. Mindy Greiling accused Star Tribune metro columnist Katherine Kersten of “reckless journalistic standards” and “gross distortion of facts” with respect to her two columns on the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.

Kersten’s two columns on TIZA are accessible here (March 9) and here (April 9). Greiling’s makes no case that supports her assertions regarding Kersten’s columns about the school. Yet Greiling called for the Star Tribune to fire Kersten. Here is an overview of the statements Kersten made in her two columns:

The Facts:

1. TIZA’s strong religious connections date from its founding in 2003. Its co-founders, Zaman and Hesham Hussein, were both imams, or Muslim religious leaders, as well as leaders of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN).

These facts are established.

2. Since 2003, they have played dual roles: Zaman as TIZA’s principal and the current vice-president of MAS-MN, and Hussein as TIZA’s school board chair and president of MAS-MN until his death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in January.

These facts are established.

3. TIZA shares MAS-MN’s headquarters building, along with a mosque.

This fact is established.

4. MAS-MN came to Minnesotans’ attention in 2006, when it issued a “fatwa,” warning Muslim taxi drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that transporting passengers with alcohol in their baggage is a violation of Islamic law.

This fact is established.

5. The school has a central carpeted prayer space, and “vaguely religious-sounding language” is used in the school, as stated in the the March 2007 Minnesota Monthy article by Kevin Featherly.

Zaman acknowledges this.

6. Students pray daily, the cafeteria serves halal food — permissible under Islamic law — and “Islamic Studies” is offered at the end of the school day.

Zaman acknowledges this.

7. In fact, TIZA was originally envisioned as a private Islamic school. In 2001, MAS-MN negotiated to buy the current TIZA/MAS-MN building for Al-Amal School, a private religious institution in Fridley, according to Bruce Rimstad of the Inver Grove Heights School District. But many immigrant families can’t afford Al-Amal. In 2002, Islamic Relief — headquartered in California — agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school, TIZA, at the same location.

These facts are established.

8. “After-school Islamic learning” takes place on weekdays in the same building under MAS-MN’s auspices, according to the program for MAS-MN’s 2007 convention. At that convention, a TIZA representative at the school’s booth told me that students go directly to “Islamic studies” classes at 3:30, when TIZA’s day ends. There, they learn “Qur’anic recitation, the Sunnah of the Prophet” and other religious subjects, he said.

Zaman acknowledges that after-school Islamic studies takes place.

9. When addressing Muslim audiences, school officials make the link to Islam clear. At MAS-MN’s 2007 convention, for example, the program featured an advertisement for the “Muslim American Society of Minnesota,” superimposed on a picture of a mosque. Under the motto “Establishing Islam in Minnesota,” it asked: “Did you know that MAS-MN … houses a full-time elementary school?” On the adjacent page was an application for TIZA.

Kersten cites the program she obtained at the MAS-MN convention.

10. TIZA has in effect extended the school day — buses leave only after Islamic Studies is over.

Zaman acknowledges that no buses leave until Islamic Studies is over.

11. Seventy-seven percent of TIZA parents say that their “main reason for choosing TIZA … was because of after-school programs conducted by various non-profit organizations at the end of the school period in the school building,” according to a TIZA report.

This fact is established.

12. The Minnesota Department of Education’s records document only three site visits to TIZA in five years — two in 2003-04 and one in 2007, according to Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown. None of the visits focused specifically on religious practices.

This fact is established. Kersten posted the Department of Education’s statement to this effect on the Star Tribune Web site.

13. The department is set up to operate on a “complaint basis,” and “since 2004, we haven’t gotten a single complaint about TIZA,” Brown said. In 2004, he sent two letters to the school inquiring about religious activity reported by visiting department staffers and in a news article. Brown was satisfied with Zaman’s assurance that prayer is “voluntary” and “student-led,” he said. The department did not attempt to confirm this independently, and did not ask how 5- to 11-year-olds could be initiating prayer. (At the time, TIZA was a K-5 school.)

These facts are established.

15. Until recently, TIZA’s website included a request for volunteers to help with “Friday prayers.”

This fact is established.

16. Charter schools are public schools and by law must not endorse or promote religion.

This is a matter of law.

17. Prayer services take place in the TIZA school building during school hours.

Zaman acknowledges this.

18. Zaman does not deny that “some” Muslim teachers “probably” attend prayer. According to federal guidelines on prayer in schools, teachers at a public school cannot participate in prayer with students.

19. The school schedule is built around prayer. Zaman acknowledges that teachers take students to prayer and supervise them while they wash.

Kersten’s second column is framed on the first-hand observations of substitute teacher Amanda Getz:

Getz’s observations:

1. Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, she says she was told that the day’s schedule included a “school assembly” in the gym after lunch.

2. Before the assembly, she says she was told, her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform “their ritual washing.”

3. “The prayer I saw was not voluntary,” Getz said. “The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred.”

4. Islamic Studies was also incorporated into the school day. “When I arrived, I was told ‘after school we have Islamic Studies,’ and I might have to stay for hall duty,” Getz said. “The teachers had written assignments on the blackboard for classes like math and social studies. Islamic Studies was the last one — the board said the kids were studying the Qu’ran. The students were told to copy it into their planner, along with everything else. That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other.”

In short, Rep. Greiling has failed to cite a single fact in her letter to support her claim that Kersten grossly violated journalistic standards or that she should be asked to resign. Under the circumstances, her letter is an abuse of her legislative position. Rep. Greiling should demonstrate Kersten’s “gross distortion of facts” or should resign herself.


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