It’s always important when discussing ideological issues, such as Islam, to distinguish between the idea and the person. As a humanist I value the intrinsic worth of every person, regardless of their beliefs. However I also believe strongly that all ideas are open to criticism, and that in a liberal democracy, no ideology is beyond question. (This blog post post was developed from comments to Holyrood Magazine, on behalf of Humanist Society Scotland).
The recent issues in Birmingham highlighted a number of practices which understandably raised concerns, such as gender segregation and promotion of very conservative social ideology. That is quite different from issues of radicalisation though.
Or course, there are a number of non-religious schools across the UK which have policies of gender segregation. It could also be argued that Roman Catholic schools promote a very conservative form of social policy, of course, we would not understand this to be radicalisation. We must be careful then, when discussing issues from an Islamic perspective, not to use the term radicalisation too easily.
The evidence for radicalisation, in the forms of promoting violence or other forms of direct action against individuals or groups of people, in UK schools is very limited. I do hope, though, that inspection methods are rigorous enough to take account of these possibilities.
Michael Gove’s reaction to the Birmingham schools incident, whilst understandable, was not the right one. It is still unclear exactly what Michael Gove and other UK Government Ministers mean by ‘British values’. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister David Cameron provoked a backlash from prominent humanists and academics for suggesting that Britain is still a ‘Christian country’. Is this what Mr Gove hopes to promote through the education system?
If the Birmingham incident has shown us anything, it is that when one ideology (religious or otherwise) is given unfair prominence and unquestioning deference in the education system, the results are stark.
Educational establishments are first and foremost a place of learning, or academic endeavour, for being challenged and encouraged to question and think for yourself. Educational establishments do not exist to promote ethnic or cultural identities.
Of course, as a humanist I support the idea of an integrated education system, one in which children are not separated according to the religious identity of their parents. What a wonderful opportunity we have to bring all young people together, to learn and work alongside each other.
The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘British values’, but human values. The values of fairness, equality, democracy and solidarity with each other. It’s important to be mindful that children entering primary school in Scotland in August are likely to still be active in the workforce in 2070! It is impossible to forecast what kind of world these children will be living in, one thing is for sure is that science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be integral to that global economy. This is where our childrens’ future lies, not in the misguided and insular notion that Britain has a monopoly on ethical values.
In Scotland there here have been, to my knowledge, only two attempts to establish Islamic schools in Scotland. In 2003, in Glasgow, there was a controversial takeover bid by some Muslim parents of a Roman Catholic primary school. It must be said that this takeover bid did not succeed, and that was largely due to the response of a vast number of Muslim parents in Glasgow who took a proactive stance against the move, concerned that such a takeover bid would foster negative relations against Glaswegian Muslims. Their remains an independent Islamic school in Glasgow, Al-Qalam Primary School.
There hasn’t been the extent of radicalisation prevalent in Scotland, as there has been in the rest of the UK. The fact, however, that one of the members of a recent ISIS propaganda video was an Aberdeen resident, raised and educated in Scotland, shows is that there is a need to be aware. Concern continues to grow for the number of young girls who are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Scotland. Examples highlighted by several charities in Scotland claim that young some young girls have been brought to Glasgow and Edinburgh for the purpose of FGM.
Scotland faces different risks in relation to religious and cultural divides. The scourge of sectarianism, particularly in the west of Scotland remains a big problem. Indeed, it was the treatment of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants which led to the state-funding or Roman Catholic schools in Scotland.
Caution must always be taken when talking of ‘others’, below is an example of ‘othering’ a religious group;
“They have separate schools for their children; they have their own clubs for recreation and for social intercourse; they tend to segregate in communities, and even to monopolise certain departments of labour to the exclusion of Scots. Already there is bitter feeling among the Scottish working-classes against the [other] intruders. As the latter increase, and the Scottish people realise the seriousness of the menace to their own racial supremacy…”1
The ‘other’ in this example, is Irish Roman Catholics. However, it’s interesting to note that one could easily replace the mention of Irish Roman Catholics, with Muslims, and this would represent the sentiments of some in the media at the moment. Given the lived experience of many Scots in relation to sectarianism, we dare not risk creating more sectarian divides.
As a humanist, I will always reject and condemn Islamic extremism, as with all other forms or religious totalitarianism which are anathema to human progress. I will also continue to make the case for diversity, dialogue and understanding for all human beings, regardless of their beliefs.
Religion is an important aspect of many peoples’ lives. For many it provides the basis for ethical and personal decisions. Increasingly however, in Scotland, religion plays no part in the lives of individual citizens. Increasingly more and more Scots base their ethical and personal lives of science, evidence and the self-evident principles of fairness, equality, democracy and human solidarity.
It is for this reason that the role of religion in education must change. Religion is still a significant force in the world, and children and young people should learn about the historical and social context of this. Religious and philosophical studies, including the diverse range of belief systems across the world are also worthy of study.
However, the situation at the moment requires a lot of examination. There are still too many children at schools in Scotland being required to take part in prayers and other forms of (usually Christian) worship. The fact that in 2014, we still have three unelected religious representatives on local authority education committees is a stark affront to the idea of democracy, and continues the false notion that religious individuals or groups have a special moral or ethical insight, not available to other Scots.
Access to education should not be dependent on a pupils own faith or beliefs, as is the current arrangement for many of Scotland’s state-funded schools.
As a humanist, I believe that a fair, progressive education system is a secular one. That does not mean one in which religion is side-lined or religious ideas not discussed, but one which understands that religious faith is only one of many ways of understanding the world, and should not be an expectation.
The Humanist Society Scotland is currently undertaking a full members’ consultation on education, with a view to establishing a comprehensive education policy, which will guide the society’s actions around education.
HSS is also in the process of producing a series of educational materials in conjunction with Education Scotland.
1“Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality”. This report began as a document produced for the General Assembly in 1923 by the Presbytery of Glasgow & The Synod of Glasgow and Ayr.