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Children's education and adult politics

Cassandra Balchin
1 March 2007

The past three years have seen a stream of reports - in Britain and elsewhere - on Muslims and education. In a post-11 September 2001 context of rising religious fundamentalism across all faiths, this does not surprise groups such as the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). Its 2002 conference and research it published in 2004 on the "warning signs of fundamentalisms" found education and youth to be a major ideological battleground between the authoritarian religious right and secular and pluralist forces.

A more recent study of multiculturalism in three secondary state schools by the Southall Black Sisters and the Working Lives Research Institute finds that multiculturalism (in practice, though the authors feel it has some merits in theory) gives "political life to one-dimensional ethnicist and religious identities" and strengthens racism among the white working class, rather than fulfilling its ostensible aims of addressing institutionalised racism in schools and exploring histories of migration and colonialism. The study also suggests that the British government's "Every Child Matters" agenda "is being disapplied when it comes to addressing the needs of minority girls."

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB)'s policy-recommendations document (Towards Greater Understanding - Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools), issued on 21 February 2007, is the latest report in this crowded field. The MCB's role as the most prominent British Muslim interlocutor with the British government (albeit one subject to increasing criticism over its performance) makes this document deserving of careful scrutiny.

In theory, its recommendations could affect the nearly 400,000 Muslim pupils in state education. In practice, the stakes are even higher, given that education and youth are a frontline issue in today's ideological battles over racism, religious fundamentalism and gender inequality.

Cassandra Balchin works with the group Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML).

The roots of underachievement

Education is the easiest target. No one doubts that there is a crisis, and the MCB quotes solid research by the department for education and skills (DfES) showing that minority pupils of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin have a particularly acute problem in regard to achieving secondary-school qualifications. But a seamless conflation of ethnicity/race and religion is evidence either of intellectual sloppiness or a deliberate political strategy.

Ethnicity and moral values, although inextricably intertwined in daily lives, are not the same thing. An assertion that disregard for their religion is the problem facing low-achieving ethnic-minority pupils sidelines decades of anti-racist analysis and leadership.

Research has shown that poverty, poor housing, ghettoisation and low levels of parental employment are the main factors in educational underachievement among minorities. The MCB document is all but silent on such structural discrimination. It offers no suggestions, for example, on how parents and schools can work together to address gang culture and the rising levels of exclusion (including suspension from school) among Muslim boys.

Those who work with black and ethnic-minority women know that one of the needs of Pakistani- and Bangladeshi-origin girls is support against forced marriage, and that schools can play a vital role. But when it comes to the "bad stuff" within Muslim communities, the MCB blames it all on culture (at the same time emphasising culture's distinction from religion).

Its new document quotes DfES research showing that an extremely high percentage of ethnic-minority children say religion is very important to their way of life. This presumes on the children's behalf that they all seek to manifest this publicly - and during school hours. The option of being a secular believer is ignored. Without qualification, the finding might support pressure on children to conform to a politicised vision of religion in the name of minority rights.

The MCB document is also silent on the fact that Bangladeshi girls - at least in one Birmingham study - not only do much better than Bangladeshi boys, but better than white girls, too. "Girls are achieving, but parents and the mosques are not encouraging them," says a spokeswoman from the FATIMA Women's Network. This Leicester-based group was part of an England-wide "listening exercise" with women in the Muslim community, conducted in 2006 by the Muslim Women's Network and the Women's National Commission. In their report, She Who Disputes, teachers' low expectations and discouragement of Muslim girls is a recurring theme.

Could the implementation of the MCB's approach, with its emphasis on ritualistic aspects of faith in the guise of "cultural sensitivity", make things worse? The FATIMA network comments: "This (report) is absolutely counter to the way we've been promoting integration. They're making Muslims out to be narrow-minded. Many Muslims we work with participate in the activities they say Muslim don't want."

Education and politics

The women quoted in She Who Disputes criticised the national education curriculum used in England as being entirely focused on western European culture, but also called for both Muslim and non-Muslim children to be taught about the diversity in Islam.

The MCB document, by contrast, raises the troubling possibility of non-Muslim teachers policing the "Muslimness" of Muslim pupils - and with a monolithic, conservative definition at that. For example, it states: "In situations where Muslim pupils are merely observing non-Islamic acts of worship, it should be made clear that they are not to participate." The language is a revealing slippage from the language of tolerance and inclusiveness.

In a joint submission to the government's current Commission on Integration and Cohesion, Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalisms noted how policies on "community cohesion", coupled with the reassertion of Christianity as the main signifier or characteristic of "Britishness", have produced a separatist agenda. Indeed, the language of equally valuing other cultures disappears entirely in the MCB's section on physical education. The high moral tone taken on, for example, dance lessons and communal showering after sports reflects a (to put it no higher) suspicion of the "other".

While Muslim women's groups in Malaysia, France and elsewhere have highlighted the religious right's obsession with sex and how the veiling of young Muslim girls sexualises them, the MCB document insists that "girls should be covered except hands and faces". It does not specify an age or mention the diversity of opinion in Islam on the question.

The MCB's proposals raise the serious question of priorities in a sector desperately starved of resources. Do Muslim parents, for example, always place adherence to conservative traditions above learning? The MCB has increasingly come under public attack from within the Muslim community for its failure to consult (a criticism repeated by FATIMA regarding the new education document).

It is unlikely that the organisation's policy proposals will help resolve the structural discrimination and educational deprivation facing a large number of pupils from Muslim backgrounds. But perhaps it is a misreading to think they are about children and education, when the real substance is adult politics.

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