Religion classes boycotted by Muslim parents

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Religious Affairs Correspondent

The three-week-old Muslim dispute over religious education in which 1,500 pupils have been withdrawn from lessons at schools in West Yorkshire showed no sign of abating last night.

However, Muslim leaders yesterday cast doubt on suggestions that the boycott would spread around the country.

"Outside Batley parents don't seem to have got together. People are either full of apathy or indifferent," Akram Khan-Cheema, a prominent Muslim educationalist and former government inspector of schools, said.

The Chief Education Officer for Kirklees council, Rob Vincent, said that no formal meetings with Muslim leaders were scheduled until next week. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education, but it was never envisaged that this would be used as a weapon of mass protest.

The protest seems directed against the very idea of religious education that teaches young children about other faiths. Although the Education Act was amended in the Lords to insist that religious instruction be predominantly Christian in character, this has not caused problems in other areas with Muslim majority schools.

The Batley boycott started after a two-year consultation process to design an RE syllabus agreeable to all faith communities. "Of course the Muslim community was fully involved and happy with the outcome," Mr Vincent said. "I think what has happened is that that led them to a more general consideration of the role of religious education."

Most of the children withdrawn from RE lessons, he said, were being instructed in Islam at private religious classes as well.

Mr Khan-Cheema said: "We want our children in the primary schools not to be confused. We want them to learn about our own faith in a way that helps them to learn about life. There is concern within the Muslim community that parents are not listened to: children are being provided with what other people think is right for them, and not what parents want."

Other observers suggested that the reason for the trouble in Batley might lie in intra-Muslim jockeying for power. The process of accommodating Muslims into the British school system has been marked by periodic rows over halal meat, sex education and the segregation of the sexes. However, it has been proceeding more smoothly recently, since Muslim parents won concessions on all these issues, and Muslim educationalists have come to accept the necessity of the national curriculum.

Faversham College, a girls' school in Bradford, is expected to become the first state-funded Muslim school in the country later this year.

Ibrahim Hewitt, the development officer of the Association of Muslim Schools, said: "The key to this is in Batley. It is reflective of the very tightly-knit community there. If the local imam says jump, they will jump."