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Coming Togetherfor Their Faith

A group of Muslim students meets quietly yet proudly to show support for Islam.


Boys in front with their arms folded across their waists, girls in back with scarves covering their hair. This arrangement fell into place as naturally as if the classroom where they had gathered were a mosque. Fourteen Muslim students were ready to begin their midday prayers.

Surrounded by desks, books, maps and slide projectors, the group paid no attention to the classroom chaos, nor to the racket outside the door. It was lunchtime at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, and the campus was buzzing. More important for these boys and girls, it was Ramadan, the sacred monthlong period during which Muslims are required to fast from sunup to sundown. This year, these students, ages 14 to 18, are determined to stand up for their faith through prayer in this quiet yet public way.

They say that praying together during Ramadan is one way they can show their commitment to a religion that has recently become the most discussed, criticized and defended of any in the world. "I feel that it's important to show people what my religion is all about, especially at a time like this," said freshman Rehan Muttalib, 14, whose parents are from India. "We need to clear up stereotypes."

The terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the barrage of news about Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network changed life on the campus of this upper-middle-class suburban public school, where about 285 of the 3,300 students are Muslim, according to the school's administration office. About five years ago, a small group of the school's Muslim students formed a Muslim Student Union; the organization has taken on new resonance this semester, and the Ramadan prayer sessions are just one part of that.

The Union almost didn't exist this year--the students were so affected and distracted by world events that they missed the school's extracurricular activity registration deadline. "After Sept. 11 they were in shock," says James Maechling, the group's faculty advisor, "they couldn't get it together." Maechling is chairman of the religious studies department, as well as the world history department, which introduces major religions as part of the curriculum.

When it finally met, Maechling said the group was more focused than he has ever seen it. "Last year, there were only five or eight kids, and they met sporadically. This year, they've had an average of 20 students at meetings." A typical meeting includes a talk about some aspect of their religion by one of the students, prayers and lunch.

Two other clubs gather regularly to pray on the Palos Verdes campus: the New Life Club and the Servants of Christ Club, both organized by Christian students. Members of any religion are free to form a group, as long as they do not preach their religion or try to convert anyone, according to California's Board of Education guidelines. The study of religion is also within the boundaries of public school education, as long as the subject is presented in the context of history and culture, not religious instruction.

Most of the Muslim students at Palos Verdes High were born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated from Iran, Egypt, India and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Like their schoolmates, they face the usual social and academic peer pressures, but this fall they are also contending with a pervading mistrust of Muslims.

"At first, they scattered," Maechling said. "The day of the attacks they had a lump in their throats. It was too much for them." Some of the students who planned to join the Muslim Student Union were advised by fellow Muslims on campus to avoid calling attention to themselves. "They said, 'Don't do this,"' recalled junior Josh Mansour, 16, one of the leaders of the student union. The advice to blend in came from non-practicing Muslim students, he said. "They think Islam is a radical religion."

He sees it another way. "There are a lot of Muslim students on campus," he said. "Some of us decided it's important to practice what we believe, together, as a sign of unity." Though their backgrounds vary, these students are from observant families, and practicing their religion is not new to them. However, this year Ramadan carries larger responsibilities and commitments.

On the first day, several of the students recited from the Koran in Arabic during prayer time. One of them, Zeyad Maasarani, 16, learned the language at home. His mother taught it to him. He keeps up with it by watching Arabic language television. He and several other students said for them it seems urgent to stand up for their faith. But they also admitted to teenage insecurities about being judged by other students.

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