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Where east and west converge

In the backlash after the 911 terror attacks schools have had to play an important role in promoting tolerance, Reva Klein writes

Schools have become increasingly uneasy about teaching Islam. Despite it being a required part of the RE national curriculum, teachers are confused about its different interpretations, ill-informed about its ethical framework and fearful of criticism from Muslim parents, according to the Muslim Council of Britain.

As a result, in some schools the religion is being left out of collective worship and the celebration of festivals. Since 911, says the Muslim Council, even schools with a majority of Muslim children will celebrate Chinese New Year and Diwali, but not Eid.

That is why the council has undertaken Books 4 Schools, a project to ensure that high-quality teaching and learning materials on Islam are available to every primary school in the country, along with a specially-developed teaching pack.

"We know from our workshops and discussion with teachers that many are finding it difficult to access good-quality materials for teaching Islam.

So local Muslim communities are being asked to sponsor materials - books, artefacts, music, poetry, plays - which we're vetting to ensure that they're the best available," says Aziz Sheikh, professor of primary care research and development at the University of Edinburgh, who is on the Muslim Council's education working party.

By providing good-quality materials written by Muslims as well as by people from other faith groups, says the council's education spokesman Tahir Alam, "we want to convey ideas of mercy, forgiveness and charity from the Muslim perspective in an attempt towards better social cohesion. We want to explore the commonalties between us."

The Muslim Council also hopes through learning about the religion and the people who follow it to dispel the misconceptions and negative stereotyping that followed 911.

As Reza Kazin of the Islamic Human Rights Commission put it: "Teachers are reporting to us that in discussions on religion with pupils, children think of Islam as violent and encouraging violence. And it isn't just the children. One teacher said to me, after one of her Muslim pupils was vociferous about his right to attend Friday prayers, 'unfortunately, Islam is prone to violence'."

For young non-Muslims who don't understand the complexities but who have heard of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and the word "terrorist" attached to the word "Muslim", and who see angry images of Iraqis and Palestinians on their television screens, the situation is confusing.

For different reasons, it is confusing for Muslim children, too. "Seeing images of abuse - such as those of the detainees from Abu Ghraib prison - will evoke empathy," says Reza Kazin.

"But that doesn't mean that these kids are going to sign up for suicide bombing missions. There's a confusion about what terrorism is in the minds of Muslim children. On the one hand, they see thousands of civilians being killed in Iraq and on the other, they see 10 killed in a suicide bombing.

And one is called terrorism and one is not."

For teachers to take the fire out of the situation, materials such as Books 4 Schools, and information on what to do with it, is filling a gap. So, too, is Citizenship and Muslim Perspectives, a schools pack published by the development charity Islamic Relief, which covers all key stages. It looks at the religion in a way that highlights its shared values with Judeo-Christian ethics by looking at universal issues such as environmentalism and animal welfare.

In addition, Islamic Relief trains teachers to use the material. Its aim, according to co-author Muhammad Imran, "is to help (non-Muslim children) 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."

But it is difficult in areas where children attend racially-segregated schools. How are they supposed to learn about "real" Muslims for themselves? How can the concepts and abstractions be made concrete for young children? Projects in Bradford and Oldham, towns where many schools are segregated and where racial violence between Muslims and whites erupted in 2001, have brought white and Muslim children together for curricular and extra curricular projects in the belief that by getting to know each other, they will acquire empathy and understanding.

Chris Clarke, a headteacher at the predominately Asian St Andrews C of E primary in the Bradford suburb of Keighley, quoted a Muslim girl at his school whose class is linked with Burley Woodhead C of E primary, a white, middle-class school in the suburbs. "You know, we look different, but we're all just the same, aren't we?"

Her view may be overstating things, but allowing children the opportunity to get to work and play together helps to build trust and dismantle myths - as the office of the deputy prime minister's select committee said in a report on community cohesion last week.

Bradford Liberal Democrat councillor David Ward, who has been at the forefront of developing a community cohesion programme for the council, sees schools as an important component in breaking down barriers.

"Citizenship in the curriculum is fine, but if it goes no further than celebrating diversity, it won't work. What works is sharing crisps with someone different," he told The TES last year.

What also works is airing views in class. Reza Kazin of the Islamic Human Rights Commission tells of the case of a primary school teacher who was leading a discussion on the messages that different religions preach.

"There was a general consensus among the children that Islam was a violent religion. So the teacher decided to give the rest of the time over to a lesson on the tenets of Islam, to dispel the misconceptions that these children had picked up from the media and possibly from their parents."

Sweeping difficult issues under the carpet allows prejudices and myths to proliferate. Says Kazin, "Issues have to be dealt with in a head-on and direct way, unbiased and fair. Both sides of the argument should be presented. Children should be allowed to express their feelings and their peers and teacher should be able to challenge them fairly. Teachers can steer the discussion around to looking at the root causes of the problems, which is important for engendering understanding of the issues. Without that, polarisation and conflict are left unchecked."

More information from Muslim Council of Britain:

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