Having faith in freedom

Ibrahim Hewitt argues that education should encourage religious expression, not stifle it
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By choosing to exercise their legal right to withdraw their children from religious education in school, Muslim parents in Batley have challenged accepted orthodoxy surrounding "multi-faith" RE in schools. As questions are asked in the media about "the trouble" in Kirklees, we need to ask ourselves, "Why the fuss?"

When I first heard about this, the only surprise I felt was that it has taken parents so long to act. It is patently obvious that teaching Muslim children more about other faiths - in particular Christianity - than their own is neither right nor justifiable. Parents and ulema (Islamic scholars) in the West Yorkshire town have decided that enough is enough. This concurs with a legal opinion from the oldest university in the Islamic world, Al-Azhar in Cairo, which states: "It is forbidden to let our children learn in such lessons doctrines which violate the religion of Islam ... parents should ... keep them away from such lessons and notify the ... schools about their wishes."

The right to withdraw a child from RE in Britain goes back to the 1944 Education Act, but this is the first time that a single large bloc of Muslims has opted to do so. Judging by the reaction, the fear is that it will not be the last. It is debatable whether such action will spread and - wishful thinking aside - I doubt that it will. Batley is a very close-knit community of Muslims with a healthy respect for the ulema and any advice from the latter is likely to be acted upon. This (sadly) cannot be said of all Muslim communities in Britain.

Nevertheless, the dispute centres on the nature of the locally agreed RE syllabus and so it could affect local education authorities (LEAs) all over England. According to the 1988 Education Reform Act, RE syllabuses must "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain". Getting the balance right between Christianity and other faiths is the task of local "agreed syllabus conferences", the membership of which is appointed by each LEA. National "model syllabuses", however, carry the weight of official directives rather than helpful guidance. Whatever syllabus is chosen, if it suits local needs all well and good. That is what good practice - of which there are many examples - should be centred on.

Should we be surprised that Kirklees Council finds itself facing a rejection of something supposedly "agreed" by all faiths? Isn't choice what the democratic process is all about? Why should "the Batley syndrome" necessitate a "compromise" between the LEA and the Muslim community? Telling parents that they can withdraw their children from RE and then berating them for doing so is bemusing, not to say amusing.

Many in the interfaith movement will deplore what is happening, for very sincere reasons. but I think they are misguided in their sincerity. A few years ago, on Kilroy (we all make mistakes), I sat next to Rabbi Cyril Harris, then of St Johns Wood Synagogue, now South Africa's Chief Rabbi, and he made a very pertinent point when challenged on the issue of "separate" or "exclusive" RE. Countering the claim that such education makes it difficult for tolerance and understanding to grow between faith groups, Rabbi Harris said: "It is one thing to respect others, but self-respect must come first." If Muslim children are taught their own faith first and foremost, their self-respect and self-esteem will develop; respect for others will follow, for Islamic RE includes a study of "the People of the Book" (as Jews and Christians are called in the Koran), but it does so subjectively within the context of Islam. Objective study can come later.

Muslim parents, almost routinely in some areas, face an inquisition when submitting withdrawal requests, and many have backed down under intolerable pressure from their children's schools. The lack of sizeable numbers of withdrawals in schools around the country does not indicate complete satisfaction with the RE imparted as is frequently claimed. One LEA in London once accused Muslims of forging withdrawal requests, in its effort to ensure that parental choice was ignored and refused.

Is there a way out? The 1944 Act allows children who have been withdrawn from RE to receive alternative, more suitable lessons from qualified teachers as long as there is no extra cost to the school. Any head teacher with an ear to the ground and an eye on the delegated budget must surely want to respect parents' wishes and be only too happy to make provision for alternative, fully Islamic RE for children withdrawn from the statutory lessons. Failure to do so would place the school at risk of losing pupils to other, more enlightened schools; lose pupils and you lose money and the downward spiral begins.

A more radical alternative is for the Government to remove the "predominantly Christianity" clause from the relevant legislation, freeing LEAs and schools to develop their own syllabuses more in tune with the needs of pupils. The present system is cumbersome and, as has been demonstrated, prone to criticism. Of course, the Government would see this as an impossibility; there are too many votes to be lost in "middle England" for it to be worth pandering to the wishes of Muslim parents.

A yet more radical alternative is for Muslims to have the same choice of schools as Jews or Christians and for state funding of Muslim schools to be granted willingly. This would satisfy parents whose wish is for a complete Islamic education for their children within the state system.

We should be happy that there are parents taking a keen interest in their children's education. It will be a shame if a desire to "do the right thing" for all children combines with an inflexible system to deny real choice to the very people it sets out to serve. If any fear arises out of this latest disagreement, this should be the one.

The writer is Development Officer of the Association of Muslim Schools.