A recent New York Times piece by Neil MacFarquhar titled “Resolute or Fearful, Many Muslims Turn to Homeschooling,” while not exactly educational research, does offer some hard-to-come-by data on homeschooling among Muslims. It also raises important questions for the broader homeschooling movement. Until more substantive research on homeschooling among American Muslims is produced, we will have to make do with journalism.
In his article, MacFarquhar focuses mostly on Muslim immigrants in Lodi, California. The area is home to about 2,500 Muslims, 80 percent of whom are “interrelated” Pakistani villagers trying to “recreate the conservative social atmosphere back home.” One way of doing this is to shield their girls from American culture, especially once they hit puberty. Of the 90 South Asian girls in the district, 38 are homeschooled (in contrast to only 7 of the 107 boys).
MacFarquhar interviews two of the homeschooled girls and finds that they are being kept home so they will be able to “cook and clean” for their “male relatives” and also to avoid being shunned by others in the community. One of the students remarked, “Some men don’t like it when you wear American clothes – they don’t think it’s a good thing for girls.” Eventually, the girls are “married off, often to cousins brought in from their families’ old villages.”
MacFarquhar does give a few examples of homeschooled boys in the Muslim community, but for them the motivation seems to be mostly academic and a response to the persecution Muslim children often face by classmates who mock their dress and call them terrorists. He mentions a Chinese muslim immigrant in the Phoenix area who pulled her children from a public school when she became aware of its poor test scores. Her eldest son is now applying to medical school.
Finally, MacFarquhar notes that Muslim homeschooling has an image problem because it is often associated with Islamic extremism, a perception fostered by the fact that “Adam Gadahn, an American-born spokesman for Al Qaeda, was home-schooled in rural California.” [MarFarquhar does not note, however, that Gadahn’s family were Christain homeschoolers.]
Let me begin my own comments on this piece by noting that it has elicited a wide range of reactions. Some Muslims accuse MacFarquhar of intentionally misrepresenting his sources to make Muslim homeschoolers look insular and sexist. Others see this articles as part of a subtle pro-Islamist conspiracy at the New York Times. My own interest, however, is to place the phenomenon of Muslim homeschooling in the context of the braoder homeschooling movement.
Muslim homeschooling raises several important issues. First, Muslims are able to take this route thanks largely to the longtime political activism of conservative Christians, many of whom are among the most prominent voices speaking out against radical Islam and terrorist threats. This irony puts Christian homeschoolers in a bit of a bind. The default position of HSLDA and other Christian organizations is to fight against any and all regulation of homeschooling. But what if homeschooling is being used as a mechanism for training militant Islamists? I’m not suggesting that it is, but absent any sort of government oversight, is there any way to be sure?
Second, there are uncanny parallels between the Muslims featured by MacFarquhar and many conservative Christian homeschoolers. Both react strongly against the secular public school system: against drugs, drink, sexual licentiousness, immodest dress, coarse language, and so forth. Both see homeschooling as a way of passing their religious and cultural heritage on to their children. Both celebrate motherhood and the domestic vocation for women. And, with the popularity among many conservative Christian homeschoolers of betrothal as a replacement to the culture of dating and even of courtship, there are increasing similarities with how marriage is conducted as well. In a previous post I discussed Kimberly Yuracko’s legal argument claiming that a family offering daughters an inferior education to that of its sons violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Yuracko focuses in her article only on conservative Christians, and I suggested there that despite the subordinationist rhetoric, Christian homeschooled girls are getting pretty much the same academic education as their brothers. But if MacFarquhar is accurate in his description of Muslim practices, Yuracko’s Constitutional argument may have more traction. One wonders if she would be willing to prosecute Muslim immigrants as aggressively as she would native white Protestants.
The key difference between these two groups, it seems to me, is that many conservative Christians are trying self-consciously to recapture a pre-modern mentality they have lost, whereas Muslim immigrants are just doing what comes naturally. The most intensely conservative wing of the Christian homeschooling movement has been gradually de-modernizing, working its way toward cultural patterns more consistent with the agrarian past, and it has not been easy. These Muslims never modernized in the first place. My guess is that this difference perhaps explains why, despite the rhetoric of female subordination to the male head, Christians still give their girls a rigorous education that equips them to run businesses from the home, write blogs, organize conferences, engage in political activism, and so forth while the Muslim girls just lower their heads and cook and clean. It also explains perhaps why, despite rhetoric about “taking the land” most homeschooled Christians are not really interested in taking out the U.S. government and replacing it with a Theocracy where the Bible plays the same role that the Koran does in an Islamic state.
But these are just personal reflections. The topic of Muslim homeschooling is ripe for some serious research that would tell us more about this cohort’s motivations, practices, and results. My hunch is that such research would reveal a much more complex tapestry of Muslim homeschooling than is revealed here by MacFarquhar.