Summer Fun, Islamic Lessons

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Throwing all his weight into the yank of the rope, Subhan Tariq cried out in Arabic: “In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most kind.”

The invocation didn’t help.

The team of boys from New York, anchored by the hefty 16-year-old, lost for the second time to the crew from New Jersey in tug-of-war.

Someone shouted, “New Jersey still sucks.”

It was a scene from a summer camp much like any other, save for the classes in seventh-century Islamic history, the lessons in Arabic phonology, and the muezzin’s calls to prayer that echoed five times daily over a former Main Line estate this week.

The five-day camp for boys was sponsored by Young Muslims, an arm of a national nonprofit called the Islamic Circle of North America, which monitors the media, spreads the faith, and does charity work.

Such camps are cropping up across the country, with the dual aim of giving young Muslims a quintessentially American rite of passage and a deeper connection to Islam.

Ads in Islamic magazines regularly tout Koranic getaways.

Though hardly as numerous as generations-old summer Bible and Torah camps, they have proliferated as immigration from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has swelled the ranks of U.S. Muslims in the last three decades to about six million.

The first known camp opened in 1962, in California. Today there are more than 100, as far-flung as a 1,600-acre ranch in New Mexico and the grounds of a suburban Washington mosque, and as niche-marketed as a Pasadena sports camp for Muslim girls.

“In every major urban area with a significant Islamic community, the youth would have some access to a summer camp,” said John Voll, head of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

The camps have grown even as fears of terrorism have sometimes cast an uncomfortable light on them. In Iowa, the Cedar Rapids-based Muslim Youth Camps of America proposed building a $2 million camp with a gold-domed prayer hall on federal land once used by the Girl Scouts; it would be the first permanent, large-scale home in the nation for campers studying Islam. The project stalled when opponents, including some neighbors, said they worried that the camp could be a terrorist training ground.

Four years after the plan was presented, it was approved last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Azeem Khan, a national organizer with Young Muslims, said the war on terror has created a climate of such suspicion that it can “bring a negative image to anything that Muslims do, even if it’s something as natural, as normal, as having a summer camp.”

Young Muslims, in its ninth year of running camps, held one for boys from the Northeast this week at the Foundation for Islamic Education in Villanova, a 23-acre former estate with a prayer hall and classrooms in what had been the mansion, as well as basketball courts and dormitories.

Mohamed Helmy, 27, a camp leader, said most of his five dozen charges were the U.S.-born offspring of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East who sometimes neglected religious training for their children in their push for the American dream.

The parents “teach them to go to school and get an education,” said Helmy, a community college instructor from Jersey City, N.J. “Do you ever hear them say, ‘Learn good values?’ No, they say, ‘Do your homework.’ ”

The boys, mostly from New York and New Jersey, took part in the time-honored rituals practiced by teenagers away from their parents and bunking with strangers, some for the first time.

They scarfed down pizza.

They ribbed each other late into the night, sometimes about sex.

They scrambled for the end zone. (“I got tackled from the back,” Tariq said. “An ambulance came. That was fun.”)

But the pizza was halal. And the adolescent angst about sex turned up as a question about a particular act, scribbled on a scrap of paper, slipped to a lecturing imam, about how the Koran would view “bowing down before anything but God.”

Of all the rituals, though, none was more important than prayer, with structured gestures stretching back 1,400 years to the time of Islam’s prophet and punctuated by the musical avowal “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”).

Beginning at 5:30 a.m., and four times more before bedtime, they stood in a more or less disciplined line – all baggy shorts, jeans and T-shirts – facing Mecca. They framed their ears with their palms. They bowed at the waist. They prostrated themselves, heads touching the ground. Sometimes, a stray yawn broke the rhythm.

Tariq, a high school junior from Queens, N.Y., closed his eyes as the imam recited verses from the Koran during evening prayers.

“I didn’t know what he was saying,” Tariq said, a bit sheepishly. “I was trying to remember what the sura [chapter of the Koran] means.”

The camp offered sessions that should have helped Tariq, including tips on how to pronounce the letters of the Arabic alphabet and lessons on the four caliphs who succeeded the prophet Muhammad. The winner of a quiz on Islamic history got a T-shirt with the Young Muslims logo.

“From the beginning to the end, what’s emphasized is the belief and how it’s practiced,” said Azeem Khan, 23, a national organizer for the group.

Voll, the Georgetown professor, said the Muslim camps are only following the well-established tradition among other American religious communities of trying to plant faith in their children in a secular society.

As Heshan El-Dewak, 15, the son of Egyptian and Moroccan immigrants, put it: “I came here to learn how to be a better Muslim. I’m proud to say I’m a Muslim and there’s limits to stuff I do. I’m not around a lot of Muslims in my area.”

“It was a little hard to interact with kids here,” he said. “They’re not usually the people I hang out with. They’re almost too perfect. I’m not perfect.”

“The first couple of days, I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “Now I understand all of them. They’re all cool.”

Except, of course, for anybody on the opposite end of a tug-of-war rope.

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