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Muslim College Opens in US With Hopes -- and Suspicions

Souhad Zendah leads students through an Arabic lesson at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California
Souhad Zendah leads students through an Arabic lesson at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Zaytuna College is a new four-year college in Berkeley, California. Zaytuna is seeking to become the first accredited Muslim college in the United States. The name comes from the Arabic word for olives.

The process of full accreditation could take several years. That will make it easier for students to get financial aid, and to have their education recognized by employers and other schools.

Zaytuna held its first classes this summer -- intensive study of Arabic to prepare for classes in the fall.

Zaytuna currently offers two majors, a choice of Islamic law and religion or Arabic language. General education classes include American history, anthropology, philosophy, literature and political science.

Imam Zaid Shakir is a professor and co-founder of Zaytuna. He was born in Berkeley. The college website says he accepted Islam in nineteen seventy-seven while serving in the United States Air Force.

Imam Shakir says he wants teachers who are trained and educated in the United States and who understand American society.

ZAID SHAKIR: "And who also are comfortable with their Americanness on the one hand and comfortable with Islam on the other hand."

There are millions of American Muslims. But the imam says most of the teachers of Islam in America received their training in other countries. He says Islam has never become rooted in any land until that land had its own Islamic scholars.

Michael Higgins studies the relationship between religion and higher education. The United States has many different religious colleges. But he says he fears there could be protests if Zaytuna College is seen as teaching students not to accept other religions.

MICHAEL HIGGINS: "I think there will be a lot of fear or apprehension around the establishment of a college that adheres to Islam. If it becomes a madrasa or a college of inculcation only, that could be hugely problematic."

This September eleventh will be nine years since the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States. Imam Shakir recognizes that those attacks and other plots since then have fed public suspicions about Islam.

But he says opponents of the college represent a minority opinion in the United States. He says they are reacting to a small group of extremists -- a "lunatic fringe" -- in the Islamic community.

ZAID SHAKIR: "And I think this is why Zaytuna College is so important. If we prove ourselves, even those more vocal critics will be silenced. It's up to us; the ball is in our court."

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, with reporting by Lonny Shavelson. I'm Steve Ember.