Muslim soldiers to visit schools to try to counter Islamophobia

Ministers hope measures will help to tackle  prejudice in the wake  of Lee Rigby’s death

Oliver Wright
Sunday 25 August 2013 22:26 BST

Ministers are to send serving Muslim soldiers into schools around the country to counter Islamaphobia in the wake of the killing of Lee Rigby, The Independent has learnt.

Muslim servicemen and women will be asked to address school assemblies alongside their Christian colleagues in parts of the country that have seen a significant rise in religious hate crimes. They are likely to include past and present Muslim soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as some who were injured.

The plans, which are at an advanced stage, will be discussed next week at the second meeting of the Government’s taskforce on tackling extremism and radicalisation. Reports of anti-Muslim attacks and abuse increased eight-fold in the wake of the death of Fusilier Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London. A month later they were still running at 36 per week.

Earlier this month David Cameron visited a mosque in Manchester where a young white Muslim convert described how attitudes to her had changed as a soon as she covered her head with a veil.

She told him of the hostility she felt from people in the street and in shops, which she had never encountered when she was uncovered. Another woman said she and her friends sometimes “avoided” going into town for fear of abuse over the way they dressed.

Around 650 Muslim soldiers are currently serving across the armed forces, including many in frontline roles.

Sayeeda Warsi, minister for Faith and Communities, is understood to be assessing two proposals to co-ordinate the visits.

One is being led by the Army under the new Civilian Chaplain to the Military, Imam Ali Omar, and another is being proposed by the independent Curzon Institute. The schemes will be match-funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

A senior Government source said that the idea was to dispel myths from far-right organisations such as the EDL and from radical Islamic preachers that being Muslim was somehow incompatible with being a patriotic British citizen.

“This is an opportunity for men and women in uniform today – Muslim and non-Muslim – to go into schools and show that people of all faiths are serving alongside each other in our armed forces,” they said.

“It’s sends a really powerful message post-Woolwich – mainly because it was an attack on soldiers, but also because it condemns the extremist narrative that you can’t be a practising Muslim and a loyal British citizen serving your country in the armed forces.

“We have got to defeat the argument that the West is at war with Islam. Everything we do has to challenge that misconception.”

The visits will also be co-ordinated around activities in schools to mark the centenary of the First World War next year in which hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers fought and died for Britain.

Educational programmes are expected to concentrate on the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers to the war effort – including the relatives of many children in the UK of Pakistani and Indian origin.

Around 1.2 million soldiers from undivided India fought for the British Empire during the war. About 74,000 of those soldiers died.

Baroness Warsi, whose grandparents fought in the Second World War, recently said that the anniversary was particularly poignant given tensions today.

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