Monday, 6 August 2007

Muslim Schools in Scotland

This was a piece I wrote for the Times Educational Supplement on August 12th 2005 on the issue of state funded Muslim schools in Scotland

Muslim Schools and Religious Identity

The terrorist attacks in London have led us all to seek solutions to the spiralling escalations of violence. Scottish Muslims have unequivocally denounced all acts of terror that in turn create friction and alienation in Scottish society. The war on terror has educated us all to decipher Islam from terrorism. It is through the hard work of sensible and rational scholars of Islam and the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims that stereotypes and prejudices have been quashed. We are moving from ‘tolerating’ each other to understanding and learning from each other. We stand united in grief and pain through our loss. The death of Anthony Fatayi-Williams, whose Mother is Catholic and Father Muslim, brought faith communities together to mourn and support each other at a funeral sermon led by the Bishop Alan Hopes. This is just one example reflecting the diversity which unites Britain.

So why am I still left bemused to hear the same so-called Scottish Muslim leaders and politicians seeking state funded Muslim schools when we see quite clearly the potential of an inclusive education, beyond faith? Are we, as Scottish Muslims, not learning from this tragedy?

We are witnessing daily accounts of how mutual trust and understanding can solidly be built through strengthening the humanitarian bond. Adult minds can be difficult to change but shaping and challenging the minds of our youth is still in the power of the Muslim parent. The most potent weapon against terror is education and we seem to be approaching a cross road in the Scottish Muslim scene where we can aid the current state education system or adopt a new state funded Muslim education which may take years to ‘get right’. The burning question is do we have years to waste?

It seems to me that the whole lobby is based around seeking that which others have. Firstly, England has state funded Muslim schools – so should we. No one denies the fact that Muslim schools are, in some cases, successful in England but we must recognise that the Scottish education environment is completely different having its own laws and ethos.

The Muslim community is by far much smaller than that of England. London has a total Muslim population of 1 Million whereas the whole of Scotland has around 60,000 Muslims.

Since the Muslim community is much smaller it needs to capitalise on this and establish itself alongside and within the wider society in order for Scottish Muslims to become physical vehicles for breaking down prejudices and fully integrate in society. Thence thwarting any chance for the new generation of Scottish Muslims to establish an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. One cannot pay mere lip service to terms such as Scottish Muslim if one continues to adopt an isolationist approach to education.

Secondly, the Jewish and some Christian communities in Scotland have state funded faith schools – so should we. There is no secret in the fact that Jewish and Christian faith schools are not perfect, far from it, but they are established by faith communities that have a long history in Scotland. Many within these communities would however question the need for and place of such schools in 21st Century Scotland. In addition, these communities have, currently, a different media profile. State funded Jewish and Christian schools do not carry the same stigma that a state funded Muslim school will. The former attracts students from a wide spectrum of society (indeed I was educated at a Catholic primary school in Glasgow for a few years) but in the current state of affairs the latter will attract only Muslims students. Good education cannot be judged merely upon the merits of a good teacher, good school facilities or ample amounts of money, it requires commitment to creating the best educational environment in which a student can feel comfortable and confident. If the environment is not as such, this will lead to catastrophic implications on the learning environment of Scottish Muslims who will inevitably remain isolated from the wider communities during their schooling years. Then upon leaving school, fall into a state of shell shock and identity crisis when faced with the reality of our multicultural and integrated multifaith Scottish community. Leaving a young Muslim vulnerable to extremist pressures.

The closure of Iqra Academy by HMI Inspectors in the south side of Glasgow is a case study we can all learn from. Every school is led by upholding a solid commitment to enhancing the educational experience of its students. Iqra Academy’s aim and objectives were shaped through the drive of preserving a so-called ‘Islamic’ identity. Can Muslim parents and the Mosques not be trusted to transmit Islamic knowledge and identity? When a community seeks to preserve an identity an insular approach seems to be the easiest way to do this. There are many ways of experiencing Islam so the romanticised vision of an ‘Islamic’ identity needs to be understood from this vantage point. Those who believe that a state funded Muslim school would not experience the same problems that the privately funded Iqra Academy did seem to be delusional. As an educationalist, my concern is based upon the real issue – educating Scottish Muslims.

As a Scottish Muslim teacher of Religious Education, I shudder to think how I could develop core themes in RE in an all Muslim classroom. A Muslim student who is taught in a non-faith school may appreciate their "uniqueness" more in such a school as opposed to a faith school. This in turn will allow the student to understand, explore and question their identity in a classroom vibrant with diversity. Such diversity will take a long time, if ever, to establish in a new state funded Muslim school.

It pains me to hear the Muslim lobby for state funded Muslim schools using irrational arguments. As an invited speaker recently at an Islamophobia conference held at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, I, and a large majority of the audience, were shocked to hear an argument put forward that state schools promote gang culture. Islam's peaceful aspirations for uniting communities, promoting inter-religious understanding, are in danger of being diluted by political parties led by so-called representative Muslim bodies.

At a recent public lecture, held at the University of Glasgow, the High Commissioner for Pakistan in London, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, advised Muslims throughout the UK to stand up and voice their opinions rather than sitting back and accepting those who speak for Islam and Muslims. The loudest voices cannot be accepted as the Muslim community's representatives and the political lobby for state funded Muslim schools in Scotland is not representative of the whole Scottish Muslim societies. The Muslim community is not monolithic, never was and never will be. Those lobbying for such a school will naturally seek to establish structures and ethos which are unlikely to reflect the genuine diversity in which the Scottish Muslim societies thrive. Are those who lobby for state funded Muslim schools in Scotland afraid that Islam and Muslims cannot maintain their identity alongside other religions and cultures? Do they want young Muslims ill-prepared to live as Scottish Muslims within the wider society? Have they learnt nothing from the sectarian sub-culture in the west of Scotland? It’s time to ponder, reflect and act through these testing times in order to safeguard a strong and successful Scottish Muslim identity.

Amanullah De Sondy
Research Fellow
School of Divinity
University of Glasgow

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