Local Muslim Leader on Youth, Education and Faith

With MCC principal and Morton Grove Muslims, things are not always as they seem.

At the beginning of Habeeb Quadri's tenure as principal at MCC Full-Time School in Morton Grove, NBC Chicago conducted a peculiar experiment on him.

With the hypothesis that he possessed one of Chicagoland's most stressful jobs, NBC Chicago utilized digital imaging software to predict how he would appear in 20 years. The results were mostly predictable—a receding hairline, a smidgen of weight gain and maybe a few wrinkles.

He is halfway through that time frame and those aging effects are, well, mostly absent.

In fact, Quadri is doing quite well.

The television crew classified him as an elementary school principal, but anyone familiar with Quadri knows that he has carefully crafted his job description.

Quadri's a de facto community liaison; a three-time author, who co-wrote The War Within Our Hearts, an advice book for Muslim teens addressing everything from suicide to pornography; a regular on the national lecture circuit, speaking on the social afflictions of Muslim youth; an education consultant whose firm has been referenced by the U.S. State Department; and a nostalgic entrepreneur who was on board for the launch of Morton Grove's first Sole Addiction sneaker boutique, which is now defunct.

And, yes, Quadri is toweringly tall.

'Community kid' returns home

A self-proclaimed "community kid," Quadri's roots are not foreign to Morton Grove, even though he grew up in the city.

His father assisted in establishing one of the first mosques in Niles Township after emigrating from India in 1960. In the same parking lot where his principal's spot is now reserved, Quadri played basketball on Friday nights as a teenager.

After earning his bachelor's degree in history at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Quadri accepted a teaching position in the Detroit Public Schools system. While teaching there, he earned his master's in school administration at Wayne State University and in 1999, was promoted to assistant principal at a Detroit school.

Three years later, Quadri said he accepted the "challenge" of ushering MCC's Morton Grove Education Center into a new era of leadership.

"I kind of grew up in this community, so I thought it'd be nice to give back to this community," he said.

Different challenges

Quadri's desk is shockingly sparse. Sans a sleek iPad propped up by a leather case, one might even assume the minimalist workspace to be vacant.

But things, as the timeworn slogan goes, are not always as they seem.

In 2002, Quadri left his assistant principal position within Detroit Public Schools to head Morton Grove's MCC Full-Time School. Before his arrival, the Muslim Education Center at 8601 Menard Ave. had cycled through four principals in eight years. The school's budget was in deficit.

Quadri immediately realized the contrasts between urban schools and suburban schools, most notably how there was "a lot more social situations" to be handled in urban classrooms. The student body that he encountered at MCC Full-Time was already academically oriented. Students from second grade through eighth grade had performed in the 68th percentile of Iowa Basic Skills tests during the year he became the new principal.

"When you already have kids that do well, it's mostly now parents who want to know, 'I'm paying tuition. How else can my child be challenged?' " Quadri said.

Modern mission for Muslim youth

The answer to that question may just be the essence of Quadri's education philosophy. He believes that today's Muslim youth are facing a generational objective: They must establish an accessible Islamic identity that advances modern values with reverence to traditional ideals.

But things are not always as they seem, and Quadri has spearheaded community outreach initiatives that transcend teachers and books. His students have co-authored a poetry collection with Jewish counterparts from Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. They routinely discuss differences in faith with visiting New Trier Township High School students. They have pen pals in Skokie, Washington state, Britain, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Pakistan.

It's simply a matter of "building relationships through experience" and thus erasing misconceptions, Quadri said.

"Instead of having [the] media tell us who Muslims are, it's kind of best for us not to just say it, but to show it," he added.

Better relations to come

Quadri conceded that Muslims in Morton Grove have experienced past tension with surrounding residents. In April 2003, village officials denied the school's request to build a mosque to accommodate the 750-plus worshippers who frequented Friday prayers in the education center's auditorium. A yearlong legal battle followed, with MCC questioning the village government's concern that it would put additional stress on local traffic.

On June 2, 2004, in mediation with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Village of Morton Grove and MCC reached a land-use settlement that allowed the mosque to be constructed.

However, the damage had already been done to community relations. According to the Justice Department's monthly Religious Freedom in Focus e-mail newsletter, there were "incidents of vandalism at the school and expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment" throughout the ordeal.

Sternly perched behind his immaculate desk, Quadri recalled episode after episode of the targeted harassment with a serious but unfazed demeanor. A school window shattered by a BB gun pellet. Anonymous notes demanding Morton Grove Muslims "go back home." He barely flinches when recollecting bomb threats after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 created suspicion and resentment toward Muslims.

"A lot of that was really due to a few individuals and a lot of it at that time was after 9/11, so there was a lot of fear—and it was fear of the unknown," Quadri said.

In the wake of the mosque-construction controversy, he said his ultimate goal is to demystify the Islamic faith to those who are unfamiliar with its principles. This starts, Quadri explained, with simply raising the mosque and education center's community profile.

Under a national umbrella

Whether it's hosting open houses, conducting religious dialogues, joining the Chamber of Commerce or marching in the Fourth of July parade, he stressed a key sentiment: The community outreach cannot be a one-time gesture.

"We don't want to be like the dog-and-pony show like, 'We came and that's it,' " he said. "That's what we're kind of developing now."

Yet a sizable chunk of misunderstanding can be softened with a basic understanding of religious differences, Quadri added. For example, he said non-Muslims frequently inquire as to why Islamic women cover their heads. It's a straightforward matter of spiritual reverence, he notes, because there is no Islamic priesthood, "everyone strives to be close to God," just like Christian nuns.

When those mutual misunderstandings are resolved, Quadri believes the challenge is even less complicated: Demonstrating religious unity under a single national umbrella.

"As a second-generation Muslim, a lot of my cultural habits are American," he said, "from my clothing to the food I like to the sports I like."

Quadri isn't one for constant leisure, though. He has three children, age 6 and younger, and when queried about hobbies, Quadri is in stitches.

"When you have kids, man, that becomes your hobby," Quadri joked, quickly correcting himself in a humorless tone. "Most of my free time is really giving back to the community."

A tireless community advocate, he is not blind to outside skepticism, such as questioning the decision to have separate entrances for men and women to the school’s adjacent mosque. When asked about the gender segregation, Quadri chuckles and readjusts himself in his seat.

"It would be very uncomfortable to have someone of the opposite gender in front of you because we're bowing down," he said. "So a lot of times people are like, 'Hey, why are women in the back?' But that's more of understanding how our prayer is."

Things are not always as they seem.

Charlie Chaplin March 03, 2011 at 03:46 PM
Mr. Quadri is a good and intelligent man. He can be the next governor of Illinois.
Rais March 03, 2011 at 04:23 PM
Quadri for Governor!!!!
Sadiya March 03, 2011 at 08:00 PM
I have had the pleasure of working with Mr. Quadri for many years, and have always been amazed by his vision, his positive attitude, and his magnetism which draws everyone around him. Indeed, he will be rewarded for all he does for our school and the Muslim Community, and the Morton Grove community at large. I would also like to offer my heartfelt kudos to this newspaper for covering the efforts of an extroardinary individual. And I agree with Charlie Chaplin and Rais, he should run for governor. But we at MEC don't want to lose him.
Mike March 05, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Thanks for sharing this story on a very inspirational figure in our Morton Grove community.
sam March 06, 2011 at 09:53 PM
Sam Kadri Being a parent of MCC student , I must definately acknowledge & appreciate his progressive efforts. He is gem of a person & an asset for MCC in specific & community in general.


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