Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is challenging Britain's right to decide what Muslim children should be taught in schools.
So far, the US-based black separatist group has resisted a government order to shut down its schools, with the spotlight on a West London school that has 60 pupils, ages 3 to 16.
Officials say several Muslim schools operate illegally in London and other cities. In Britain, all schools must be registered with the government. Inspectors have the right to enter premises, find out what's taught, and examine pupil records.
The Nation of Islam established a foothold in Britain in 1986 and is believed to have more than 2,000 active members here.
This past November, teaching staff at the self-styled Star Chamber Academy in Shepherd's Bush rejected demands that it register with the Department of Education and refused school inspectors entry to the building. The local council tried to close the school down.
This triggered demonstrations in West London by Muslim parents and their children, who were joined by Nation of Islam members. The council put the closure plan on hold.
Last Tuesday, the Department of Education said it was launching an inquiry into unauthorized Muslim schools. A spokesman said: "It is illegal to run an unregistered school, and we will act wherever they are."
Police say it is hard to locate low-profile unregistered schools. The Star Chamber Academy is housed in a West London community center. The department has given it one month to register or face court proceedings.
Banned in Britain
Britain has long regarded the Nation of Islam's teachings with suspicion. In 1986, a spokesman for the group was reported as saying the aim was to create a separate black state for its members. He said it opposed marriages between people of different races. Britain's Board of Jewish Deputies complained to the government.
Since then Louis Farrakhan, founder of the Nation of Islam, has been banned from entering Britain due to what the Home Office, which regulates immigration, regards as the danger that he will spread racial hatred.
In June 1998, Home Secretary Jack Straw confirmed Mr. Farrakhan's status as a prohibited immigrant. This came after an estimated 300 members of his movement tried to storm an official London inquiry into the death of a black teenager at the hands of a gang of white youths.
Members of the group complained police harassment of black youngsters was common in Britain.
The protesters, in their traditional uniforms of red bow ties, dark suits, and dark glasses, attracted nationwide publicity. It was the first time the low-profile organization had staged a major protest in the presence of TV cameras.
Exact statistics are hard to come by, but there are thought to be more than 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, mainly immigrants or the children of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most live in large cities, and parents are content to let their children go to state schools that teach the standard British curriculum.
A minority, however, insist that their children be taught according to strict Muslim precepts.
For several years, such parents had to pay privately for an Islamic education. But last January, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ruled that if Muslim schools registered with the Department of Education and taught the national curriculum, they could qualify for government funding.
This brought them into line with schools run by Christian and Jewish organizations.
At the time, it was seen as a major breakthrough for Muslim parents content to accept British law.
At the Star Chamber Academy and two other illegal Muslim schools operating in London, a Department of Education official said pupils were "apparently being taught African and Islamic subjects," but acknowledged that they also appear to be following parts of the national curriculum.
The "real issue" was the schools' refusal to register.
Karen Mohammed, spokeswoman for the school, says, "We have not actually submitted an application to the Education Department, but we are providing a satisfactory education for our children."
A local council official in Shepherd's Bush speculated that the Nation of Islam "appeared to be deliberately seeking a head-on clash with the education authorities" with the aim of "putting pressure on the government to acknowledge the group's special status."
New source of concern
The Nation of Islam challenge to the government coincides with unrelated reports that hundreds of young British Muslims attending mosques are being taught the philosophy of the Taliban, the radical Deobandi sect now running Afghanistan. The group has no known connection to the Nation of Islam.
The Deobandi believe women are a source of evil, and seek to regulate detailed aspects of everyday life.
Ronald Greaves, professor of Islamic studies at Wolverhampton University in the north of England, says Deobandi teaching in Britain is on the increase and is "a cause for concern." He says much of the teaching appears to take place at mosques in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford, and at small Islamic colleges in the north of England.
Professor Greaves says that so far, teaching at Deobandi centers appears not to have stressed the need to encourage militant action.
It is hard, however, to learn precisely what is being taught to youths attending the mosques and colleges, because they operate independently and do not publicize their activities.