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British press unite in hysteria over jilbab

Well it seems that the "fundamentalist threat" to British state education has been averted yet again. Last week's ruling against Shabina Begum's fight to wear the jilbab to school has brought shrieks of joy from all the usual suspects - liberal pundits and right-wing columnists alike - who lined up to praise the High Court's decision and cast their jaundiced eyes on the peril schools find themselves in at the hands of young women sporting long dresses and deeply held spiritual beliefs.

To think that young Muslim women such as Shabina Begum are on the verge of shaking the foundations of our secular heritage is remarkable. Either Muslim women have acquired huge political power or some quarters of Britain's intelligentsia have lost touch with reality.

A case like this should never have escalated so far. Luton, after all, is not in France. With a large, visible and active Muslim community, the local council, along with the governors of Denbigh high school, should have been able to reach some accommodation with Miss Begum's lawyers.

A precedent has now been set that means a school can judge the value of someone's religious convictions with the fuzzy criteria of controlling fundamentalism and resisting adverse religious peer pressure. It is a poor precedent.

School policies should never be static. While attempts by Denbigh high to develop multicultural guidelines should be lauded, the reactionary response to the Shabina Begum case reveals a profound fear of changing notions of religiosity among our ever-diversifying school population. Contrary to the vain hopes of some educators, faith matters to an increasing number of British-born Muslims. They are re-asserting their Muslim identity in the face of what is perceived as increased hostility to their faith identity.

Restricting the jilbab is not going to help social cohesion. The real challenge to British education isn't the hijab, the jilbab, or even the proliferation of faith schools. It is how state-funded comprehensives are going to engage their increasingly diverse and vibrant student population.

For all the initiatives on citizenship, multicultural or even anti-racist education, our young people are not being given the practical tools of inclusion. They deserve spaces where they can learn to live together, negotiate difficult issues around faith, politics and philosophy and engage in wider debates over citizenship, community relations and social cohesion.

They also need to talk about gang violence, broken homes, mental health, teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse - all of which are far bigger issues in the Muslim community than the hijab.

We need a radical departure from conventional wisdom. As sociologist Ash Amin argues, a strengthening of local democratic culture is needed, where schools become sites where daily negotiations over difference and identity take place openly, between equals.

The Muslim community must turn their educational agenda from faith schools to concern for the future of state education.

It is in our interests to see a progressive system where harmony and understanding run deep thanks to dialogue and meaningful encounters.

The bottom line in education can never be reduced to test results or the defence of a school uniform policy. Young people deserve better. They must be provided with enough spiritual and emotional nourishment to carry them through these difficult times.

It is also naive to think we can somehow extract our young people from their heritage and transplant them into artificially created value-free, religion-free schools. Spiritual traditions have a positive contribution to make. Unlike the draconian madrassahs of the Taliban, for 1,400 years Islamic pedagogy has sought to nurture the best aspects of human character - mercy, justice and beauty.

As policy-makers and headteachers declare their concern about the marginalisation and radicalisation of British Muslims, little attention is being paid to the role state schools can play as agents of cohesion. A bold and creative approach is needed to turn our schools into enablers of citizenship. If the Shabina Begum case is any indication, this will be easier said than done.

Fareena Alam is managing editor of the Muslim magazine, Q-News

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