Goodwill to all men

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Israr Khan's dramatic denunciation of the Christmas carols at Washwood Heath Secondary School would have made the headlines at any time of the year, let alone at Christmas when "hunt the spoilsport" becomes a national pastime. Worse than that, he is a Muslim. Negative stereotypes of Muslims - devious, dangerous and, indeed, sexually insatiable - have been around since the Crusades, and judging from contemporary media coverage, are with us still.

But however colourful this latest incident, it is both isolated, and extreme. While Mr Khan has his supporters, there are thousands of devout Muslims who take a very dim view of such a confrontational approach.

The hostile stereotypes are certainly ancient and entrenched, but there is also a history of co-operation between Islam and Christianity and this is more ancient still. They share with Judaism the same Abrahamic tradition, and hold much of the Old Testament in common. Muslim scholars have directly helped the development of Christian thought. Muslims explicitly approach Christians and Jews as fellow "People of The Book". Moreover, Muslims venerate Jesus as a major prophet - something of an irony in this context. The birth of Christ is significant for Muslim and Christian alike, even if the emphasis might be different.

There is, as this suggests and as many schools have already discovered, substantial room for dialogue and shared action between the faiths, even at such a religiously charged time of the year.

But there are also many obstacles in the way of common understanding. There is, for example, an undoubted feeling of impotence and rejection on the part of an economically deprived community that has not yet had the political recognition it desires. This week's news that the Government is minded to approve the first state-aided Muslim school may be an important and symbolic gesture in this respect.

The lack of Muslim teachers is another problem. It hampers parent-school relationships. And when it comes to religious education, it gives rise to genuine fear that Muslim children will be, at best, mistaught and, at worst, converted. This may be changing as a number of agencies, most notably Westhill College in Birmingham, continue to encourage Muslims to join the profession, with increasing success. It nonetheless remains a worry, and Prince Charles was correct to give it prominence in his speech to the Wilton Park Seminar earlier this month.

His bravery in addressing such a controversial issue is sadly in contrast with the timidity displayed by the Department for Education and Employment. The DFEE continues to confuse the different issues of religious education and collective worship by dealing with them as if they were one and the same thing. Both suffer as a consequence, with the devotional associations of "collective worship" engendering particular suspicion.

As it happens, RE could well be emerging from the doldrums, with the model syllabuses from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority marking a unique consensus among the different faith groups.

But collective worship is a nettle still to be grasped. A "collective" occasion at school, bringing together all pupils as the law requires, cannot be the same sort of "worship" that takes place in church on a Sunday. It is something different, as many, including the Church of England's spokesman on Education, the Bishop of Ripon, have recognised. Were the Government to say so, it would improve life in thousands of schools. But to say so is politically inconvenient.

Mr Khan's actions are an unwelcome distraction from attempts to promote understanding and common purpose. Muslims and Christians have a great deal in common, and, as Prince Charles says, our nominally Christian but wholly materialistic society probably has much to learn from Islam. At this time of year, more than any other.

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