The great faith schools debate is rarely far from the headlines in the UK. Only last month, the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard caused a stir when he suggested that Church of England schools should open their doors to non-Anglicans. The UK is currently home to around 7,000 state faith schools as well as numerous more that are privately run. Yet, although the vast majority of these 7,000 schools are Christian, it is Muslim faith schools that often give rise to the most vitriolic debate. This was typified by the media furore that followed the broadcast last November of an episode of BBC documentary Panorama that alleged that a group of Islamic schools in the UK were inculcating violent and racist beliefs in British Muslim children.
Critics of Islamic schools often wield arguments that the UK is under constant threat of Islamist violence and that the children schooled in these institutions are being taught to hate the society in which they are growing up. Some of these schools are accused of fostering anti-Semitism, homophobia and other ‘tenets of Sharia law’. While schools of any faith are not immune from accusations of promoting, or at least condoning, illiberal views, it is Muslim schools that are usually the cause of the greater societal fear. On one level, the faith schools controversy is about regulation of the UK school system. More importantly, however, the controversy over Islamic schools points to deeper questions concerning Britain and Europe’s changing relationship with its Muslim citizenry and its struggle to define the extent of its liberal tolerance.
In recent years, there has been a growing conflation of a link between Islam and extremism in the popular imaginary, fuelled by the propagation of one-dimensional media stereotypes. Yet, in addition to all else that is wrong with these portrayals there is a collective amnesia and a deliberate obscuring of the history of violence in most religions as violent extremism is painted as something particular to Islam. Despite the overtly religious nature of the troubles in Ireland, the actions of the Irish Republican Army have not earned the Catholic faith the extremist label, and Biblical teachings were not mobilised as an explanation of the IRA’s adoption of terror tactics. More worryingly, this conflation of Islam and extremism extends beyond armed groups and religious figures to encompass a staggering number of British Muslims. Under a definition of extremism offered in a November 2010 report on faith schools by prominent centre-right UK think tank Policy Exchange, one could be classed an extremist by virtue of opposition to armed forces recruitment. While we might be able to engage in sensible debate over some of the organisation’s other criteria for identifying extremists, labelling a pacifist (Muslim or otherwise) an extremist is illogical and points to an irrational fear that has grown in the West.
It seems then that the very mention of Islam has us running scared. Indeed, while Jewish Beth Din courts operate in Britain for the arbitration of civil disputes, the suggestion by Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2008 that Britain ought to consider accommodating aspects of Sharia law in the UK, sparked outrage and a fierce backlash. Similarly, despite the fact that the UK has a far greater number of Jewish and Christian faith schools per capita, these schools tend to elicit far less criticism than their Islamic counterparts which are not uncommonly (although unjustly) considered to be hotbeds of terrorism.
Holding supposed Qur’anic teachings responsible for radical views or terror attacks committed by some Muslims, however, is to take a one-sided look at the pertinent factors at work and ignores today’s geopolitical backdrop. The US’s self-assumed mandate for open-ended war following 9/11 as well as Western inaction on the Palestinian issue has probably done far more to alienate young British Muslims from British society. Yet while some more thoughtful commentators might consider the alienating effects of British foreign policies, the blame is more often placed on the perceived failure of Muslim communities to integrate and adapt to the ‘norms’ of British society. Muslims (as the aforementioned Panorama documentary alleged) are often accused of being the most segregated community in the UK while Islamic schools are said to be both a worrying manifestation and a cause of this.
The issue of multiculturalism in the West is, however, an increasingly complex one. It is shaped by forces from both sides of the immigrant/native, minority/majority dichotomy as Europe struggles with the question of how to deal with its sizeable migrant and multi-ethnic population. Britain’s response has been to accommodate different religious and moral beliefs and cultural predilections of its population. Different communities are encouraged to live side by side, each practising their own traditions and values without any apparent overarching vision of society – or so the argument goes. However, even this official stance is now being challenged in state discourse as Britain’s policy of multiculturalism is coming under attack by the Conservative-led government.
Critics allege that multiculturalism is creating a cadre of Brits hostile to Western democratic ideals, permitting (and even funding) the propagation of violent extremism through institutions such as faith schools. Among British multiculturalism’s critics is Prime Minster David Cameron who himself alleged that ‘segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values’ lead to a rise in extremism. In a February speech to the 2011 Munich Security Conference, Cameron vehemently declared that, ‘Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values.”
However, to see British ‘multicultural’ society as a value-free space is fundamentally wrong as a number of substantive moral and political ideas structure the political arena. The official multiculturalism of the type supposedly practiced in the UK still requires immigrant populations to adhere to certain values, which are considered universal and therefore beyond reproach. These are rendered most visible when the limits of this liberalism are reached, as the faith schools controversy has shown, where a religious value system is criticised for clashing with the ‘universal’ tenets of a modern, liberal and secular society.
It is undeniable that since the tragic events of 9/11 there has been a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment across Europe, which has been the preferred method for some in dealing with uncomfortable questions that have risen in relation to ‘national identity’ and ‘national values’. German Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s widely read book Germany Does Away with Itself chillingly harked back to eugenics in analysing the effects of Turkish and Arab communities on German society, while other right-wing forces such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Swiss SVP and ultra-nationalist parties in Hungary and Sweden have also been able to exploit fears of Islam to boost their right-wing agendas. The UK has not escaped this trend in the form of the explicitly anti-Islamic English Defence League.
The faith schools debate also encapsulates and draws upon fears over national identity and definitions of ‘our’ values. Although on the surface, those with concerns over faith schools justify their position with the goal of preventing extremism and keeping society safe from physical harm, at a deeper level, the issue speaks to fears of identity and nation which have been stoked by concerns over Britain’s Muslim minority. It is about a perceived loss of “Britishness”, the desire to reign in “outside” influences and fears that the multiculturalist experiment has gone too far. In many ways Muslim schools in Britain have been the unfortunate casualties of this anxious national moment.
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