Muslims and the war on ignorance

August 25, 2006

Demanding a better education

"Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today," said Malcolm X. In a climate of fear, mistrust, misinformation, lies, warmongering and demonisation, it is high time that members of the British Muslim communities took this route to become confident and participatory citizens. The largely young audience of some 2,000 at the "educating the educators" meeting at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham this month suggests that many share this concern. They were certainly worried about the future of Islam in Britain.

The main aim of the meeting, which was part of a series of lectures organised by the Al-Khair Foundation, was to emphasise the importance of educating Muslim children. The statistics are startling.

Given the proportion of Muslim pupils in British state schools today, there are only 20 per cent of the Muslim teachers and governors that there ought to be. Muslims are shunning education as a career to strive for higher paid professions. And yet the educational underachievement of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis remains a genuine concern.

Certainly much can be done. The national curriculum should be enhanced to include more aspects of Islamic history. Islam is so much more than the recent narrow focus on its mostly spurious link to terrorism. It is essential that all children are made aware of Muslim history and its relationship with recent European history, of our shared culture and civilisation, and of the fact that Islam has been in Britain for more than a thousand years. This raising of awareness is crucial at a time when culture and values have replaced notions of equality and diversity. Muslims also need to be more involved with schools as parents, teachers and governors. Otherwise, we are failing our children. There is a dire need to get organised and become part of a confident, well-integrated citizenry.

Education is probably the primary route to achieve this.

At the "educating the educators" meeting, it was when Zakir Naik, the internationally renowned Indian speaker, discussed whether Islam had a monopoly on terrorism that many people in the audience felt moved to ask questions. It was heartening to see that many of the questioners appeared to be young British Muslims. There were people of all ages and ethnicities from across the West Midlands, but the audience was dominated by those under the age of 25. A young man wanted to know how to interpret "jihad". A young woman wanted to know why Islam was being attacked all the time. The questions kept coming.

One in three British Muslims is under the age of 15, and in many schools the pupils are all Muslims. With better standards of education, many more people would have the opportunity to develop the confidence to articulate their concerns like this. They could become positive about their contributions to society, play a full role in the democratic system and ultimately become good citizens unafraid of working with others.

In this way, education can help tackle the problems of (pseudo) Islamic political radicalisation. But to make this happen, Muslims and non-Muslims need to work together. Encouragingly, this point was made throughout the meeting. Perhaps the real struggle for parents, teachers and pupils is a war on complacency.

Tahir Abbas is reader in sociology and director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture, Birmingham University.

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