Islamic Schools Test Ideal of Integration in Britain
By ALAN COWELL
The New York Times
Published: October 15, 2006
LEICESTER, England The sports hall doubles as a prayer room and dining hall for male teenagers, at other times for young women, but never the two together. In the kindergarten, female teachers, warned of an impending visit by a man, draw full facial veils before receiving their guest. When the guest arrives, the children offer a chorus in Arabic: As salaam aleikum peace be upon you.
Here we can keep ourselves on the path of religion, said Nasir Nathalia, a 15-year-old student at the Leicester Islamic Academy. His friend Mohammed Seedat agrees. There is less chance here of going off the track, he said.
This is the piety that Britains expanding Islamic schools seek to project, casting themselves as typical of the thousands of faith schools, mainly Christian, that make up roughly one-third of all publicly financed British schools.
But the visible differences the way female teenagers wear the full-length dress and head-covering and the boys wear black robes and skullcaps play into a ferocious debate about the sense of separateness or readiness to integrate Britains estimated 1.8 million Muslims, about 3 percent of the population.
And the discussion touches on a much wider theme of ethnic segregation across the British state-financed educational system. Segregation is now so extreme in some schools that there is not much further it can go, Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, told a parliamentary panel. It doesnt help to prepare children in these schools for the real world.
Neither, some believe, does it bridge the gap between a largely secular society and a profound commitment to a single faith.
If you are going to have Islamic schools, the question is whether they are going to embrace Western values, said Patrick Sookhdeo, a Pakistan-born Anglican priest who converted from Islam and who runs a not-for-profit institute committed to maintaining Christian values. I would argue that Islamic values are not compatible with Western values.
Others disagree just as boldly. If you think faith schools are divisive, it would help a great deal to know why: Is there empirical evidence? said Mohamed Mukadam, the principal of the Leicester Islamic Academy.
Students from Islamic schools, Mr. Mukadam said in an interview, were not associated with either the religious and racial riots in northern England in the early 2000s or in any of the recent terrorism conspiracies. If you want to examine the northern riots, or the terrorism, he said, I have not come across a single person from faith schools or who went to faith schools.
It is a debate shot through with fear and resentment after terrorist attacks by Muslims and alleged plots in London, leaving the British government to ponder how it can properly deny state financing to Islamic schools that teach the core subjects of the national curriculum when it provides money for much more numerous schools of Christian, Jewish or other faiths. Only 7 Islamic schools receive public financing, compared with 36 Jewish schools, and about 7,000 Christian schools.
The parents of just 3 percent of Muslim students enroll them in Islamic schools, where the education is generally rigorous and there is a code to nurture their Islamic identity, shield them from discrimination and provide moral guidance. The bulk of the 140 Islamic schools charge tuition. At Leicester, for instance, tuition is $2,700 a year.
Muslim children in this country tend to live separate lives anyhow, said Mark Halstead, a professor of education at the University of Huddersfield in northern England. Whether they go to Muslim school does not make much difference to their segregation. They are concentrated in the inner cities. They could be attending a state school that is 90 percent Muslim anyway.
A report by Simon Burgess, a professor of economics, discovered that, for instance, in the blue-collar Tower Hamlets district of East London, where ethnic minorities form 48 percent of the population, nearly half the schools were exclusively nonwhite.
The issue of Islamic separateness is magnified by a recent debate about a full-face veil that shows only the eyes and is known as the niqab. Some non-Muslims, most notably Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, have said the veil illustrates that Muslims are rejecting British norms; others say simply that Britons are discriminating against Muslims.
The debate cuts to the heart of Britains stated philosophy on multiculturalism, defined 40 years ago by the Labor politician Roy Jenkins when he was home secretary. In laying out a new immigration policy, he said immigration should not lead to a flattening process of assimilation but instead should provide equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity.
But now, as the country is struggling so publicly with Muslim assimilation, some analysts like Mr. Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality fear that a premium on cultural separateness has Britain sleepwalking into segregation.
On another level, the debate over Islamic schools here also involves equity in the use of tax money.
According to the Department of Education in London, private schools must meet laborious and detailed criteria to gain access to state financing, and many Islamic schools have failed to do so.
Since 1997, according to government figures, only 25 minority faith schools have qualified for government financing 15 of them Jewish and the rest Muslim, Sikh, Greek Orthodox and Seventh-day Adventist schools.
Islamic schools typically teach the same basic subjects as in other faith or state-run schools. All private and public are subject to inspections.
But there are differences.
While Christian schools say 25 percent of their seats are open to non-Christians, Mr. Mukadam said there were so few Islamic schools that it would be impractical to offer admission to non-Muslims.
In Leicester, many students attend Koranic recitation and memorization lessons at separate madrasas schools run by mosques without regulation outside normal school hours.
Still, a survey by the Islamic Human Rights Commission last year said that Muslims in several categories people who are older, wealthier and more secular, and students in their late teens placed academic success ahead of religious affiliation in choosing a school.
According to the most recent government inspection of the Leicester Islamic Academy educational standards in 2002, most of its teenage students achieved twice the national average grades in the examinations that high school students take around the age of 16. But that does not necessarily immunize students from the broader pressures of life as British Muslims, even in Leicester.
This city in the English midlands, once known as a center for manufacturing shoes and textiles, prides itself on diversity. More than one-third of the 300,000 residents are members of Britains ethnic minorities, and Leicester is expected to become Britains first city with a nonwhite majority in less than a decade. But it has not been protected from the threat of terrorism: in early 2002, the police rounded up what they called an Al Qaeda cell here.
The sight of Muslims under attack in Palestinian areas or Iraq, said Nasir, the student at the academy here, makes us want to help, through giving or charity. Yusuf Parekh, a 15-year-old classmate, said some people felt the pain and anger particularly because their people are being killed back home.
But is violence justified? Only as a last resort, he said.
But Mr. Mukadam, who is also chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, insisted that his school taught loyalty to Britain as a land that offered religious and other freedoms. If an Islamic school were found to be fomenting radicalism, he said, it is my first duty to say this school should not exist.
He acknowledged that some students might feel passionately about the plight of fellow Muslims elsewhere. My job, he said, is to understand their deep hurt but get them away from the radicals that promote violence.