UK Politics

Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools

The Muslim Council of Britain has today published “Information and Guidance for Schools” on meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools. You can read it for yourself here.

The provision of this kind of assistance to cultural minorities, to businesses and to other institutions, is precisely the sort of thing that community groups like the MCB should be able to do well. Sadly, the MCB Guidance is a true curate’s egg. As you might expect, there is a good deal of useful material in the MCB Guidance, relating to accomodating the dietary requirements of muslim pupils, time off for major festivals, and so on.

That is not to say that it is all good stuff. In fact, there are an awful lot of demands, many of them impractical, and some of them objectionable.

Some of this Guidance is just a little odd. For example, in the section which deals with the provision of prayer rooms in schools, the MCB counsels:

Care should be taken to avoid allocating rooms that may have displays with distracting imagery, such as posters of the human body in a science laboratory.

Or, take this:

In general, participation in swimming is an acceptable activity whilst fasting. However, for many pupils this activity may prove to be an issue, as the potential for swallowing water is very high.

Still, these aren’t serious objections. Religious people often have strange but essentially innocuous beliefs which it doesn’t do to mock.

The Guidance also focuses on integrating prayer into the school day. I’m ambivalent about this. Most religions do not require children to pray two times during the school day. When I was a student at a liberal school in London, muslim boys – even the religious ones – in my class did not think to ask for the creation of a prayer room: although no doubt, one would have been granted. I don’t think that a state school is an appropriate place for religious observance. A school could reasonably take the view that it wasn’t going to make provision for clubs, of a religious or non religious nature. The problem is that the Education Act 1996 requires that schools hold a daily act of collective worship which is “wholly, or mainly, of a broadly Christian character”: although that requirement can be lifted in certain cases. Given the institutionalised nature of christian worship, a religious muslim child denied an alternative venue for his or her prayer would, in my view, be unfairly treated.

The key shortcomings of the Guidance are as follows:


The Guidance acknowledges, and attempts to take into account “the diversity of belief and practice within the Muslim community”. That is a good starting point.

However, that diversity is not perfectly represented in the content of the guidance.

Take, for example, this:

One important aspect of modesty in Islam relates to the covering of the body. In principle the dress for both boys and girls should be modest and neither tight-fitting nor transparent and not accentuate the body shape. In practice this means a wide variety of styles are acceptable.
In public boys should always be covered between the navel and knee and girls should be covered except for their hands and faces, a concept known as ‘hijab’.

The most suitable sportswear for boys and girls that respects the requirements of Islamic modesty is a tracksuit and in addition for girls a headscarf tied in a safe and secure manner.

Two observations should be made about the MCB’s position on the wearing of the hijab.

The first is that the MCB has taken a clear position on what Islamic law requires of women. They should cover their heads. The MCB’s position on Islamic diversity, in this respect, is a rather limited one.

You would not know from the MCB’s guidance that there is some diversity of scholarly opinion on the question of whether “haya” requires the wearing of a headscarf at all. Nevertheless, the MCB has based its position on the hijab on the opinions of those religious scholars whose views it respects and promotes. In reality, however, there are many many muslim women who regard themselves as religious and observant in their own way, who do not feel obliged to wear a hijab. Although I doubt the MCB would agree, surely those women have as much a right to define the requirements of their religion as do the clerics favoured by the MCB? Indeed, were schools to take the MCB publication as its only guidance on the matter, they would be in danger of formulating a policy which was sensitive only to the particular form of orthodoxy favoured by the MCB.

The second point is this. When I taught at a British university, I encountered women students from muslim families who were harassed by boys, because they did not wear a hijab. A friend of mine who worked at a predominantly Bangladeshi girls group, in North London, received similar complaints from her girls. Usually, these girls thought the boys were hypocrites and thugs, who enforced religious observance on them, while ignoring it for themselves. My students ignored the lads who told them to wear a hijab. However, some of my friends’ charges did start to wear the hijab to avoid the hassle they were getting.

Now, there are certainly many other reasons why women decide to wear the hijab. My view is that choice should be respected. It is, however, a pity that the MCB Guidance does not address the real possibility that some women are bullied into wearing the hijab, and may have real difficulty in resisting the pressure to don the garment.

Given that the MCB’s position is that women should wear the hijab, it is unsurprising that they present the issue as one of monolithic religious obligation and the respecting of the choice to fulfil that obligation. This is why it is important that the MCB Guidance should be supplemented by DFES guidance to schools, which sets out steps schools can take to back up female students who do not wish to be shrouded.

The MCB also are horrified that Dance is “one of the activity areas of the national curriculum for physical education”:

Muslims consider that most dance activities, as practised in the curriculum, are not consistent with the Islamic requirements for modesty as they may involve sexual connotations and messages when performed within mixed-gender groups or if performed in front of mixed audiences. Most primary and secondary schools hold dance in mixed-gender classes and may include popular dance styles, in which movements of the body are seen as sexually expressive and seductive in nature.

Once again, there is something deeply objectionable about the MCB purporting to speak for the vast range of students from diverse muslim family backgrounds. Dance is certainly not considered a taboo in all muslim cultures. You would not know this from the MCB Guidance.

See also the MCB’s views on art:

In Islam the creation of three dimensional figurative imagery of humans is generally regarded as unacceptable because of the risk of idolatress practices and some pupils and parents may raise objections to this. The school should avoid encouraging Muslim pupils from producing three dimensional imagery of humans and focus on other forms of art, calligraphy, textile art, ceramic glass, metal/woodwork, landscape drawing, paintings, architectural representations, geometric figures, photography and mosaic art.

