Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mosque fire threatens legacy of High Desert Muslim leader

From: The Sun

ADELANTO - It's a wonder Shaikh Zaid Assfy chose this undeveloped High Desert plot for the sole Muslim cemetery in Southern California.

But, two decades ago, he did. On 35 acres, 3.8 miles north of where the town's main road turns to dirt, Assfy built the High Desert's first mosque and a sacred burial ground. Around it, an Islamic community grew to hundreds of families.

After the shaikh died in 2000, though, a mosque opened in Victorville. Without Assfy, many Muslims relocated their religious activities.

"That man was the cornerstone,' said John Bridges, 33, a Muslim convert and Assfy's last student.

A June 3 fire at the mosque, which mourners used for prayer and meditation, further threatens to diffuse the Muslim community here.

"The Muslims may start feeling safer to bury their dead in a multi-faith cemetery rather than an all-Islamic cemetery until things quiet down,' said Dany Doueiri, an Arabic studies professor at Cal State San Bernardino who plans to be buried there.

Authorities continue to investigate what caused the first fire at a Southern California mosque. But they lack evidence and they don't expect to find much.

"It is unlikely if we haven't found it by now,' said Chip Patterson, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

The FBI, sheriff's and fire officials have found no evidence to indicate a hate crime.

"Really, no one with certainty can say it is or is not, unless someone comes forward and says, 'I did it because I don't like Muslims,'' said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what it is anymore,' he continued. "What matters is what it is perceived to be by the victims.'

The cemetery's caretakers, Ali and Michelle Khawaja, said they don't want to "jump to conclusions.'

"People ask you, 'Oh, do you think it was hatred?' It's hard to think that when you feel so much love and support,' said Bridges, a gravedigger who said some residents visited this week to offer their condolences.

Before the blaze became international news, it flew under the radar of many Adelanto denizens.

"People here never even knew it was there. I've been here since '60 and the first time I heard of it was on TV,' Chuck Cawthorne, 67, said as he enjoyed an afternoon beer at the Amvets Restaurant on Adelanto Road.

The cemetery is at the northernmost end of Adelanto. Three miles to the south is Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. Silver Lakes is five or more miles north, Highway 395 a ways west.

The only thing nearby to the east is an impromptu junkyard stacked with cars and single-wide trailers going nowhere fast; a worn yacht is sunk in the sand.

Assfy found and bought the land in the mid-1980s. On it Muslim families erected tents and set up camp.

They were separated from their neighbors by miles of rocks, sand and Joshua trees.

"We were all learning how to live in the desert,' said Barbara Howard, 68, whose small home three miles north of the cemetery is powered by solar panels, gas and propane.

Even after the Muslim campers left, the shaikh lived in the mosque. Since Assfy died, Ali Khawaja, the current caretaker, stayed occasionally. In recent years, the cemetery and mosque were repeatedly vandalized.

Authorities said the blaze may have been caused accidentally by a transient or transients. The fire was reported at 4:24 a.m. June 3. No traces of accelerants were found, Patterson said.

Insurance will cover the damage to the mosque, about $225,000, said Michelle Khawaja. A night-time security guard likely will be hired, she said.

About 500 people are buried at the cemetery. Another 2,000 plots are reserved, many by people who live hundreds of miles away.

The cemetery follows Islamic tradition. The dead are tipped on their side, facing east, toward Mecca. Bodies are cleaned but not embalmed. Shrouded in white, they are laid in the ground without a coffin.

Several cemeteries in Southern California have sections reserved for Muslims, but burial at those sites are forbidden by the state without a coffin, said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, which overseas Southern California mosques.

"The only reason this particular one is allowed, at least right now, is because it is out in the boonies ... and it does not affect running water,' he said.

Assfy's grave stands alone. While most are 500 feet from the mosque, Assfy, the shepherd even in death, lies near the former sanctuary, the blackened rubble filled with burned pages of the Quran.

"Whoever may have done this, God help them,' Syed said.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Home school: a largely Christian endeavor

As long as home room is their living room, the Keatings know their children will be safe from school violence and receive an education consistent with their Christian beliefs.

The Hesperia family could have sent their 10 children to a private school, but it would have cost several thousand dollars per child per year.

Besides, Joellen Keating often wondered how a teacher could care more than her about her children's education.

