Why militants want Muslim schools in Britain
The British educational establishment has been shaken by proposals to set up separate Muslim schools run along fundamentalist Islamic lines. The proposals involve buying up five state schools currently attended by children of all races, appointing Muslim head teachers, and introducing Islamic religious teaching and discipline.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The plan has caused alarm among many - including members of Britain's 1 -million-strong Muslim community - who see it as socially divisive and further chafing already acute racial tensions. Tens of thousands of teachers have already said, through their unions, that they want no part of creating ghetto schools.
The idea of separate Muslim schooling came from the Muslim Parents Association, a militant group based in the Yorkshire city of Bradford, which has one of Britain's largest Muslim communities. Some 15,000 of the city's schoolchildren are Muslims of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin; in some local schools, 7 out of every 10 children are Muslim.
The Muslim Parents Association is fiercely critical of what it sees as immoral and undisciplined behavior and teaching at state schools, which are threatening, the group says, to undermine Islamic social and religious traditions. The parents say the example set by their children's schoolmates encourages Muslim children to be disobedient, promiscuous, and skeptical of traditional beliefs.
Their spokesman, Raiz Shahid says, ''Our children are losing their faith and their identity. The only way we can be sure of bringing them up in the right atmosphere is by keeping them away from the rest.''
According to Mr. Shahid, the curriculum in the new schools would remain unchanged, although the emphasis would be on Islamic education and religious instruction. He says, ''We are going to make our children submissive, peace-loving, obedient, caring, and responsible people.''
The demand for Muslim schools has taken Bradford education authorities by surprise because the city's 45,000 Muslims, like Muslim communities elsewhere in Britain, have traditionally kept a very low profile. Ever since they began arriving in Britain in large numbers in the late 1950s and '60s in search of work, many Muslims have lived virtually cut off from the rest of British society.
Partly out of a fear of hostility from whites, partly out of a desire to keep their own religious and cultural values intact, they have withdrawn into themselves, unobtrusively observing the laws of Islam behind the lace curtains of decaying, inner-city houses. As in the old country, many Muslim women are kept in purdah and rarely venture outside their own four walls.
All this has made it easy for the authorities to ignore Muslim grievances, many of which, focused on education, have now been simmering for more than a quarter century. Hundreds of Muslim parents of girls in particular have given up trying to fight the system and simply keep their teen-age daughters under lock and key. Others, like Mr. Shahid, send their daughters back east for their schooling.
Privately, education officials acknowledge the special needs of Muslim schoolchildren have long been overlooked. No one has taken much notice of Muslim opinions on how schools should be run. As a Bradford educationalist put it, ''Muslim children have been expected to sing hymns, join hands, and dance around the Christmas tree. It's not hard to understand how Muslim parents feel.''
It is ironic that the demand for separate Muslim schools should have been made in Bradford - the only place in the country that in the past 18 months has made earnest, if belated, efforts to accommodate the Muslims. In a direct response to the 1981 riots in Toxteth and Brixton, which raised fears of similar unrest in Bradford, local authorities swiftly stepped up consultations with local Muslim groups. In January of this year, they drew up a package of measures to ensure that Muslim children at state schools would not be educated in an exclusively Christian culture.