The new challenge to state orthodoxy

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Instead of arguing over faith, Scots need to look at what different traditions can offer, says James Conroy

Much has been written in both scholarly works and the popular press on religiously denominated schooling. Some of this has been interesting, some of it challenging, some of it misinformed and some of it just a little mendacious. The global citizenship unit at Glasgow University is concerned, among other things, with inter and cross-cultural relations, hence our interest in whether or nor religious schooling is or is not conducive to the moral, economic and cultural imperatives of the state. We are, and it would be difficult not to be, deeply conscious of the continuing claims that church schools should be regarded as anachronistic in a secular state.

These places, argue such as Muriel Gray, Kirsty Wark, Ian MacWhirter and other public commentators of a liberal disposition, are not only out of place but contribute, directly and indirectly, to such social evils as sectarianism and bigotry. I will not dwell here with some of the less than substantial empirical and logical claims that implicitly underpin these positions. I am more interested in pursuing a line of thought currently being developed with colleagues at Glasgow - that of the capacity for one tradition (religious, political or educational) to manifest hospitality to another.

Recent press speculation surrounding the claim that St Albert's primary in Glasgow should be handed over to the Muslim community so as to create a state-funded Muslim school has given these questions added piquancy. There are two separate, but related, issues here. The first is the question of what disposition religiously denominated schools should have with respect to those who wish to avail themselves of, or share in, their facilities and insights. The second is whether or not the state should support the establishment of Muslim schools.

Commentators such as Muriel Gray have expressed antipathy to the very idea of establishing Muslim schools, an antipathy predicated on the belief that such schools are some kind of affront to the delicate sensibilities of the liberal sentiment. This affront, we are led to believe, is manifest in the deprivation visited upon Muslim children by their not being able to access our cultural heritage. Apparently such deprivation is a consequence of a putative injunction placed upon Muslims not to engage in the artistic representation of the human form.

However, it is not clear to me that Gray's observations are particularly well-informed, or indeed at all informed. Some acquaintance with the complexity of such matters might have been helpful. It is true that representations of living forms are not to be found in mosques as a mark of the transcendence and unknowability of God. It is equally true that there are difference between the writings of some theologians and the social and cultural practices of Muslim communities.

The picture is certainly complex. Both the British Library and Edinburgh University have some of the finest Mogul paintings in the world. Moreover, Islam is also possessed of a long and rich cultural heritage in the other arts. Who, of those who had a glimpse of the Alhambra, could doubt this?

In addition to these points, it is not self-evident that large numbers of Scottish children have been beneficiaries of our artistic and cultural legacy. This is not to suggest that they shouldn't have access to such cultural goods, but to make the somewhat more banal observation that we might do well to sort out our own house before castigating others.

Ms Gray suggests that "orthodox" Muslim schools must adhere to her version of haram (avoidance of evil) or appear pointless. Apart from her gross misrepresentation of haram, the absurdity of the claim may be seen by taking a parallel example in the Christian sector. Are we really to assume that the choice we face as a polity is fundamentalist Christian schools or no Christian schools? Empirically at least, Britain has managed quite well with a variety of religious schools representing different denominational and religious perspectives. None would be permitted to exist if they were deemed injurious to the moral, psychological or physical well-being of children.

In the light of contemporary events, it behoves opinion shapers to be a little nuanced in their pronouncements. While liberal democracies should hold the value of free speech as sacrosanct, calculated insults to Islam through the reprinting of cartoons are licence and self-indulgence, not freedom. Presumably Gray sees this as artistic freedom.

We might alternatively suggest that the politically strong should reasonably use their good offices to serve the stranger. Catholic schools are predicated on particular conceptions of human flourishing. Central to that is the unambiguous conceit that a Christian should welcome the stranger or outsider. It is not especially difficult to unearth appropriate scriptural claims (Matthew 25, 31-46) to substantiate this. In common with many religious traditions, Catholic theology lays stress on reverence for the human person and their claim to be treated with dignity.

Moreover, across religious traditions, the theme of the sojourner or a traveller is common. This is as much about our psychological state as our abode and may provide the grounds for welcoming the other. If we are all, to some degree, strangers (even to ourselves), then we should not be frightened of the strangers with their strange ways, but rather open ourselves to the inherently new possibilities that they bring.

None of this precludes the possibility that different religious (and indeed ideological) communities might be empowered to establish their own schools.

Indeed, we might welcome the diversity that such possibilities open up. Nor do we have to be frightened of ghettoising the communities served by such schools. There are a great many checks and balances already available in the complicated give and take that is educational politics in Britain.

In Vienna, Muslim schools have been established which have a Catholic principal. On one interpretation, this appears condescending; on another, it is service. It is also an effective compromise between the aspirations of a particular community and the concerns of the polity as a whole. Given that most social life in a democratic polity must of necessity involve fuzziness, this may not be a bad thing.

James C Conroy is professor of religious and philosophical education and dean of the education faculty at Glasgow University.

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