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Sunday 20 August 2006

Government supports schools for scandal

WHEN I heard the philosopher Amartya Sen talking about the fatal divisiveness of faith schools, on the BBC last week, I remembered a recent embarrassing contribution to this debate - also on the BBC - from our own Archbishop Sean Brady. He took to excess the new-found anxiety of the Irish Roman Catholic church to display its feminine side. In response to a question about the merits of integrated schooling, Brady announced that any curtailment of the right of Catholics to separate education would create "a new injury, a new hurt".

That kind of victim-babble was developed to stop rational argument and causes people like me a new injury and a new hurt every day. Archbishop Brady would be better putting his mind to an issue in the area of faith schools that has the makings of a social catastrophe.

As a society, we need to talk bluntly about non-Christian - especially Muslim - faith schools.

Professor Sen - one of the world's leading moral philosophers and a Nobel Prize winner for economics - is the product of a Hindu Indian family, ex-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and now holds a chair of economics and philosophy at Harvard. These days he's preoccupied with identity.

Sen didn't say anything that would cause Brady to sob into his hanky, as he is unbothered by Christian schools, but he is, he said in a Daily Telegraph interview last month, "absolutely appalled" that the British government wants to give Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools parity with Christian institutions.

Christian schools throughout much of the world, said Professor Sen, were tolerant. Many of his friends had been educated at a Jesuit school in Calcutta: "I don't think they were indoctrinated particularly in Christianity. But the new generation of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are not going to be like that."

He's right. Protestant and secular parents in Britain queue up to send their children to Catholic schools, which are perceived to have high educational standards, as their Irish equivalents fight for places for their children at classy Protestant establishments: I've yet to hear anyone allege that a child had been pressurised into converting.

Islam is an evangelical religion. Does anyone in his right mind think that in the unlikely event of non-Muslims attending a Muslim school, they would not be seen as potential recruits for Allah? Christian schools don't preach that you are defined by your religious identity. Muslim schools do.

"From the point of view of national unity," said Professor Sen, "it's dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it's being defined by its 'community', which is primarily religion. That also drowns out all other cultural things like language and literature." And it encourages groups to live side by side with little interaction.

The "plural multicultural society" is Professor Sen's ideal. As he points out in his new book, Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny, "The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician".

As he elaborated in his interview, "We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups. We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues - and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has overarching importance is a mistake."

And it's a mistake that feeds the very extremism that is frightening the living daylights out of many of us. A poll in this week's Spectator shows that 73 per cent of the British public believe we are in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten our way of life. (Interestingly, the public has little appetite for appeasement: only 12 per cent thought British foreign policy should become more conciliatory; 53 per cent thought it should be tougher.)

In Britain until very recently, Tony Blair enthusiastically endorsed and encouraged faith schools. Wiser now, with evidence piling up that they inhibit integration and cause serious social division, he wishes he hadn't, I expect. But it's too late. Muslims are on a roll. There are already several state-funded Muslim schools and there are loud demands for fast-tracking of state funding for 120 more.

You can be sure of one thing: those leading the campaign for Muslim schools are unlikely to be from Islam's moderate and integrationist wing. The same is true of the Hindus and Sikhs pressing for the same privileges.

There were few problems with British Hindus and Sikhs until radical Islam hit the headlines. Their new enthusiasm for separate education is almost entirely inspired by the burgeoning Muslim educational empire.

They have learned from radical Muslims, too, the destructive lessons that when denied anything, you allege institutional racism, and that he who shouts loudest gets his way. Recently, Sikh extremists frightened a theatre into closing down a play they disliked, and, not to be outdone, Hindu extremists closed down an art exhibition.

Ireland is blindly making all Britain's mistakes.

Consider the Muslim national school in the Dublin suburb of Clonskeagh, which is funded by the Department of Education. The department pays for the qualified teachers, but there are, in addition, part-time teachers giving instruction in the Koran, Arabic and Islamic education. "As for the teaching of religion," says the Islamic Society website, "it is entirely left to the administration of the school without interference from the Department of Education."

It certainly is.

"The administrative hierarchy of the school," we are told, "consists of the imam of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland as patron of the school, then comes the board of management, which consists of two members appointed by the patron, two members elected by the parents, the principal of the school and a teachers' representative." In other words, the imam of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland calls the shots. Oh, and incidentally, they're about to open a secondary school.

Knowing the reluctance of the great Irish public to consider hard questions, I don't suppose there's any chance politicians would have the nerve to outlaw non-Christian faith schools and, like the French, ban the wearing of headscarves in class. Is it, though, too much to suggest that a fatwa goes out from the Department of Education saying a) religious instruction will be regulated, b) all religious lessons must be conducted in English (or Irish) by recognised teachers and c) classes will be fully and frequently inspected?

If I've caused hurt to any imams out there, I suggest they get over it. I'm a woman. Their misogyny frequently offends me.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards