The headteacher of one Tower Hamlets primary school is quoted as saying about her mostly non- Christian pupils: 'The children live in a host country that is predominately Christian, so they need to learn and understand about Christmas.' For the majority of Muslim pupils, Britain is their home and not a host country. While the education they receive should enable them to understand how the institutions and organisation of British life have been shaped by Britain's Christian heritage, this should not require their participation in a play that presents a highly mythical account of the Christian version of the birth of Jesus.
It is during the early years of school, until children are eight or nine years old, that the greatest confusion is caused to Muslim pupils by their being involved in Christmas celebrations. Until that age, they are too young to have fully absorbed the teaching of their own faith and are diverted by their loyalty to their teachers and the desire to join in with the other children.
Although schools may acknowledge the festivals of faiths other than Christianity, pressure should not be brought to bear for them to 'trade' (ie 'We 'do' Id? - so why can't the Muslim kids 'do' Christmas?'). The methods used in religious education should not, at any time of the year, require parents and children to compromise the integrity of their faith.
Many Muslim parents are disturbed by the amount of school time given to this topic over the winter term. Some even keep infant children away from school during December to prevent their being drawn in. Others seem unaware to what extent Christmas activities dominate the timetable. All, however, do know and teach their children the Islamic account of the birth of the Prophet Jesus, which is related in Surah 19 of the Qur'an.
Although it is easy to criticise, and schools are a popular target, we do not doubt the sincerity and goodwill of the vast majority of teachers towards their Muslim pupils. This controversy illustrates the urgent need for the Department for Education to produce guidelines for schools and local education authorities on the uniform treatment of Muslim pupils in British schools.
UMAR L. J. HEGEDUS
The writers are Muslim representatives on Hammersmith, Lambeth and Southwark Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education.Reuse content