HUNTINGTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - At a Roman Catholic high school in New York’s Long Island suburbs, two dozen visiting Muslim students knelt and prayed while teens in uniform blazers from the host school looked on.
The trip’s agenda was simple: give students whose schools are just 10 miles (16 km) apart but culturally worlds away a chance to get to know each other.
It is also part of an ambitious initiative that will be adopted by nearly 80 U.S. Islamic elementary, middle and high schools starting in the fall to give Americans a better picture of U.S. Muslims at a time when many feel targeted by President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Sometimes Muslims in today’s society are afraid of other people judging them,” Laiba Amjad, a 19-year-old senior at MDQ Academy Islamic school in Brentwood, New York, said during the visit to Saint Anthony’s High School in nearby Huntington.
“Other people are also afraid,” she said, referring to non-Muslims. “They’re thinking, ‘What if that person is an extremist?’”
Americans are more likely to view Muslims, who make up 1 percent of the U.S. population, as extremists if they do not know one personally, according to a February poll by the Pew Research Center. The same survey found that 60 percent of Americans who know a Muslim believe there is little or no support among them for extremism but only 48 percent of those who do not know a Muslim believe that.
“I hadn’t really interacted with many Muslims before this,” 17-year-old Chris Beirne said while he and fellow Saint Anthony’s seniors ate lunch with the visiting Muslim students.
“Muslims typically today are put into this one group with extremists,” Beirne said. “I think the solution to that problem would be having events like this.”
In an effort to overcome that perception, the Council of Islamic Schools in North America, the nation’s only accrediting agency for Muslim schools, is changing its curriculum. It will ask its 78 accredited or member schools, located across 24 U.S. states, to arrange meetings between their own students and those at other, non-Muslim schools.
“People in this country, they want to know about Muslims, they want to know what’s going on inside Islamic schools,” said CISNA Director Sufia Azmat.
The Council is asking its educators to launch more volunteer projects outside the Muslim community, attend local government meetings and create a database of alumni to track their graduates’ success.
The move comes at a time when Muslims are under intense scrutiny, largely the result of extremist attacks carried out in the name of Islam in the United States and abroad.
In the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, an American-born gunman pledging allegiance to various Islamic militant groups shot 49 people to death at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last June.
Mainstream Muslim religious leaders condemn the violence, saying their faith forbids it. Muslims are the second-most targeted religious group in the United States for hate crimes, behind Jews, according to the latest statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations released this month showed a 57 percent spike in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes recorded in the United States last year compared with 2015.
In the 10 days following U.S. Election Day on Nov. 8, physical and verbal attacks against Muslims ticked up 6 percent compared to the same period the prior year, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
The details of the U.S. Islamic schools’ new curriculum are still being hammered out, but the purpose is clear, CISNA’s Azmat said: “Be open to outsiders.”
A recent study of about a third of the nation’s Muslim high schools conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia found that the students did not vary much from their non-Muslim peers in terms of interests and sense of being American.
“These are very, very typical kids in a lot of ways, but also see themselves as Muslims and objecting to some things in American society just as a lot of Evangelical (Christian) and Jewish kids would,” said Charles Glenn, an education policy expert who led the study of Islamic schools.
Many of the nation’s Islamic schools have kept a low profile since the first school opened in the United States roughly 30 years ago, partly to avoid harassment.
The outreach efforts could face similar resistance to those of U.S. public schools that have attempted to teach about Muslims in social studies classes. Some parents in San Diego, California, and Chatham, New Jersey, recently objected to lessons about Muslims.
“You have given your alliance to people that are against our own Constitution,” Alice Kaiser, who is part of a group opposing the San Diego Unified School District’s anti-Islamophobia program, said about the program at a school board meeting late last month.
The Al Fatih Academy, an Islamic school in Reston, Virginia, has been used as a model by CISNA for community outreach.
On Election Day, a group of Al Fatih eighth graders concerned about anti-Muslim rhetoric asked voters at a polling station about the political issues they cared about most. Some of the longest conversations were with Trump supporters, many of whom said they had never spoken to a Muslim before, according to principal Afeefa Syeed.
“At the end of the day, if we have more of these conversations and actions, it’s better for everyone,” Syeed said.
Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis