Friday, May 9, 2008

Suburb schools avert cafeteria “holy war”

TINLEY PARK, Ill. – If a suburban school district is any evidence, the future of relations between various ethnicities has the potential to be fine. It is in the present where we have parents who are willing to traffic in rumor and innuendo to convince themselves “those Muslims” are getting all the perks in life.

That was the impression given at a special hearing held Thursday at Kirby School District in the southwest suburbs, where officials said they will give in to a request by Catholic students to have their own tables in the school cafeterias for those kids who think that mixing with others will tempt them into violating the guidelines over what is, and is not, appropriate to eat during the Lenten season.

BECAUSE THE KIDS who asked for the separation waited until Lent was half over this year, the new practice will take effect for the 2008-09 school year.

It is a response to the fact that a group of Muslim students early this school year thought ahead and asked to be allowed to sit separately from other students during the holiday of Ramadan, where Muslims are expected to fast during daylight hours. That means no eating, whatsoever, during the school day.

A pair of Catholic students at the schools in the district organized a petition drive seeking the separate accommodations in the cafeteria, got some of the Muslim students to support their effort, and they even spoke out on Thursday.

School officials in suburban Tinley Park wanted to avoid being the focus of anti-Islamic trash talk that gained national media attention (and this 2007 program at Harvard University) for the neighboring town of Palos Heights in 2000.

Ryan Vandeweil and Nick Tasoni, both of whom are 13, said they just want the right to have the option of sitting separately. They see it as an issue of their religious beliefs being treated equally with others.

SCHOOL DISTRICT PRESIDENT Thomas Martelli, in saying that their request will be granted in future years, called the two, “a credit to the school district.”

Now, if only we could do something about the parents of students in the middle school district.

Parents representing various Christian denominations, mostly Catholic, managed to show that ignorance can be spouted off, in the Name of the Lord.

Sitting through this board meeting, one got to hear stories of Muslim kids picking on Christians and calling them “crackers,” of being given various options to accommodate their Ramadan-related fast that would never be offered to other kids (allowing them extra library access or recess time instead of a lunch break during Ramadan) and even allowing Muslim girls to get out of swimming classes.

ALL OF THIS complaining came even after parents learned that the student request for the “equal time” lunch tables for Catholics observing Lent would be granted in the future.

Linda Murray, a teacher at Prairie View Middle School in the southwest suburb, noted that many of the complaints she hears from people about tensions between Muslims and Christians in the school are unfounded.

“I’m hearing things, they are rumors, nothing more,” she said, adding that from her observation, problems between students of the two religions are less severe in the local schools than some of the bullying that can take place between pre-teen girls.

“We’re trying to instill anti-bullying messages (to the students), then things like this come along,” Murray said.

SOME PEOPLE JUST aren’t content unless they are able to complain that their views on life are being picked on, even though all too often what is really happening is that they are not being allowed to force their viewpoint onto someone else.

This particular school crisis appears to be diverted, because school officials do not want to create a situation that turns the bedroom community’s school district into a focal point for all the national debate over the proper role of Islam in the U.S. society.

Martelli said school attorneys interpreted the law to say they should grant the requests provided that no additional expense is incurred by the school district (how expensive is it to reserve an already-existing table in the cafeteria?) and that the school routine is not disrupted.

The idea of students segregating themselves off by clique in the cafeteria is a concept that goes back generations. Why would it not make sense that Muslim students who might feel isolated would try to stick together for support.

WHAT IS REALLY at stake here is that the non-Muslims can’t look down on the “Muslim table” because it is the students themselves who chose to sit there. Like it or not, freedom of association is part of the American Way of life.

For those who think too much attention was paid to the issue, one needs to take into account the changing makeup of the southwestern portion of Cook County, where the number of people of Islamic religious faith or Arab ethnic background are on the rise.

It is no longer the least bit exotic to see a woman in the supermarket, with kids in tow, dressed in a Muslim headscarf as part of her religious belief to dress modestly and keep her hair covered when in public.

Small groceries catering to Arab needs are cropping up throughout the area, and when I was driving home Thursday night after attending the Kirby school district meeting, I wound up behind a van with the Illinois license plate “KORAN.”

THE LAST THING school district officials wanted was for their home turf to provide a repeat of the 2000 incident in Palos Heights (only about a 10-minute drive from Tinley Park) when the Al Salam Mosque Foundation tried to develop a new mosque within the suburb’s boundaries, only to be chased away by outspoken local residents who didn’t want groups of Muslims converging on their town every week.

That incident got national attention, particularly when former Mayor Dean Koldenhoven interfered with a village government proposal to pay off the mosque foundation to get them to abandon their desire to move to Palos Heights.

Village residents eventually prevailed by voting Koldenhoven out of office, although he has since been honored by various national groups interested in promoting tolerance and understanding amongst various religious factions.

It appears Kirby, where the number of students who are native Arabic speakers is so high that the district legally has to hire full-time teachers to accommodate them, averted a similar fate.

KATIE COURIC & Co., will not be converging on Tinley Park anytime soon.

But with tensions like those exhibited by the parents on Thursday (oddly enough, none of those who showed up for the school board meeting were Muslim), it is a very good bet that there will be another crisis in the near future involving Muslims and Christians.

This “holy war” of sorts will continue until that future generation (which seems to view this issue more rationally) becomes adult and the current generation fades away.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Are Catholic schoolchildren being discriminated against in the southwest suburb (,050708foodfight.article) of Tinley Park? Not really, although some would like to believe so.

Palos Heights, Ill., eventually won a legal fight over the way in which it conducted itself to discourage ( a Muslim group from developing a mosque in their town, but that issue stoked up the tensions between religious factions in the Chicago suburbs.

It’s not just two instances in eight years – there have been various incidents perceived as hostile to ( the interests of Arabs in the Chicago area.

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