An Education In Muslim Integration
Could Islamic schools be part of the solution?
Despite the performance and promise of Muslim schools like Islamia, they are still the object of loud controversy in Britain. Possessing an established church, Britain has long provided government support for religious schools, and not just for Anglican ones. Today, out of a total of 22,000 state schools, some 7,000 are religious, all but 45 of which are associated with major Christian denominations. Yet the existence of five state-funded Muslim schools--with four more approved for support--has generated a seemingly disproportionate critical reaction. Several months before the July 7 subway bombing in London, England's chief school inspector criticized the curricula of Muslim schools and voiced concerns about their effect on national cohesion. Jonathan Romain, rabbi of a Reform synagogue in Maidenhead, England, and an outspoken critic of the entire principle of faith schools, echoes those concerns. "Whereas most clergy see faith schools as reinforcing values," he says, "I see them as dividing different communities." Romain is quick to add that he is not opposed to teaching about different faith traditions in religious education classes in normal state schools. But to create more faith schools is, he argues, "surely to see a problem arise in 30 years' time."
The uneasiness that many Britons feel about Muslim schools may stem from confusion about what these schools actually are. According to the Association of Muslim Schools in U.K. and Eire, there are about 120 Islamic schools throughout Britain. But that figure includes everything from small Koranic academies to schools offering a full state curriculum and Islamic subjects. Fauzia Ahmad, a professor of sociology at the University of Bristol, says that this lack of differentiation "gives the impression that there are thousands of schools out there creating radicals."
While British citizenship is heavily emphasized at schools like Islamia, there is legitimate concern about what goes on in some of the others. Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim scholar who serves on a British task force on religious extremism, says that he approves faith schools "in principle" but is disturbed by schools--mainly those created explicitly for Muslim girls--whose real intention is to isolate the students from the rest of society. "I think we still have to assess every single school on what its project is."
Which, of course, is one good argument for bringing even more Muslim schools into the state-supported arrangement. Not only does that guarantee that the school will offer a state-approved curriculum, but it also ensures some government oversight of the content of the religion classes. Yet some see such oversight as a potential problem. "There is a perception of Britain trying to shape a 'British Muslim,' which suggests a control aspect," says Ahmad, "and Muslims would not take kindly to that."
Ultimately, though, the dilemma facing not just Britain but also Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Italy is broadly similar: If the European educational system does not play a constructive role in the religious education of devout European Muslims, then where will that education come from, and how will it be shaped? Part of Europe's difficulties today stems from the fact that most European imams and many of the Muslim leaders in prominent national organizations tend to be either religious conservatives or reactionaries--or simply out of touch with the rising generation of European Muslims. How can a new and visionary cadre of European Muslim leaders be created unless instruction in responsible and broad-minded Islam receives government support or at least government encouragement?