Can Religious Practices in Schools Harm the Education System?

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Recently, in a heated debate on Channel 4 News about a supposed Islamic plot to dominate schools in Birmingham, Labour MP Khalid Mahmood commented “You have got to keep education secular.” The debate centred on the suspected “Trojan Horse” plot which was affirmed by an anonymous teacher in an interview on the British news channel. Apparently a conservative and staunch Islamic group was attempting to take charge of a number of schools in Birmingham and manipulate the education of numerous children. The unnamed teacher also said this was mainly a campaign to raise standards of education and not an extremist takeover plot.

Operation Trojan Horse

The Islamist plot known as ‘Trojan Horse’ was revealed through a leaked anonymous letter in March 2014. It specified various steps to enforce Islamic values in secular Birmingham schools. This has certainly created an uncomfortable scenario in Britain, especially when Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting to assert Christian traditions.

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The anonymous teacher, dubbed “Mikaeel” by Channel 4 News, is employed at one of the 25 schools in Birmingham. He is being currently investigated for his involvement in the campaign. In an exclusive interview to Channel 4 News, he addressed various concerns related to the Pakistani community in Birmingham. The senior teacher claimed that the allegations are not right as the plan is to raise standards and not take control over secular schools.

Meeting the Needs of Islamic Students

“Mikaeel” told the news broadcaster “This term, the ‘Islamification of schools’ – some people think it means imposing Sharia law….But to our community it simply means making sure the needs of Muslim pupils are being met, e.g. by providing Halal meat.” He also admitted that the group aimed to bring in more Muslim teachers and take prominent positions in governing bodies in Birmingham schools. But this was primarily to change the state of under-achieving schools in areas that are mostly dominated by Muslims.

According to him, most of the schools performed poorly and thus the Islamic group actively started recruiting governors and teachers. He confirmed that one of their objectives was to successfully meet the requirements of the Muslim students and this, he believes, is not extremism.

“Mikaeel” told the channel “For too long the needs of Muslim pupils were neglected…It’s about understanding why, for example, Pakistani girls or Somali boys are under-achieving and then getting their parents on board. So, for example, re-assuring parents that if their children do PE they will get changed in separate changing rooms – what’s wrong with that?”

He further added “…we have to accept that these are schools with a majority Muslim population and the curriculum should reflect that. It’s not about making them more Islamic.”

State-Funded Secular Schools vs. Religious Practices

This issue has raised concerns about accommodating religious practices in state-funded schools. Moreover, as most of the 25 Birmingham schools are not under the authority of the local government, the regulation of academies is also being questioned.

Labour MP Khalid Mahmood contended that introducing religious practices in schools tend to segregate and isolate communities. He believes it is imperative that education remains secular but it is also important to educate students about all the religions.

Massoud Shadjareh of the Islamic Human Rights Commission commented that if all state-funded schools are secular then “you are not going to give a whole section of the community parental choice.”

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According to journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, all religions in schools are gradually becoming “too strong” and it’s time that we “rethink” about the importance of religion in education.

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