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U.K.: Inclusiveness Of The Multicultural Education System Under Review

A nationwide debate has been sparked in Britain. Is the United Kingdom's secular educational system -- which promotes a diverse, multifaith student body -- liberal enough for all, including Muslims? As RFE/RL reports from London, the question follows a recent British High Court verdict about strict Islamic dress, as well as a report by a group of Muslim social scientists that finds the British educational system has been failing Muslim pupils.

London, 29 June 2004 (RFE/RL)-- A British High Court verdict last week rejected a challenge by 15-year-old student Shabina Begum that would have allowed her to wear the jilbab to school. The jilbab is a full-length Islamic gown covering everything but the hands and face.

The case grabbed headlines across Britain. The girl's lawyer, Yvonne Spencer, said Shabina will not return to the school and that the verdict will make the integration of Muslims into society more difficult.

The school's lawyer, Iqbal Javed, noted that some 90 percent of the school's pupils are Muslim and that the school already allows students to wear head scarves and the shalwar kameez, which consists of trousers and a tunic. He says it's the school's right to decide its own dress code.
"I believe in choice in education. Christian parents should have the right, if they wish, to send their children to Christian schools, and likewise Muslims can choose to send their children to Muslim schools."

Most British principals welcomed the verdict.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, a professional association of top school officials.

"The school has a right to expect that all pupils will follow [the rules], and I think therefore it was important for the judge to uphold the right of schools to do that," Dunford said.

The High Court verdict coincided with a report by a group of Muslim social scientists, which found that Britain's educational system has been failing its Muslim pupils. The report calls for the establishment of exclusive Muslim schools with single-sex teaching.

Both the High Court verdict and the new report are provoking nationwide debate in Britain.

Peter Riddell specializes in interfaith relations at the London School of Theology, an interdenominational, evangelical theological college. He believes the media has presented a one-sided view of the debate.

"This debate is as much between Muslims as it is between Muslims and non-Muslims, because the girl concerned is wearing a style of dress which many Muslims consider to be unnecessary. I feel that the media has tended to, very easily, just to portray it as a debate between non-Muslim society and the Muslim minority, where it is in fact much more matter of intra-Muslim debate," Riddell said.

Inayat Bunglawala, the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, has called the High Court decision "very worrying and objectionable.”

"The British Muslim community -- 1.6 million of them -- are a very diverse community, in terms of the interpretation and understanding of their faith, but also its practice. And within that broad spectrum, there are those who choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of their faith's requirement for modest dress, and we believe that that should be respected," Bunglawala said.

In contrast, Dr. Ali Noorizade of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London says Britain's educational system is the "best and most tolerant in the world." He sees the problem as "too much tolerance," which is then exploited by fundamentalists.

He also blames some in the media for portraying Muslims in stereotypical fashion -- "a bearded Pakistani man in the national costume and a woman covered in the jilbab or a chador, and supporting fundamentalist views."

Most of Britain's Muslims, he says, wear traditional British and European garments and cannot be distinguished in the street from non-Muslims.

"They are Muslim, but they reject totally the fundamentalism and the ideas of [Osama] bin Laden and the ideas of women as second-class citizens, and putting them under the chador or hijab. These people are not heard. These people are not shown in the media, in television, radio," Noorizade said.

Noorizade says Muslims in Britain should not allow themselves to be manipulated by fundamentalists.

"The Muslims in England should integrate, should be part of the society. If they want to wear their hijab, they should go back to their countries. If a Westerner, a British lady goes to Iran, they have to wear the hijab. Why [cannot] an Iranian lady or Pakistani ladies, when they come to Britain, be like the British, and accept the culture and traditions?" Noorizade said.

Terry Sanderson is vice president of the National Secular Society, which describes itself as a British pressure group that speaks out for the rights of atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers. Sanderson says separateness in education creates misunderstandings.

"There are problems in our educational system with racism, as there are in all other institutions. But the way to tackle them is not to separate everybody into cultural and religious identities. Separate from each other, we're never going to get over these problems of misunderstanding and mistrust, if we never meet each other. So we think it is important that there are not separate schools for different religions," Sanderson said.

Peter Riddell of the Bible College in London disagrees. He thinks religious schools enrich the educational system.

"I believe in choice in education. Christian parents should have the right, if they wish, to send their children to Christian schools, and likewise Muslims can choose to send their children to Muslim schools. There should be equal choice between government education and private education. What I do not agree with is when a particular individual or group decides to go to one particular school, and then doesn't adhere to the rules," Riddell said.