The Children of ISIS
Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing “academic excellence in an Islamic environment.” Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it’s also a safety issue, he admits. “To be honest with you, I don’t want my kids being told they’re terrorists.”
“ISIS’s message is, ‘Come and help us build a utopia that will protect every single Muslim,'” says one expert. “This is very seductive.”
The problem with this approach, notes Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, is by “cocooning” one’s children in Islamic schools, parents run the risk of setting them up for profound isolation. When they emerge, he asks, “will the kids be prepared for what they see?”
By all accounts, the Khans enveloped their children in a tight and loving cocoon. Other parents would remark on the manners and obedience of the Khan kids, who got good grades, volunteered at the mosque religious school, day care and summer camp, and were relentlessly polite and helpful. Religion played a central role in their lives, and they made an effort to pray five times a day. But they were also regular American kids who grew up on a steady diet of cartoons, Marvel superhero comics and young-adult fiction: The Lightning Thief, the Maximum Ride series, the Legend trilogy. Mariyam, who as a child loved Muslim Scouts Adventures, a cartoon series broadcast on the Islamic-themed website MuslimVille.tv, was also partial to the very American animated hero Kim Possible. Hamzah loved Batman. Their brother Tarek idolized Wolverine. Anime fanatics, they were desperate to learn Japanese and, at one point, created their own fake Japanese language, which they used as a secret code.
When Hamzah was 10, he left school and enrolled in a local Islamic institute to memorize the Quran, a process known as becoming a hafiz. He spent roughly two and a half years learning the 600-page text in Arabic, until the phrases rolled off his tongue like poetry. It’s not uncommon in highly religious Muslim families, particularly those from the South Asian community, to put their kids through this program, which is both a sign of piety and great prestige. As Hamzah spoke only English and Urdu, however, he had little idea what the words, in Arabic, actually meant.
Of the Khan kids, Hamzah was probably the most sensitive, a dreamer. He loved to draw and had a particular soft spot for children, serving as treasurer of his school’s UNICEF chapter. The stories of refugee families in places like Syria, Gaza or Sudan moved him so much that he decided to become a pediatrician so he could work with Doctors Without Borders. But he quickly realized he couldn’t endure eight years of medical school, and after graduating from high school in 2013 and enrolling at Benedictine University, he decided to study engineering and computer science. By October of his freshman year, it seemed that he was already feeling the pressure. “Calc and Chem exams, back-to-back,” he tweeted one day. “Need duas [prayers]!!”
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