From time to time I get E-mail circulars from people campaigning for Muslim schools in this country. They want the government to give them state funding to set up separate schools for Muslim pupils where they will learn the Koran off by heart and will not get contaminated by the beliefs of the rest of us.
I don't think that is a good idea. For a start, this is surely racist. If a white organization suggested putting all the pupils of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin into a separate school there would be an outcry. People would denounce the idea. Words like apartheid, fascist, and BNP would be thrown about. So why should Muslim leaders be allowed to make what are in effect the same demands, from a different angle?
If you had separate schools for one religion, wouldn't you need to provide separate schools for the Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and any other religious minority as well? How many different schools would there be in each neighbourhood? Everybody would go to a different school and grow up in a little airtight compartment regarding others as aliens. The prospect of peaceful integration would be much reduced.
Secondly, once you start setting up sectarian schools, it would not be enough to send all the Muslims to one school. You would have to divide the Sunnis from the Shi-ites, since there are such deep and bitter disagreements between them. You would also have to divide the Catholics from the Protestants, as they used to be in Northern Ireland. The result there was to perpetuate sectarian hatred and I am certain it would have the same effect anywhere.
The more separate schools you set up, the more costs would escalate so you would be spending billions, in order to achieve an outcome of a society where people had less knowledge, trust and understanding of each other. That sounds pretty awful.
The fanatic who keeps writing to me demanding Muslim schools argues that English is a bad and harmful subject for children to study. Why? He gave the example of Romeo and Juliet, which he said advocated rebellion against parents, and pre-marital sex. Now it is quite wrong to say that Romeo and Juliet contains any pre-marital sex. My busy fanatic ought to read or see a performance of the play before he tries to judge it. It does show the harmful and tragic results of forcing children into unwanted marriages, and it does also show the appalling results of sectarian strife, where intolerance turns to violence. I think that he actually has a lot to learn from studying Romeo and Juliet.
He claims that it is more important for Muslim children to learn Arabic than European languages, or "Euro-centric" culture. Why does he want to live in Europe if he is opposed to what he calls Euro-centrism? By enclosing these unfortunate children in an all-Muslim school, he would be taking away their choice to learn European languages and with it much opportunity for employment.
He also objects to children being taught that homosexuality is normal. One of the side-effects of the aggressive "gay" agenda in present-day society is that it may drive some people to retreat into isolation because the mainstream is no longer in the centre. If we kept our curriculum more balanced then these objections to sending their children to a mainstream school would no longer apply.
Some of the points he made were quite interesting. One point is that Muslims prefer single-sex schools for their daughters. But so do many other people. The state should provide such a choice for everyone, not just one religious group. We used to have an all-girls state school here in Oxford, Milham Ford, until the County Council closed it down in one of their perpetual rounds of cuts and sold off the buildings.
The NHS estimates that each summer, during the school holidays, about four hundred British girls from Muslim families are taken abroad and subjected to the horrible operation that is misleadingly called "female circumcision". Many more are taken abroad to be married to relatives, often while under age. This worries me. To ignore it would be complacent. I want these families to be more integrated into the British way of life, not less.
Personally, I doubt whether parents have the right to isolate their children completely from the wider world. It is one thing to teach them yuor own religion - that is everyone's right, outside school - but another to keep them as prisoners inside an ideological fortress. I am sure that the long-term interests of all children are best served by going to integrated schools, where they learn to mix with and get along with a broad cross-section of society. If you live in a country, then you should aim to become a citizen of that country in the fullest and most inclusive sense.
NB 14th February 2011 Watching this evening's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 "Lessons in Hate and Violence" has re-inforced my views. While not all Muslims are extremists, it is clear that some of those who are are getting huge influence over the rising generation by teaching in faith schools. This is a matter for serious concern. We certainly should not give state funding to schools that teach children to hate the rest of society or to call non-Muslims "kaffurs" - a term of insult comparable to "nigger" or "pariah". The films of children being hit and kicked by teachers were damning and in each case this was happening in institutions that claimed they had investigated the problem and solved it. Clearly the people running some of these schools cannot be trusted.
I was pleased to see the admirable Dr Taj Hargey of the Oxford Muslim Education Centre providing some sensible comments.
Lenten Meditations: Tuesday 28 March
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