In an underground hall at the London Central Mosque in Regent Street, a group of parents sitting on plastic chairs is clustered around a power point. A small, neatly dressed man at the front welcomes them, introducing himself as Yusuf Patel. "As Muslims we believe in values," he says, "We believe in haraam and halal, but sex and relationship education (SRE) teaching in this country does not provide this. It is the responsibility of parents to see their children educated, but not at the expense of these values."
Patel's organisation, SREIslamic, was established eight months ago to encourage Muslims to respond to the Government's consultation about whether to make SRE compulsory and extend it to five-year-olds. Since then, the organisation claims, it has held 40 workshops across the country and collected tens of thousands of signatures from Muslims opposed to the measures.
But Patel is not only a concerned parent and campaigner. According to his website, he is also a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation that Tony Blair considered banning in 2005. Patel's brother, Jalaluddin, is the former UK head of the political party, which is barred in countries including Germany, Russia and Egypt. Should we be concerned that, like other far-right or religious groups in Britain, SREIslamic might be using a sensitive community grievance to pursue a wider political agenda?
Although Hizb ut-Tahrir says it does not advocate violence, it is opposed to Western-style democracy and believes in establishing a global caliphate under sharia law. There is no evidence of its involvement in terrorism, but some of its members have defended terrorist acts abroad, most recently when a member described Pakistani militants as "brothers".
Hizb ut-Tahrir keeps membership figures secret, but it is active in the UK, particularly on student campuses. In terms of education policy, its website states its belief in the segregation of the sexes. The group also supported the case of Shabina Begum, a 16-year-old girl who fought in court for the right to wear her jilbaab to school. The National Union of Students gives it no platform, however, and many British mosques bar the group from campaigning on site.
After the workshop, Patel declined to answer questions about his political beliefs. In a subsequent email, he confirmed his membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but denied any formal link between the party and SREIslamic, as did Hizb ut-Tahrir's press officer. In the workshop, it was hard to tell whether Patel is constructively engaging in local democracy or stirring up tension. "As a community, we have a right to express our concerns but we have been labelled," he said. "Parents have concerns within their minds about speaking out. 'How will teachers see us?' and 'What are the repercussions for my child?'."
While talking, he held up examples of classroom materials used to teach students about homosexuality – "King meets King" and "Tango makes three" drew sniggers from the audience. "We believe in the primacy of marriage – that is the only way to create a family. That's the only way to complete half our religion, and it is under attack," he added. "We don't believe homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle choice."
SREIslamic is not manufacturing these concerns. Earlier this year, 30 parents faced disciplinary action after withdrawing children at George Tomlinson School in Leytonstone, East London, from a week of lessons discussing homosexuality. Although most were Muslim, parents of other faiths and cultures were also angry at not being consulted about the school's plans. The charges have since been dropped, but the damage to teacher-parent relations is unlikely to dissipate so easily.
Muslim parents beyond Leytonstone may find it difficult to voice their views. For them, SREIslamic provides a space to discuss their worries where the mainstream does not. Patel's talk provided a clear description of the way SRE works, and informed parents of their right to withdraw children from SRE lessons that go beyond biology (an offer that only 0.04 per cent of parents take up, mostly for religious reasons). Patel also encouraged this under-represented group to become school governors and engage in political consultation. Like other fringe groups in the UK, SREIslamic provides an avenue for Muslims to voice their concerns.
The audience seemed unaware of his connection with Hizb ut-Tahrir, and there was nothing in the workshop to make them think otherwise. They weren't there to pursue a wild political project; they just wanted the best for their children. As one said: "Parents and schools have a responsibility to teach children about these things. I just don't want it to put options on the table that wouldn't have been there otherwise. We can't sacrifice all of our religion to make people happy."
It is not just parents who are concerned. Sabiha Iqbal, of Bradford, is an 18-year-old student with a passion for community activism. Her experience in mainstream schools has led her to believe all sides in the SRE debate are failing. "In our [Muslim] religion, sex is put on a high ground, but in school it is just taught as something to do as safely as possible," she argues. "Teachers don't talk about the sanctity of sexual relationships. They kind of said there was more to it than we thought, but didn't really explain what that was – that can seem really confusing.
"A lot of young people I know are scared of asking their family questions because they might get judged. We need to change that even if it feels uncomfortable. The Koran doesn't say you can't think or talk about these things, it just says you can't act on them. I worry that people like Hizb ut-Tahrir don't want kids to talk about these issues at all." Further investigation makes one realise there is no single Islamic position on the issue. Dr Shaaz Mahboob, an NHS manager who is also vice-chairman of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, wants his seven-year-old daughter to be taught sex education. He worries that SREIslamic and groups like it could advocate a whole range of policies in the name of Islam that he does not recognise as legitimate.
"You cannot say there is an 'Islamic perspective' for the Government to take into account because there isn't one – there are usually four or five schools of thought on every issue. That's why you need a secular approach that's based on evidence," he says. "[Hizb ut-Tahrir] are not elected representatives of the Muslim community, they are a lobbying group who want to create a global Islamic state based on their interpretation of Islam. Even if parents are not interested in this agenda, they will listen to their thoughts on sex education. They'll use this consultation to build sympathy with Muslim parents and then, perhaps, move on to religious classes or separating girls and boys. If the Government starts listening to these things, it is difficult to see how it will end."
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