An Education In Muslim Integration
Could Islamic schools be part of the solution?
LONDON--The riots that spread beyond the densely Muslim suburbs of Paris into other French cities and even into neighboring countries have confirmed many people's worst fears about growing alienation and extremism among the rising generation of Europe's roughly 14 million-member minority. To date, at least, those riots say far more about the difficulties France and other European nations have had in integrating a largely Muslim underclass than they do about the rise of militant Islam in the West.
But beyond their obvious connection with race and social justice, the violent outbursts give pause to those who share French political scientist Gilles Kepel's view that the crucial struggle for Muslim minds is taking place not in the Arab world but in Europe. At the very least, the riots raise questions about the compatibility of liberal societies and Islam, challenging both the rigid secularism of many European liberals and the dogmatism of many European Muslims. And a number of those questions are being brought to a head in the arena of education, with debates raging about whether Islamic education is part of the problem of Muslim integration into European nations--or whether it might become part of the solution.
To Abdullah Trevathan, head teacher of north London's Islamia Primary School, a state-funded school that offers religious instruction and the study of Arabic along with the standard national curriculum, the answer is clear. Trevathan believes that schools such as Islamia--one of the first five Muslim faith schools to receive state funding in Britain--can play a vital role in hammering out a new Muslim identity, one that combines being a good Muslim with being a good citizen in a pluralist society.
Extremism. That identity is clearly at odds with the one being pushed by Islamic extremists throughout Europe, often in innocent-seeming sports clubs or after-school Koran classes taught by Saudi-trained imams. Their vision of Islam appeals to many of the second- or third-generation children of Pakistani, Turkish, or North African immigrants who crowd the ghettolike neighborhoods of Europe's industrial cities and suburbs. Often raised in households where religion is a loose cultural matter, they are easily seduced by the austere Wahhabi-Salafist vision of a global community of the faithful living under strict Islamic law. Attracted by the moral absolutism, some are even drawn to the violent ways of the jihadists.
But how do Muslim schools provide an antidote to all of this? They do so, Trevathan and others argue, by exposing students to the classical Islamic traditions, whose richness was derived partly from their openness to changing cultural conditions. In addition, argues Asmat Ali, head of the girls' upper-school division of Islamia, Muslim schools give students confidence in their own Muslim identity, a confidence that makes them more at ease with their Britishness. And having a strong ethical and spiritual core arguably contributes to the academic success that Islamia and other faith schools enjoy. With over 97 percent of its upper-school graduates going on to enroll in a university, Islamia itself is, Trevathan says, "the most oversubscribed school in the U.K."
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?
"What we have is a lack of leadership," says Mohammed Mamdani, a 22-year-old Sheffield-born Briton who founded the Muslim Youth Helpline to assist Muslim youths with personal and social problems. The members of the Muslim Council of Britain are, in his view, a typical graybeard lot, isolated from the larger British society and clueless about how Islam can play a positive role in helping young people to live in liberal, pluralistic societies. For his own relatively smooth adjustment to life as a young British Muslim, Mamdani gives considerable credit to the few years he spent in another north London Muslim school, Al-Sadiq. The school's approach to reconciling a strong Muslim ethos with the realities of living in a modern, liberal society is a model that he believes the British government should actively promote in other Muslim schools.
If Britain is moving at least quietly in that direction, so too are countries like the Netherlands, which has about 40 Muslim schools catering to about 3 percent of the nation's some 30,000 school-age Muslims. Those schools came under fierce criticism after a Muslim militant killed the controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The Dutch government continues to support them, but, says Martine Soethout, member of a Ministry of Education task force on social cohesion: "Citizenship has been bolstered in all of them."
In Germany, home to some 3.5 million Muslims, many of the federal states have long left Islamic education in the hands of Turkish teachers, who instruct in Turkish and often follow curricula designed by Turkish diplomatic missions. But in recent years, one state has made Islamic studies a public school subject available to Muslim students, a development that led the University of Munster to adopt the subject as one of its teacher-training courses. Even in France, the citadel of strict church-state separation, the government provides money under a contractual arrangement for about 10 Muslim schools. And before the riots, the now much vilified French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was himself questioning his nation's rigid secularism as an obstacle to the ideal of an "Islam from France," not just an "Islam in France" --an ideal that includes a government-supported school for the training of imams.
The riots might even have given a boost to that kind of thinking, says Brandeis University scholar Jytte Klausen, author of a new book, The Challenge of Islam. About recent conversations with several European officials, she says, "Strangely, the riots are having the effect of convincing them that all the burden for integrating shouldn't rest on the shoulders of the Muslim immigrants." Maybe there is reason to think that a long overdue Islamic reformation can still take off in Europe.
This story appears in the November 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.