Education in the UK: How can Muslim disengagement be reversed?

From tolerance to respect

At a conference for Britain’s National Union of Teachers in 2008, a resolution was passed declaring that state schools should have the flexibility and the adaptability to accommodate the faith-based needs of parents and children. Unfortunately such measures often causes reactionary backlash from fringe groups and racist individuals who see this almost as a “usurping” of their national identity. Though the majority of people in the UK (rightly) condemn the over-zealous nationalism that spills into racism towards ethnic minorities, simply ignoring them will only exacerbate their lack of tolerance. Instead, we have a responsibility to ensure such problems do not get worse.

So far in the UK, the approach to promoting tolerance in education has been somewhat two-pronged. Firstly, by requiring teachers to promote understanding and acceptance in schools and secondly by applying this rule to the institution itself – asking the schools to provide a way for all students to retain their religious and cultural identity while they study. Considering the influential effect of education and teachers, this seems a pragmatic approach. In many state schools (Western as well as just British), young people from all cultures – who hold religious and non-religious beliefs – come together, replicating the environment they will have to face in real life an increasingly globalised world. It is understandable why so many believe that respecting and understanding the existence of diversity is such a crucial part of our children’s education.

Ever since immigration began to creep into the forefront of British sensibilities, teachers have been given increasingly social as well as educational roles to fulfil. They must facilitate enabling environments in which to build trust among peers, parents and staff. This trend could also be partially attributed to social research and media reportage which indicates that despite all the headway made in recent years, there are still many hurdles facing multi-cultural Britain and ethnic minorities are often still under-represented in areas like politics and finance. British Muslims are no exception.

In fact for a long time, it appears that British Muslims have experienced disengagement rather than national belonging. In one example, The Mayor of London commissioned a report in November 2007, which found that in one particular week in 2006, over 90% of UK media articles that referred to Islam and Muslims were negative. This needs to change and future generations deserve better. But to help overcome this, it is not just educators that need to equip themselves with the skills to teach in a multi-faith environment. Muslim students and their parents too have a responsibility to learn how to adapt to them. And with British schools and teachers under more scrutiny than ever, teachers may often be inclined to acquiesce to every cultural or religious demand from parents and families of pupils. But this cannot be the solution.

While practices and beliefs which define groups and individuals are indeed precious, they cannot become the sole basis for educational policies and politics. This approach seems to be one that will store up resentment and – paradoxically – intolerance in the future. Culture is not static, but dynamic and schools need to reflect this by being flexible enough to treat all pupils equally. This in fact, is the real test of commitment to tolerance and understanding.

Imperative though it is for our children to be raised as well informed individuals with open minds, it is equally important that they take steps to adapt to their society and their school environment. The essence of multi-culturalism involves people living side by side under one shared identity, whilst proudly holding to their own so that nobody feels resentful or a lack of belonging. With this vision we can fight back against fringe groups that insist that Muslims and Islam are “incompatible” with Western democracy, and it starts with the education of children. By encouraging all students – including Muslim students – to view each other as equals, we can take steps to correct the disengagement that has been felt by British Muslims for far too long.

Subjects like sex education, school dress codes and prayer time need to be addressed through consultation with parents and teachers alike. The divide between commitments outside the classroom and requirements inside it needs to be negotiated, but it is important that one does not take precedence over another. Often, teachers and administrators end up fighting losing battles with parents who want to ensure their children learn in an environment in accordance with their beliefs and practices. Though an honourable and understandable request, it can quickly become difficult to accommodate. If religious or cultural stipulations come to dominate the classroom, we will be doing British students a great disservice by paying lip service to the principle of diversity but failing to create an enabling environment for peers to be equals. Mutual respect and tolerance should be encouraged by seeking equality and similarities between students, not divides.

Tehmina Kazi is the Director ofBritish Muslims for Secular Democracy.

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