"There was so much more I wanted to teach my children than they would learn at school, the Lord, and family ... so many things that wouldn't be under reading, writing and arithmetic that were such an important part of life,' Joellen said.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 children are schooled at home in California. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that between 1.7 million and 2.1 million children are schooled at home nationwide.

And those numbers are increasing by 7 percent to 15 percent annually, advocates say.

This comes as several school districts across the nation wrestle with teaching an alternative to evolution and parents' worries about violence on campus grow.

Little research has been done by the federal and state governments on the benefits and consequences of schooling at home. California does not regulate home-school curriculum.

About 75 percent of parents who choose to school their children at home are evangelical Christians, advocates say. They want to be able to teach their children the origin of life, human sexuality and history from a Christian perspective.

Both religious and nonreligious parents can teach what they believe without complaints from other parents.

"In order to raise our children in our faith and our values, it is best to have them home with us, rather than having the public school system undo our teaching,' said Susan Beatty, co-founder of Christian Home Educators Association of California.

"The whole foundation of the content of public education is not only godless, but in a lot of cases anti-God,' Beatty said.

Avoiding evolution

This year, school boards in Kansas and Pennsylvania have been challenged for requiring that an alternative to evolution be taught in public schools. These officials want intelligent design the theory that the universe is so complex that there must be a creator to be taught alongside or in place of Darwinism.

School districts in other states also have forced the questioning of evolution.

Critics nationwide claim intelligent design is a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to introduce the Creation story into classrooms. But the scientific groups that have led the intelligent design campaign argue the theory is not linked to a religion or God. It is based on science, they say.

California schools have not launched curriculum that challenges evolution.

Few parents school their children at home solely to avoid the topic of evolution, parents and advocates say. But for Christians, it is one of several aversions to public education.

Joellen Keating teaches her children evolution with a twist. After they learn what it is, they learn why they shouldn't believe it.

"We avoided it some, but then we actually found books that showed why some of Darwin's things ... are not even true.'

Equipped to educate?

The California Department of Education does not know how many children are schooled at home. (Technically, "home schooling' is illegal in California. The state classifies legal home education situations as: private tutoring, private schooling and independent study.)

"Because it is not public, we are not able to evaluate it,' said Hilary McLean, spokesman for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

"Jack is a great believer in public education, but it is a parent's choice about how they would best provide education for their children,' McLean said.

Some public educators, however, caution that schooling at home does not work in every situation.

Children need to be taught more than just math and reading, said Mikki Cichocki, a member of the board of directors for the California Teachers Association, representing San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

She added that few parents are equipped to teach every subject their children need to learn.

"Even for credentialed teachers in public schools, kindergarten teachers are not able to teach chemistry,' said Cichocki, a teacher on assignment with Youth Services in the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

System of socialization

The best school-at-home programs are those where numerous families are linked together.

The Keatings are one of 50 High Desert families, known to the state as Berean Christian School, who attend field trips together and maintain student transcripts. It is an independent study program.

The biggest challenge to a well-rounded education, Cichocki said, is socialization.

"You have to learn how to deal with people that are different than you, people you don't like. Sometimes that is difficult to do in a sheltered situation, which is what some home school situations are.'

Despite growing up in a rural part of Hesperia that is now booming with new $700,000 homes, Jacob Keating was rarely short a social setting. With two older brothers, friends from church and others from city sports leagues, "almost every day we would have kids our age to play with,' he said.

Jacob, 18, completed his sophomore year at University of La Verne last month. The transition was easy, he said.

"The hardest thing was having scheduled classes.'

Since schooling at home took root in the early 1980s, its popularity and its acceptance has grown.

Most colleges and universities now have a system for admitting these students, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, which formed in 1983 and led the campaign that legalized home education in all 50 states.

In 2000, Michael Farris, the same person who founded the legal defense association, opened Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., 50 miles northwest of Washington. More than 80 percent of its students were schooled at home at some point.

The college has already proven to be a fertile ground for young politicians. It's first class graduated 60 students in April 2004. According to school records, six are employed in congressional offices, and two work in the White House. Eight work for other federal agencies, including domestic and foreign intelligence, two are in state government, two in county government, and eight have nonprofit public policy positions.

"That is pretty successful,' said Michael Kiser, the college's director of communications.

Kiser schools his 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son at home. His son recently completed algebra, a subject typically taught to high school freshman.

"Academically it's better, spiritually it is certainly better, morally it's better,' Kiser said of schooling at home. "It's all those things together that makes it a no-brainer for us."