Why militants want Muslim schools in Britain

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Imams have been invited to lead school prayer meetings, Muslim children are being allowed to wear traditional dress and religious jewelry to school, and there are plans to put halal meat (slaughtered according to Islamic law) on the school menu. Muslim boys and girls will have separate swimming and physical-education classes, and girls anxious to preserve their modesty will be able to wear tracksuits or churidar pajamas when playing sports.

Teachers now teach Urdu and Punjabi, and the entire school curriculum is under review. The aim is to give Asian life styles and customs as much emphasis as Western ones.

But the authorities are the first to admit that it is a long-term project, and the Muslim Parents Association says they are offering too little, too late. Raiz Shahid points out that sex education is still being taught despite Muslim objections and that the authorities are going ahead with plans to gradually phase out single-sex schools.

Other Muslim leaders in Bradford take a more conciliatory line. Sher Azam, president of the city's Council of Mosques, says: ''We think it's best to stay within the present system and try to work out a formula acceptable to everyone.'' He says the changes now being made should reassure most Muslim parents, but adds, ''If a section of the community insisted on establishing separate schools, we would not stand in (its) way.''

At least one Muslim group, the Asian Youth Movement, openly opposes the separate schools proposal and is mobilizing opposition to it. The group, which views the proposal as a first step on the road to segregation, said in a statement: ''We don't want to see the Asian community foist apartheid on itself. Once such a trend develops, it could spill over into other areas and provoke a racist backlash.''

The young Asians argue employers would discriminate against former pupils of Islamic schools and the pupils would grow up with a one-dimensional view that would put them at a disadvantage in Britain's multiracial society.

''It's hard enough for young Asians as it is,'' says Johnny Rashid, secretary of the Asian Youth Movement. ''They are torn between respect for their roots and religion and the desire to integrate. You simply have to learn to adapt. The fundamentalists are wrong when they say Islam leaves no room for compromise.''

Some of the Asian youngsters' fears have already been realized: In Bradford, the school issue has become the focus of angry debate. Bitter letters of protest from white residents have flooded into the press and local council.

The headmistress of one girls' school which might be taken over, Patricia McElroy, says that racial tension among her pupils has increased since the Muslim plans were first unveiled, and that her 50 teachers have threatened to leave en masse if the takeover goes through.

''Ours is a highly successful multiracial school,'' she said. ''We object to the idea of an exclusively Muslim education because we believe the best way to understand one another's cultures is to go to school together and be taught together.''

But in the eyes of the law, Muslim parents have every right to set up their own schools and run them with government aid, as British Jews and Roman Catholics have been doing for many years. Provided they can come up with the kind of educational, financial, and adminstrative guarantees that existing denominational schools have, it is hard to see how they could be prevented from going ahead.

The Bradford council, on the face of it, has adopted a strictly neutral stance toward the Muslims' plans and is currently sounding out the opinions of all those who might be affected. But it is fairly clear where its sympathies lie.

As Michael Whittaker of Bradford's Education Department says, ''In an area with a very heavy Asian population such as ours, separate schools would not be in the long-term interests of British children, white or black. They will institutionalize the very pronounced ethnic and religious splits in the community. In a few years we could have another Northern Ireland on our hands.''

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