Defenders of the faith

Pakistani madrassas are accused of training suicide bombers. But do Britain's Muslim academies also pose a threat? Nick Jackson seeks answers from Islamic zealots, educationalists and students
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The news that at least one of the bombers may have attended Islamic schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan has provoked copy thick with suspicion of terror schools - mysterious madrassas run by mad mullahs.

Madrassa students are seen by radicals worldwide as the vanguard of Islamic fundamentalism, with the Pakistani party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal claiming to be able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of students. But what of madrassas here?

Less than a mile from Aldgate East Underground station, where seven people were killed in the bombings of 7 July, nestles a cluster of madrassas catering for the local Bengali community. At the London Islamic School, just off Commercial Road, students spend the morning studying the national curriculum, and, in the afternoon, Islamic theology. The brightest children learn by rote, memorising all of the more-than-77,000 words of the Koran in Arabic, a language few of them understand, while the less able are taught analytical approaches to Islam.

Students in a uniform of bare feet, baggy pyjamas and prayer caps squat on the floors of rudimentary classrooms. There is little on the walls except for the ubiquitous lush montage of Islamic holy sites and relics in the headmaster's office, and, to set a spook's heart a-flutter, medals for paintballing and chemistry.

Some in Britain would like to see those skills put to nefarious use. "It would be a noble thing for madrassa students to go out and fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Palestine," says Choudry. As in Pakistan, radical groups in Britain claim a monopoly on Muslim scholarship, and an article, widely circulated on extremist websites, insists that only Muslims who do not understand Islam oppose terrorism.

With half their day spent on Islamic studies, the boys at the London Islamic School are certainly not ignorant of Islam, but nor do they support terrorism, and they speak angrily of the London bombers. "They're not Islamic, they're just terrorists," says Afzal, 15. "Innocent people are dying and that's not right," adds his classmate Zahadul. "Islam condemns that."

It's the innocent who command Zahadul's loyalty, more than Muslim or British identity. "If British soldiers kill innocent Muslims we're on the side of the Muslims," he says. "But if Muslims kill innocent British people we're on the side of the British." Zahadul would never fight for his country against Muslims, he says, but he would not fight against it either, preferring instead to help through ambulance work.

The non-partisan opposition to violence is central to the school's thinking, and prayers have been said since the bombings for its victims. "All mankind are God's creation and we teach our students to respect that," says Abdul Rouf, headmaster at the school. Madrassas that do not teach that, he says, are not teaching Islam. "These people use Islam to suit their own needs. They twist its traditions."

Those traditions, even untwisted, can seem strange to the outsider. When I ask one boy, Jubair, how he would explain to a non-Muslim what it feels to recite the Koran in a language he doesn't understand, his first response is, "dunno". When pressed, he says it makes him feel closer to God.

Despite this obvious gulf, none of the students say they feel separated from British society. All have friends of other faiths, with whom they play football after school, and some of whom drink alcohol. "It's not good for us, obviously, and we don't do it," says Raj, 15. "But it's allowed according to their faith, so it doesn't bother us."

"We teach our students how to live as a Muslim by respecting other people's cultures and faiths," says Rouf. There is also a desire among the students to go beyond not being bothered and to actively engage with, and make a positive contribution to, British society: Ruhal wants to be a doctor, Afzal a teacher. "Everything Islam teaches is to do with society," says Rouf. "You can't live isolated as one community."

The belief that faith schools can help to integrate communities into mainstream British society is at the heart of the Government's policy to expand cooperation between the state sector and independent faith schools. By awarding them voluntary-aided status, the Government will, effectively, bring them into the state sector.

"Faith schools can make an important contribution to community cohesion by promoting inclusion," a spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said last week. "We are committed to working to increase the number of faith schools."

But there are other voices in government that are more wary of Muslim schools. Earlier this year, David Bell, the head of Ofsted, voiced concerns that the growth of independent Muslim schools in Britain may present a challenge to "our coherence as a nation". In his annual report in February, he said that many Muslim schools were not doing enough to promote tolerance and respect for other cultures.

Some in the Muslim community agree with the latter point. The DfES points to the record of inter-faith school partnerships published on Teachernet as evidence of faith schools promoting social cohesion, but only one Muslim school, and no madrassas, are listed. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the head of the Muslim Parliament, says that in one Muslim school a partnership programme was set up but students refused to take part. "I found this very alarming and worrying," he says. "Later, I discovered that this attitude is not peculiar to that school."

To overcome this, the Muslim Parliament called last week for non-Muslims to be brought into Muslim schools. Rouf insists that non-Muslims are already welcome at the London Islamic School. "But in practice," he admits, "you don't see any." It's easy to understand why. Who would send their child to a school where half the day is spent studying a religion they don't believe in?

Siddiqui believes that once Muslim schools raise their standards, non-Muslims will be eager to join. This is still a long way off for most madrassas. The London Islamic School is one of the worst in the country when its GCSE grades are compared with students' grades before they arrived.

But all this only matters in the current debate if madrassa students are more likely to come under the influence of extremists because of their lack of integration. At present, there seems little compelling evidence that they are. A look at the CVs of the most notorious British-born terrorists shows that they are as likely to been immersed in the cultural heterogeneity of institutions such as the LSE as to have studied at a British madrassa. Some even suggest, as Jorgen Nielsen, the professor of Islamic studies at Birmingham University, did in these pages last week, that students at faith schools are less likely to be fooled by the jihad hawkers.

"If [the bombers] had studied at an Islamic school they wouldn't have done this," says Jamil Ahmed. He is a governor of a 70 per cent Muslim state school and an educational consultant for independent Islamic schools. "Kids at madrassas are much more confident in their understanding of Islam. If any misguided radicals came to recruit at their school they wouldn't go for it," he says.

When I ask Choudry if the bombers may have done what they did precisely because they had not received a good education in Islam, he calls an end to the interview. Perhaps more religion in schools, not less, is the way to keep extremists like al-Muhajiroun at bay.