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Brothers' Keeper

Brothers' Keeper
Photo by Jonathan Chapman

(page 1 of 3)

When Islamic practices collide with American culture in Minnesota—at taxi stands, on airplanes, and elsewhere—the state’s Muslims find themselves called upon to defend their traditions and viewpoints. Asad Zaman, an imam, integrationist, and cofounder of the Muslim American Society, works to counteract the divisive efforts of irresponsible politicians, conservative commentators, and even members of his own community.

Asad Zaman, principal of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights, is making the rounds, checking on students. He pops into several classes before entering the library, where two male aides sit before a disconsolate third-grader. “What has he done?” Zaman asks. “We don’t know,” one man replies. “He just got here, and he is not telling us anything.” Zaman faces the lad, who glances up. “Why are you here?” Zaman demands, his black eyes cool but stern. “I was talking in class,” the boy whispers. “Are you supposed to be talking in class?” “No.” “This is most unfortunate,” Zaman scolds in his staccato Bangladeshi accent. “You are not known for this.” ¶ It’s just another day at the office for the approachable man with the black Vandyke beard, round spectacles, and natty, business-casual attire. A passerby might mistake Zaman for a tech-company middle manager or perhaps an ambitious young university professor. He is perpetually busy, splitting his time among education, political activism, and his religion, Islam. ¶ Zaman is also an imam—a Muslim cleric—of some local importance, who in 1992 cofounded the influential and lately controversial Muslim American Society (MAS) of Minnesota. Within the walls of the school that abuts MAS headquarters, though, he is simply Brother Asad—principal, superintendent, and voice of authority.

For Zaman, educating the Muslim children in his fold boils down to one simple proposition. The school is—or should be—the core of the community, and the community, the core of the democracy. “I want each parent to believe, ‘I own it, it is mine, and if something is wrong with it, I will fix it,’ ” he says. This approach seems to be working. Since the academy opened in 2003, more than 30 Muslim families have moved to Inver Grove Heights, Zaman says. Before, there were just two.

Zaman takes pains to point out that his school, which currently serves grades K-7 and plans to add high-school classes, is not a religious institution. That has been confirmed many times, he says—state education officials inspected the academy 11 times during its first year. “They really wanted to make sure,” Zaman says, smiling.

Jamie Willeck, a Golden Valley–based consultant to nonprofits and charter schools, credits Zaman with creating an institution so much in demand that some families transport children more than an hour to attend. “They could send kids to much better-appointed, large district facilities, but they don’t want to deal with crime and the district not supporting their kids,” Willeck says. “Asad has done a very good job.”

Inver Grove Heights mayor George Tourville agrees, saying that Zaman has paved the way for new diversity in his small suburb. Although there was some initial discomfort in the town when word spread that the school was opening, city council member Dennis Madden says he has heard of no subsequent concerns.

Islamic Duty

Despite Zaman’s assurances, a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school. Arabic as a second language is mandatory. Headscarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them. There is a carpeted prayer space in the middle of the building that is similar, Zaman says, to spaces provided by several Minneapolis public schools. And there is the vaguely religious-sounding language used in the school. At one point, a conversation with Zaman is interrupted by the intercom: “Sister Zamia, please call the office. Sister Zamia, 2-2-1.” “[Muslims] refer to everyone as a ‘brother’ or a ‘sister,’ ” he explains. “We are all children of Adam.”

Zaman spends a lot of time explaining things like this—not only for curious non-Muslims, but also for the new immigrants he works with, many of them Somalis suffering culture shock. The son of a well-known Bangladeshi journalist whose aunt served in that nation’s parliament, Zaman is devoted to helping Minnesota’s growing Muslim population adapt to American life. The academy is only one such effort. He also lectures worshipers at his Bloomington mosque, serves as MAS’s media representative, and was a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (Despite the constantly buzzing BlackBerry, Zaman does have a personal life; he has been married for five years.)

“My mission is not to make [Muslims] Americans,” says Zaman, who immigrated to Minnesota as a college student in 1992. “They already are Americans.” Many don’t yet accept that, however, harboring “the myth of return”—the illusion that they are in America only temporarily and therefore have no obligations to it. “My mission is to convince them to take part in the American fabric—to play a role—which many have chosen not to do so far,” Zaman says.

“He is a bridge-builder,” says Keith Ellison, who in November became the first Muslim ever elected to Congress (Zaman assisted his Fifth District campaign). “I don’t know anybody who is more effective.”


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