Monday, 10 December 2007

Islamic Schools versus other faith schools - are they fundamentally different? - Ayaan Hirsi Ali says so

Last week in The Independent, it was reported that Ayan Hirsi Ali changed her mind mind about calling for the abolishment of all faith schools. Is this anything to do with her re-location to the USA?

Her alignment with the American right doesn't seem like an easy fit.
She is a militant defender of atheism, feminism and gay rights – all
forces they have demonised for decades. She is an illegal immigrant,
their ultimate hate figure. But, as our interview goes on, I realise
she has depressingly begun to adopt some of their ideas. She wants to
abolish the minimum wage. She no longer calls for the closing of all
faith schools, but simply Muslim ones, because "they are the only ones
that do not respect the division between secular and divine law".

Her re-alignment and settlement in the USA is probably helped by the lack of support she has back in her adopted homeland in the Netherlands.

"Only 11 members out of the 150 MPs voted to keep my security detail,"
she says. "So it's an overwhelming decision, and when I saw that I did
feel betrayed. It's not only a betrayal of me, it's a betrayal of the
idea of free expression.

Yet another example of the failure to defend freedom of speech, but I will explore this in a future post. Well whatever her reasons are they justified? I looked for more of an argument than this simple soundbite. I found it in the Evening Standard with an interview conducted by David Cohen Violence is inherent in Islam - It is a cult of death

‘We have to fight their values with ours,’ she says. ‘We have to
persuade young Muslims that liberal democracy is superior, that what
the Prophet Mohammed said is not right, that the Koran is a man-made
brutal doctrine of death whose time has long passed. We have to show
the next generation of Muslims, the children, that they have a choice
and to do that - to have any hope whatsoever - we have to close down
Islamic faith schools.’

Really more of the same. How can she separate the issue of Islamic faith schools from Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith schools that predominate in the UK? Is this a question of double standards? One can plausibly argue that the difference is that these latter three types of faith schools are part of and not fundamentally opposed to "Western values". Indeed all three groups lay claims to be the origin of "Western values". Of course saying something is so, does not make it true but that is irrelevnt to the argument here since these claims are indeed radically different to the generally conceived positions of many Islamic groups, philosophies and schools in the UK. (No doubt there are extremist versions of possibly all three types too, to which these claims does not apply but we will examine this below).

Now is there any way to implement Ali's suggestion without double standards? Asking this question should hopefully be illuminating.

The first method is to simply ban Islamic faith schools - certainly state ones - and continue to allow and even encourage other faith schools. This is a clear double standard. If a justification is presented as on the basis that only Islamic faith schools are, say, fundamentally opposed to "Western values" as I simplistically painted it above then one could counter-act "Why ban Islamic faith schools, your real concern is state schools not educating Western values that are part of what it means to be a citizen in this country?" Yes, it does appear to be fairer to make the issue explicit. Certainly such an explicit Islamic faith schools ban could only increase issues of segregation, intolerance from and on both sides of a divide that is now state endorsed. Not much good can come of that!

So let us look at this second way of achieving this goal. Aha! The danger here is the argument that we only ban schools who conflict in some specifiable fashion with "Western values" (let us keep this admittedly nebulous term but a better specification does not alter the thrust of this argument and would be distracting) and , oh, it is only Islamic schools that fail this test. Cynics can and would say this is a post hoc rationalization of a policy to deliberately exclude Islamic and only Islamic schools. This would end up achieving the same institutionally endorsed distrust and problems of the first solution. Whilst it would focus more clearly on the issue highlighted by Ali and one that is popularly held over Islamic versus Western values. Still, if so constructed, it is still a double standard by the back door.

This does give us a final attempted version - that we do create an honest unbiased set of criteria for what faith schools, indeed any school, cannot teach as part of the state system and indeed should be a limitation on public schools to. (Lets us ignore the Human Rights Act issue on parent's education rights for now). The problem here is I do think this can be done but it would not only catch many - but I expect not all Islamic faith schools - but would also catch the more extremist and fundamentalist Catholic, Protestant and Jewish - and other religions - faith schools. Indeed such a set of criteria would have to be designed to do so whether in fact other examples of other types of faith schools are so identified or not.

Now whilst this is theoretically workable you would then come across various religious special interest groups campaigning against this and arguing over the said criteria. Although these groups would not like the intent of the legislation, they would be pleased that religion is a central topic of political debate. Whilst this is a fairer way of undergoing the political process you end up with the government at least appearing to make or legislate over religion (at least education). We do not have the First Amendment in the UK but pursuing such a path keeps the idea that religion is relevant to politics alive and, surely, this is something we would all be better off discouraging rather than encouraging. Anyway it is likely that some groups would have more sway than others and many would not be satisfied with the resulting legislation let alone its execution.

Of course there is a far simpler solution just ban all state faith schools! This resolves one major problem of double standards here but there are still issues of what can be taught in public schools. Nonetheless this is far simpler and avoids all the complications - and there would be many - of any of the previous three approaches. It is also fairer to all but there are some fundamental confusions about the values of faith schools in the state system and a lack of political inclination for this solution. These are the real issues and we will examine this shortly.

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