Islamic Schools: The Panacea?

by Tariq Ramadan

In order to win the struggle for a comprehensive education, many Muslims think that the only solution is the creation of private “Islamic schools,” subsidized by the state almost totally, partially, or not at all, depending on the systems in force in the United States and the various countries of Europe. For people who are dissatisfied with the educational methods and curricula, and deeply mistrustful of the atmosphere in public schools, which they consider to be lacking in morality, the answer seems to be to consider a parallel system that would integrate the fundamentals of Islamic education and its moral standards with the compulsory traditional and secular subjects from the national curricula. Schools of this type have been in existence for more than twenty years in Britain, the United States, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands, as well as in smaller numbers in other countries. How can we assess these experiments, whose achievements in terms of methods and curricula have undergone considerable evolution in recent years?

It is the intention here not to oppose Islamic schools in principle but to note what has been attained by these institutions and what they lack. It goes without saying that offering children a body of teaching in which they have a sense of their Islamic identity through living their education in accordance with the rhythm of the daily prayers and the events of the Muslim calendar (e.g., the Ramadan fast, the feasts), while immersing them in a school program in which their religious education—learning the Qur’an, tradition, and Arabic—is integrated has an extremely positive effect. In an Islamic school, children understand the essentials of their Muslim identity and the priorities of their upbringing through their relationships with their teachers and fellow-pupils and also acquire the tools that will help them to succeed in the other disciplines. To judge from performance indicators, most Islamic schools produce excellent statistics and are often at the top of regional and national school tables.

However, this is not the complete picture. The first comment to be made is that, taking the Muslim communities living in the West as a whole, these schools take in only a very small percentage of children, and so in this sense they can hardly be regarded as “the solution” for Islamic education in the West. Other approaches have to be found for the other children. It must also be pointed out that in most cases (those in which the schools are not heavily subsidized by the state,—that is, up to 75 percent, depending on the country), only the children of affluent parents are able to enroll because fees are high, often above the very limited scholarships. And beyond these measurable realities, we should study the motivations that have often been behind the creation of these schools. In most cases, the purpose has been to protect the children from the bad influence of society, to distance them from an unhealthy environment, and make them live “among Muslims.” These motivations often make themselves felt in the way in which these schools are run, with their programs and educational activities all run internally. The result is that “artificially Islamic” closed spaces are created in the West that are almost completely cut off from the surrounding society. We comfort ourselves by asserting that the programs are in line with national requirements, but what is no less a reality is that these young people live in a society surrounded by adolescents who do not share their faith and whom they never meet. The school puts forward a way of life, a space, and a parallel reality that has practically no link with the society around it. Some Islamic schools are in the West but, apart from the compulsory disciplines, live in another dimension: while being not completely “here,” neither are they completely from “there,” and one would like the child to know who he is . . .

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