British Muslims Suffer from Identity Crisis

There are approximately 2 million Muslims living in the UK. They form the country’s largest religious minority and come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Although three quarters of British Muslims are of South Asian origin, there are also significant numbers of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Central and Eastern Africa, Eastern Europe, Turkey,…

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GHULAM NABI FALAHI

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There are approximately 2 million Muslims living in the UK. They form the country’s largest religious minority and come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Although three quarters of British Muslims are of South Asian origin, there are also significant numbers of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Central and Eastern Africa, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. In addition, there are more than 10,000 British converts to Islam. According to the latest statistics, over 400,000 Muslim children are getting their education in the British schools but a significant number of these pupils specifically from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Somali backgrounds are among those who experience the highest levels of academic underachievement and consequent lack of qualifications in Britain.

However education is crucial to integration and social cohesion in a diverse multicultural and multi-faith society. Therefore it has been an important issue both for the government and for the British Muslim community. There are several reasons for this. First, the school system is the earliest mainstream social institution with which young people come into sustained contact, and the extent to which schools respect and accommodate diversity sends out strong signals about the value which society as a whole places on diversity.

Second, educational attainment levels are a key determinant of opportunities for finding employment and improving future life chances. Third, schools provide an opportunity to develop bonds and friendships across different ethnic and faith groups, and the education curriculum is itself a mechanism by which pupils are able to develop an understanding of the different groups within their community.

A close study of early Muslim immigrants shows that their extreme desire was to pass on their religious traditions to their new generation. They consider the education of their children as supreme among their concerns. They were well aware that the future and evolution of their culture and religion depend upon the second generation and that education plays a major role in the socialisation and in the moulding of the characters and attitudes of children. ‘To achieve these goals they created separate religious and cultural institutions in Muslim majority residential areas where they felt secure and could apply some control over their fellow beings. It demonstrates their ‘strategic shift’ for living in Britain’.

By the mid-1980s, Muslims in Britain appeared significantly in the national public sphere in relation to the provision of halal (Islamic permitted) food in schools, and other public institutions such as prisons and hospitals. They increasingly voiced their concerns more strongly with regard to educational provisions in state schools. They demanded provisions for Muslims in local government and educational sections and this relatively new strength of Muslim demands was given increasing attention in British media and public meetings, as compared to the initial demands of Muslims in Britain.

It seems that the main demand of British Muslims was planning permission for the mosques and education, primarily religious education. Soon after the change of planning policy had been achieved, many Muslim organisations in different cities of the United Kingdom came together for the first time to format a Muslim Liaison Committee. The purpose of its formation was lobbying jointly to achieve their goals from local education authority (LEA). Pressures from these Muslim lobbies have therefore been strongest in this area.  The initiative of the British, presented in 1983, achieved a wider agenda in relation to Religious Education and collective school worship, facilities for Muslim prayers and holidays.

Their demand was not only mere adjustment to Muslim requirements on the part of local education authorities but in addition, they built up pressure on authorities to provide the training facilities and employ Muslim religious teachers. The appointment of Muslim religious teachers was not taken on board but both the British Muslims and the local education authority reached an agreement on some concerns and issues. As a result of these negations, the authorities produced a document of guidelines which was sent to all schools in 1986.

The debate and demands from Muslims in the field of education leads British Muslims to strengthen their collective efforts. By the time in 1980s when Religious Education syllabuses were being amended, the parliamentary commission appointed to look at ethnic minorities in the education system published its report. The Swann Report (1985) officially called ‘Education for All’, was a government report advocating a multicultural education system for all schools, regardless of institutions, location, age-range or ethnicity for staff and students. The report provided clear data on ethnicity and educational attainment, discovering that racism had a causal effect on the educational experiences of black children in the UK.

However Schools and Education have provided a focus of much Muslim mobilisation over the past 20 years or so in Britain. Key areas of concern for the Muslim community were: Preference for single-sex education, epically for girls, modesty in dress and in physical education activities (such as swimming, showers, and changing rooms).

All schools in Britain have been sent guidelines by the Department for Education and Employment urging that schools be sensitive to making “arrangements for Muslim girls, who are required by their religion to dress modestly, providing they wear appropriate clothing in schools colours.” Prayer times and religious holidays in the school, halal food in school cafeterias, sensitivity to the interests of parents in aspects of curriculum, including sex education, forms of art, dance and music, and religious education, exemption from school fundraising activities involving lotteries and gambling, recruitments of more staff members and governors of schools from minority Muslim communities.

The issues of accommodations and provisions with reference to Islamic teachings in the British educational system ultimately led British Muslims to call for establishment support for separate Islamic schools in Britain. According to a report published in Sunday Telegraph (March 2007) there were more than 11 independent Islamic schools in Britain in 2007 registered with the Department for Education and Skills (DES). Only five schools have received state funding while several thousand (almost 7,000) Church of England and Catholic schools have been receiving state funding, which has also been extended to Jewish schools.

Some other demands and concerns for public accommodation of specific practices, values, and traditional institutions have been voiced or defended. Some of them have been debated in Judiciary, in House of Commons, in local government, or in the media; such as polygamy, arranged marriage, time off work for religious purposes, chaplaincy in prisons and hospitals etc.

However, education represents for British Muslims a major area of struggle for equality of opportunity and the assertion of a distinct identity. It was an education issue that Muslims became increasingly vocal in raising their demands from the early 1980s, and it is where they have succeeded best in having many of their needs recognised in the face of controversy and opposition from broad sections of Britain society.

Research shows that educational achievement levels of Muslim children in Britain are generally lower than white and some other ethnic groups. According to a research study on why Muslim children are not doing well in schools, the reason is that they spend too much time on learning the Holy Qur’an in the Mosques. They do not find time to do home work and engage in extra curricular activities. The result is that they leave schools with low grades and without qualification.

A study shows that being more actively hostile to Islam, Muslim children and their parents is one factor of poor education results of Muslim children. Muslim children are at the bottom because they are under the hammer of two extremes. They are forced to live in two different worlds. They fail to understand where they belong to. Whatever they learn in the Mosques is ‘meaningless’ for them in their every day lives. In schools they are exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism. On top of that the British teachers as well as Muslim teachers born and educated in Britain have no respect for Islamic faith, culture and community languages.

However the issue of education will continue to be a paramount issue confronting British Muslims. The reason for this is obvious: Immigrant Muslims have been brought up under Islamic traditions; they want to see their children groomed in the same way of life. They believe that British education system is completely different from their tradition and culture. Majority of Muslims are in favour of single-sex school education for their children. For lack of such provisions Muslims were sending their girls to their country of origin or kept them at their homes in Britain. I found this practice still prevalent in the British Muslim society in some parts of the United Kingdom populated by majority of Muslim immigrants. It has been noted that the factor of mis-educating and de-educating Muslim children makes them misfit not only for the Muslim community but also for the British society at large. The result is that they suffer from Identity Crisis, which is detrimental to their mental, emotional and personality development.

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