Muhammad Imran believes the shared values of Islam and the West are far stronger than their differences. When he demonstrates the Koranic view on pollution to Muslim and non-Muslim pupils, they are astonished at how much they have in common. He talks to Reva Klein
There are more than 1 billion Muslims scattered across the world today, with the largest concentrations in Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent.
But ask young people to brainstorm the word Muslim and you're likely to hear negative stereotypes connected with a tiny proportion who have gained notoriety through acts of extremism: Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda; Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric from north London; the Palestinian suicide bombers.
If young people in Britain are badly informed, it's no wonder. The horrific images of the 911 attacks and the Palestinian intifada are indelibly imprinted on their minds. The rhetoric surrounding these events is far more potent and persuasive than anything they might learn about Islam in RE.
The effect of these events has meant that for young non-Muslims, the world has become an unprecedently divided and dangerous one, in which "them" and "us" has never been more pronounced. Even if they don't know who "they" are. For young Muslims, questions of identity, loyalties and affiliations have been thrown into stark relief, which presents schools with some difficult challenges.
Monzoor Hussain is teacher in charge of co-ordinating collective worship at Park View high school, in Alum Rock, within Birmingham's inner ring, where a large number of staff and 97 per cent of the pupils are Muslim. He recalls pupils' response to September 11.
"They came in talking about jihad and we discussed that, in Islamic teaching, it means struggling against injustice.
"We explored the question of whether beating up and destroying God's creation, prohibited in the Koran, was the same thing."
Tahir Alum, the school's chair of governors and spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain on Birmingham education committee, recalls taking an assembly on racism from an Islamic perspective.
"One lad followed me out of the hall and said, 'But Jews are our enemies, sir.' I had to explain to him that you don't judge a whole people by the political actions of a small group."
The global war on terrorism and the tension betweeen East and West have polarised communities in Britain, especially those where poverty and racism are constants.
Rarely do they have an opportunity to step back and question what their religion stands for, what the Koran says about killing civilians or hating people because of their religion or about taking one's own life. For some, their religion has taken on the role of a club you belong to in order to show your strength.
"Some of the boys think Islam is all about drawing AK47s with 'Islam 4ever'
written underneath," says Hardeep Saini, Park View's assistant headteacher.
For Muhammad Imran, of the development charity Islamic Relief, the concern is that young Muslims are not asking these questions.
Even if they were to do so, few would get informed answers. Imran is working in schools to reverse the trend that has led to Muslims and non-Muslims alike making assumptions about Islam and its followers based on the high- profile actions of radicals.
He has co-written a booklet for schools entitled Citizenship and Muslim Perspectives, which he trains teachers to use with their secondary school students. It is available through the website of Tide (Teachers in Development Education, a network run by the Development Education Centre in Birmingham) and the Department for International Development, Imran isn't a typical Muslim educator. An Englishman who dropped out of a Sandhurst career to embark on a spiritual quest, he converted to Islam in 1987, had an arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman who speaks as little English as he speaks Urdu, and is now the father of six children. He believes that his hybrid identity gives him a certain credibility when he talks about Islam to non-Muslim pupils and teachers. His aim, he says, is to show that mainstream Islam is founded on values that resonate with the values of most people in the world concerned with social justice.
"There are issues over which there may be no common ground, but the shared values far outweigh the differences," he says.
"What we're doing is helping people make informed judgments on Islam by explaining what it stands for. And, for Muslim pupils, we're trying to reverse and challenge the radicalisation of Islam and, in the process, raise their self- esteem as British Muslims."
At Park View school, Muhammad Imran worked closely with teachers to develop the booklet. He now uses it as a basis to help them and teachers from other schools present the principles of Islam in ways that are relevant to contemporary British society.
In a recent session with a Year 8 group, he asked the pupils to identify the most pressing environmental issues worldwide, then explored with them what the Koran and Hadith (Koranic interpretations) say about them. He drew on quotes that reflected modern concerns such as animal rights, pollution, avoiding waste and respecting the earth. Taking this approach not only brings the pupils' two worlds together, but it demonstrates how Koranic teaching relates to the here and now of the world in which they live. For young Muslims, it's a revelation: their only knowledge of the Koran is through rote learning, with very little interpretation or explanation. For young non-Muslims, it shows Islam to be a faith that reflects their own ideas.
Insights into the meaning of Islam have helped to break down prejudice, too. Louise Field, an RE teacher at Chase Town, an all-white comprehensive in Burntwood, Staffordshire, just north of Birmingham, invited Imran to come and talk to her pupils in order to redress what she calls "the lack of awareness of anything apart from stereotypes of Muslim people".
The impact on these young people, none of whom had ever had contact with Muslims before, has been significant. "I had a view that all Muslims hated the West, based on media stereotypes," said Ben Edrop, 15. "But after working on this material, I've seen that it is a small minority who hold extreme views."
For Hannah Barrott, also 15, it was interesting to hear from a Muslim "what it was like being labelled in certain ways by Westerners. Muhammad answered lots of questions we had about this and I think you could only get these views from speaking directly to a Muslim."
With the reported rise in Islamophobia in schools in this country and throughout Europe due to the increasingly tense international situation, helping young Muslims and non-Muslims to see beyond the headlines and get to the heart of what Islam means is crucial if there is to be any significant social cohesion. As Muhammad Imran says: "We're trying to challenge the ignorance of all communities so that prejudice is reduced and a more positive sense of citizenship is fostered. It's called building bridges."
For more information about Islamic Relief's Citizenship and Muslim Perspectives booklet and education work, contact Teachers in Development Education at www.tidec.org