Bruce Anderson: Controlling faith schools won't stop extremists

Muslims must enjoy the same rights as others, including the right to faith schools
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The Independent Online

Isaiah Berlin argued that the great goods cannot always live together. Faith schools are an example. In Britain today, there would be widespread agreement that parents have the right to bring up their children in their own faith. There would be even greater support for the proposition that children should be brought up to know and respect those with different beliefs. Yet faith schools exist to keep diverse beliefs at a distance.

We must remember the threat that led to the foundation of faith schools. Hell. Until the present generation, the Christian churches focused their congregation's minds on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. Until about 1970, the great majority of Roman Catholics were convinced that if anyone brought up in that faith were to renounce it, he would go to hell. By "hell", they meant the everlasting bonfire. Those who wish to remind themselves of what hell signified to Catholics of that generation should re-read the hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist.

If parents believed in hell it did not matter whether their children had the skills to become partners in Goldman Sachs. What mattered was that they should become partners in the Kingdom of Heaven. In practice, of course, Roman Catholic schools often provided a good education. Those who ran them strove hard for success in examinations and on the games field. Above all, however, they were dedicated to the propagation of the faith.

If that is your goal, it helps if your school is a closed community in faith terms. You do not want one little boy saying to another, "My dad thinks this is a load of baloney". Your charges will eventually be exposed to different beliefs and to unbelief. You hope that by then they will be wearing the armour of impregnable faith. The Jesuits claimed that if they had a boy until seven, he was theirs for life. Lacking the Jesuits' wiles, the other Catholic teaching orders would have wanted longer, but the principle was the same.

Over the past generation, all that has changed. In today's Church of England, the four last things are Oxfam, homosexuality, anti-racism and the wickedness of Margaret Thatcher. Some of the Romans are not far behind. Almost all Anglican and RC schools now admit children of other faiths. Hell is no longer on the curriculum. No one could seriously argue that this type of faith school is a threat.

This would not be true of Muslims. For many of them, hell would still be hot gospel. In many Islamic countries, apostates are liable to the death penalty. In Britain, a lot of Muslims wish to use public funds to set up Islamic schools. What guarantee is there that some of those schools will not only glorify martyrdom - Christian schools do the same; Christ was a martyr - but also encourage suicide bombers? Can we ensure that the British government does not pay for the sort of madrassas that train the Taliban to be established here, in the name of religious education? That is the nub of the problem. How can we keep Muslim extremism off the education agenda, without appearing to discriminate against Muslims?

The trouble is that in post-religious societies, such as England, Muslims add a jarring diversity. They take their religion seriously. From 1517 until around 1700 - in Ireland until yesterday - there was mayhem whenever Protestants and Catholics were in the same vicinity. The average Muslim has more in common with Philip II or John Calvin than he does with the modern Anglican.

Because England is post-religious, many people have drifted into the vulgar-Marxist assumption that religion is merely a cloak for social or economic grievances. This is nonsense. Along with sex and money, religion is one of the three most potent creative and destructive forces that drive human beings. It has inspired men to create great art and to commit great crimes. It has led them to the Crusades, to build cathedrals - and to strap bombs to their waists. Religion cannot be treated as a mere socio-economic superstructure.

So how should we treat an alien and potentially threatening religion, such as Islam? There are three solutions. First, we should restrict Muslim immigration to make it easier to come to terms with the ones already here. Second, British Muslims must enjoy the same rights as their fellow subjects, including the right to establish faith schools. Third, those in authority ought to be in constant contact with moderate Muslim leaders, to help them to counteract the militants.

None of this is guaranteed to succeed. Indeed, we can be certain that there will be more domestically-generated Islamic terrorism in this country. But interfering with faith schools would not prevent that. The four London bombers all attended integrated comprehensives.