As immigrants from the Middle East arrived in Detroit after the first Gulf War, Mahmoud Al-Hihi had a simple but important message for those trying to acclimate to their new country: “You have to be integrated,” he told them. “And education is the best means for you to get integrated.”
During his years working as a teacher and principal in the Detroit area and now principal of the Annoor Islamic School in Wichita for the past three years, Al-Hihi, who has a doctorate and three master’s degrees, still stresses the importance of education and the values that undergird it.
“You have to do everything to be integrated into our society – Muslim, non-Muslim, anybody,” he said during a recent interview in his office at the northeast Wichita school. “You are working in a society that is multicultural with people from all over the world. You can learn from diversity.”
Al-Hihi, who emigrated from Jordan to Canada and then to the United States, talked about the values taught to the 175 students in the Annoor school, efforts to expand pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes to high school next year, and the challenges and positive experiences of living as Muslims in a predominantly non-Muslim community.
What is the primary mission of the Annoor Islamic School in Wichita?
My mission for all the students is not only that they learn, but that they have excellent behavior – to be honest, sincere and respectful. These are the values I’m looking for every student to have and be an excellent citizen after graduation.
What are some examples of the values you wish to instill in your students?
I ask the student to behave in school: Don’t touch each other. Talk with each other. Respect each other. If you have a problem with another student, the only thing you have to do is say: “Stop. I don’t agree with what you are saying. Either we stop here and we change, or I don’t want to continue talking.” I say to them: “A good word is a charity, as if you are taking money and giving it to needy people. When you are saying a good word, you are changing my mood, you are making my day.”
Do you think people in Wichita are more or less accepting of Muslims than they were when you were in Detroit?
It is very good, it is excellent here. It is completely different from Detroit. You see that church (Risen Savior Lutheran Church, across the street from the Annoor school)? We have excellent cooperation with them. When we have a lot of people coming to pray, they (church leaders) tell us: Don’t park on the street; come and park on our side. We have an excellent neighborhood here. I feel very comfortable – with this community, with this neighborhood, with this city.
Last month, there was an incident in which a Wichita elementary school had a bulletin board featuring the Five Pillars of Islam that was photographed and posted on Facebook criticizing the school for displaying the Five Pillars. What was your reaction to that incident?
In the Quran we are told we are to take people exactly the way we want to be taken. I have to respect everybody. All the time I have to be fair with everybody. Extremism is not acceptable at all. You are always to be understanding; you are always to accept the other person. All religions are coming with one mission: We want people to live peacefully and to work hard and to be in harmony with each other. This is what we are teaching.
What is the status of starting a high school as part of the Annoor School?
The second floor is still incomplete. We need to furnish it and we need some funding. The community is trying to do some fundraising to have the money for a high school. We plan to open it next year. All the students who graduated this year (from eighth grade), we sent to the (Wichita public schools’) International Baccalaureate programs. All of them were successful.
It sounds like you’re very committed to the school and to the students.
I’m very passionate about what I do. And I don’t hide my passion. I say to the kids, “I love you, and I want you to be successful. I want you to have all the values I have. And that is my mission at this point in my life.”