Work Starts on Islamic High School

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

Construction has begun on a 20-acre campus near Annapolis that will house an Islamic high school, a television station, athletic facilities and eventually a college, according to project directors.

Mohammad Arafa, executive director of the Islamic Society of Annapolis, said the Mekkah Learning Center will be the first Islamic high school in the region. Work will progress on the $8 million project only as fast as donations permit; religious law forbids the society to take out a loan with interest.

The school will complement two established Islamic schools in the region, Al-Huda School in College Park and Al-Rahmah School in Baltimore, each serving a few hundred students up to the middle-school grades. Arafa said he has the support of 22 Muslim leaders across Maryland.

He envisions the campus as a means "to help our children to be Americans and Muslims without having to compromise their identity" and as a place where Muslims and non-Muslims can gather to bridge their differences.

He hopes there will not be a fight. Islamic schools and mosques have engendered fear and suspicion across the Washington region, both before and since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, whose creators purported to be acting in Allah's name.

Perhaps the most explosive case, which preceded the 2001 attacks, was a proposed $80 million complex for the Islamic Saudi Academy in Ashburn. Partly financed by the government of Saudi Arabia, the project thoroughly divided the community in 1998. Some residents said the school, given its backing, might pose a security risk.

Protest later subsided, but in 2004, academy officials decided not to pursue the project, according to Dave Kovalik, school spokesman. The academy serves 1,000 students in preschool through grade 12 at campuses in Burke and Alexandria. It is the only accredited Islamic high school program in the Washington-Baltimore region, Kovalik said. Some students travel from as far as Waldorf.

Arafa said the idea for the Mekkah school took root in the 2001 attacks and the resulting need for Muslims in Maryland to express the peaceful nature of their faith. A release for the new school states that "it is imperative that area Muslims get the message out as to the true peaceful nature of Islam."

He recalls fielding 106 telephone calls after Sept. 11; 104 were supportive, and two were not.

But when he learned last year that the Islamic Society's lease in a strip mall on Forest Drive would not be renewed because of parking concerns, Arafa found the search for a new home to be an exercise in rejection. Arafa said at least eight prospective landlords turned him away after learning the identity of the tenant. Mosques and Islamic schools nationwide have been victims of anti-Muslim vandalism and other hate crimes, as well as allegations that their facilities are harboring terrorists.

"They turn around, as soon as they find out who it is, and say, 'Sorry, we don't want you,' " said Martha Scott, a spokeswoman for the society, which offers prayer services for a congregation of about 250 families.

The nascent school garnered its first publicity early this month, in a write-up in the Annapolis newspaper. Afterward, neither the county nor the society received any complaints, officials said, an encouraging sign. Scott said the news coverage even improved the group's reception as a prospective tenant, with some landlords indicating that they wanted to reconsider the society's application. The society will maintain its headquarters at a separate location.

When Arafa first saw the Millersville property and learned that the asking price for the prospective campus was $550,000, he told the real estate agent that the society could never afford it: "First of all, we don't deal with interest. Second of all, we are broke. Third of all, we don't have assets."

Much to his surprise, the seller agreed to an interest-free installment plan. About two-thirds of the purchase price has been paid, he said.

Arafa cannot predict when classes will begin on the site, southwest of where Crain Highway meets Interstate 97. The next wave of fundraising will pay for grading work and a septic system. School organizers hope they can offer classes in fall.

The first building will house a prayer hall, assembly rooms and space for two ninth-grade classes, one for boys and one for girls. Arafa hopes to add one grade each year, eventually serving 250 to 300 students. Plans call for 171,000 square feet of building space.

If all goes as planned, he said, the school will be a place "where you can give me the child at 3 years old and he can finish with a PhD."

Shama Farooq, civil rights director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Maryland and Virginia, said Arafa is probably correct in predicting that the school will draw students from the broader Baltimore-Washington region.

"Obviously, people are sending their children to Islamic middle schools, and they're trying to find Islamic high schools as well," she said. "I know of people who drive their children 30, 40 miles to private schools."


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