This is rubbish. Some muslim cultures have this taboo. Others do not. The MCB again purports to speak for all muslim traditions, and all families. The MCB is seeking to bamboozle schools, which may not have a deep understanding of muslim diversity, into enforcing onto its pupils the extremely restrictive religious preferences of the reactionaries of the MCB.

As a footnote, the Guidance also rails against groups of boys or girls showering together after sport:

Some schools may have policies for children to shower at school after sports activities. These arrangements sometimes take the form of naked communal showering, which involves profound indignity. The practice of allowing Muslim children to shower in bathing costumes or shorts does not solve the problem if other pupils are naked in the same communal shower area. Islam forbids nakedness in front of others or being among others who are naked.

The MCB’s solution to this dilemma is to install individual shower cubicles, or to allow muslim children to do without a wash.

Gender Segregation

The MCB Guidance encourages gender segregation. Take, for example, this:

Some sports involve physical contact with other team players, for example basketball and football. Most Muslim parents would find it objectionable for boys and girls to play such sports in mixed gender groups. Schools can respond positively to this concern by making sure that contact sports are always in single-gender groups.

Likewise, mixed swimming is out:

The practice of boys and girls swimming in mixed-group sessions …is unacceptable for reasons of modesty and decency to Muslim parents, as well as to many non-Muslim parents. Given the choice between mixed or single-sex swimming, Muslim parents would always opt for a wholly single-sex environment for swimming.

If schools are unable to make arrangements for a single-sex environment for swimming, then Muslim pupils should have the option to be excused from swimming on religious grounds.

There is also this:

When organising overnight trips involving Muslim pupils, mixed-gender groups should be avoided. This will encourage greater participation, particularly from Muslim girls, as Muslim parents will be more willing to send their children if they are assured that the Islamic requirements of modesty and morality will not be compromised.

Are the MCB really saying that all school trips should be gender-segregated? I’d like to think that they’re talking about not letting teenagers share dormitories: but that’s not what they’re saying, is it?

My objection is as follows. The MCB suggests that there is a single view on mixed swimming, held by “Muslim parents”. That isn’t true. Even if many religious muslim families do hold this view, it is improper for the MCB to seek to speak for all muslim children, including those who do not believe that gender segregation is imperative. Certainly, schools should be alert to the possibility that some students will come from families which follow taboos on gender mixing. However, the appropriate course is for schools to consult with those parents who insist on their children being treated in this manner, and then consider whether any steps can be taken to meet their needs.

Teaching Arabic

An ability to converse in Arabic has a certain value. However, Arabic is a language which has a predominantly religious purpose. The families of most English muslim children come from Pakistan or Bangladesh, where Arabic is not spoken conversationally. The chief function of teaching Arabic is that the Quran is written in Arabic, and children learn the language for the sole purpose of prayer.

Arabic is not particularly useful for commercial purposes. It is certainly less useful than an EU language, or Mandarin. (I was therefore both pleased that Education Secretary, Alan Johnson decided that Mandarin could be taught in schools, and unimpressed that Arabic may now also be offered.)

The MCB’s view on this issue is as follows:

Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, holds an important status for all Muslims regardless of their linguistic backgrounds. All Muslim children learn to read and recite the Qur’an in Arabic, and are required to perform their prayers and supplications in this language. Offering Arabic as an option in both primary and secondary schools would provide Muslim children with wider linguistic skills and offers greater access to their religious and cultural heritage, thus giving them a stronger sense of self-esteem and achievement.

Where a modern foreign language is being introduced into primary schools, Muslim pupils are given the opportunity to study Arabic and/or other languages relevant to their family background.

Fuzzy talk about “self esteem” and “heritage” aside, why on earth should schools be encouraged to teach a language whose main use is to facilitate prayer? Surely this is precisely the sort of skill which religious families are best placed to provide for their own children, outside the school day?

The Islamic Foundation

The Guidance refers teachers to the websites of various organisations for support. Most of these organisations are sensible and helpful. They include, for example, the excellent Muslim Youth Helpline.

That cannot be said of the Islamic Foundation: to which teachers are referred as a source of “education, training, research and publication”.

The Islamic Foundation organisation was established by Khurshid Ahmad, a senior figure in the clerical fascist party, Jamaat-i-Islami. The Islamic Foundation bookshop sells the work of the clerical fascists, Sayyid Qutb and “Imam Shahid” Hassan al Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and also by their south asian counterpart, Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a taste of Mawdudi’s political ideas, as summarised by the founder of Islamic Foundation:

Islam is not the name of a mere “Religion”, nor is Muslim the title of a “Nation”. The truth is that Islam is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. “Muslims” is the title of that “International Revolutionary Party” organized by Islam to carry out its revolutionary programme.

Islam wishes to do away with all states and governments which are opposed to the ideology and programme of lslam.The purpose of Islam is to set up a state on the basis of this ideology and programme, regardless of which nation assumes the role of standard-bearer of Islam, and regardless of the rule of which nation is undermined in the process of the establishment of an ideological Islamic state. Islam requires the earth – not just a portion, but the entire planet – not because the sovereignty over the earth should be wrested from one nation or group of nations and vested in any one particular nation, but because the whole of mankind should benefit from Islam, and its ideology and welfare programme.

I’m unsurprised that the MCB recommends the Islamic Foundation to schools, as a good source for those who wish to understanding its version of Islam. As Panorama demonstrated, the MCB is significantly a Mawdudist organisation. That explains, in part, why the MCB has taken – in places – such an extreme view of the steps which schools must take to accomodate its favoured version of Islam.

Schools ought to make arrangements to meet the needs of the diverse communities which they serve. There is a need for guidance in this area. Community organisations should be well placed to assist in this task.

It is a pity, therefore, that the MCB is run by precisely those sort of people from whom children require protection.

UPDATE: Scott at the Ablution has his own take on this subject.