Friday, 20 August 2010

In Defence of Faith Schools

I recently watched a documentary on More4, Richard Dawkins’ ‘Faith School Menace?’ (not too sure what the question mark is supposed to imply).

I was quite disappointed. I was obviously aware he would against faith schools, Dawkins never gets to the heart of the issues. He is so keen to argue his point, that the subtlety and nuance of the debate is sacrificed in favour of polemic. On top of this, we are treated with the same old images of cameras focusing on woman in niqaabs, and ominous music playing anytime faith is mentioned (contrasted with the upbeat and hopeful music played when he is reminiscing about his childhood conversion to atheism).

Ultimately, I didn’t think much of the documentary. And I always find myself disappointed at how little Richard Dawkins understands faith. Contrast his works on religion with the depth of works by Karen Armstrong, Tim Winters, even an article in the New Statesmen (an openly secular publication), and you soon see that he just doesn’t quite get it.

Regardless, I wanted to write a few words in defence of faith schools. I will try to be brief, as tempting as it is to dissect the documentary and every point that it made.

Faith schools do add value.

Richard Dawkins claims that Dr Steve Gibbon’s research on faith schools and exam results ‘authoritatively’ establishes that faith schools do not give children a better education.

Dr Gibbon’s work is anything but authoritative. It establishes only that children from similar economic backgrounds achieve similar exam results regardless of whether they go to a faith school or not.

The obvious flaw is that a school’s success is not simply based upon exam results. Ofsted and Estyn look at many varied aspects of a school’s provision. Faith schools consistently score higher. Not only on exam results, which is only a single indicator, but a pupil’s behaviour, their interaction and engagement in classes, the structure and nature of the education. And there are many other indicators that even Ofsted inspections do not account for – for example, the child’s mental well-being, social integration, self-esteem, confidence and so on.

Also, as a final point, in the context of Muslim faith schools, which more often than not deal with children from working class and more impoverished backgrounds, faith schools provide a drastic and visible difference in the grades and add to the social mobility of the children who attend.

Faith schools do add value, and many different levels, to a child’s education.

Faiths schools do not restrict choice.

Dawkins took a large objection to children being taught about faith. Perhaps, not surprisingly, faith schools teach faith from a reverential position.

Of course, without any concession, a child’s freedom of conscience must be recognised and respected, even in a faith school.

The following Quranic verse was revealed in response to Muslim parents who, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), were overzealous in getting their children to adopt Islam as their faith.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error…” 2:256

The Quran asserts the right of children, and all humans, to adopt they faith they choose, if any.

This does not run counter to instructing and nurturing a child in a specific faith tradition. Dawkins and others who argue that by rearing a child in a certain faith you are somehow restricting choice in fact betrays their own lack of confidence in the human ability to choose. Sending your daughter to a Christian faith school is by no means a sure-fire way of ensuring she is a Christian in later life. Humans have a fantastic ability to make up their own minds and hearts.

The unfortunate example of the Muslim faith school with a science teacher who didn’t quite understand evolution doesn’t swing the argument either. And although she claimed all her 60 students came to the same conclusion on evolution and faith, I very much doubt it. I teach at a complementary Muslim education school, and at times we engage in discussion about these very topics. In a small class, I am always certain to get a whole spectrum of views – young minds that are grappling with the issues to reach their own conclusions. A more successful example of teaching science and faith can be read in this Comment is Free article.

Faith schools are socially cohesive.

Dawkins’ trip into Ireland was shocking. A casual observer, with no introduction to the Northern Ireland issue, would have presumed that the division and conflict was solely due to Protestant and Catholic division. There was no mention of the word Nationalists or Unionists, or the British rule, or the several hundred year history which led to today’s situation.

As I mentioned, Dawkins, in his zeal to prove a point, never quite deals with the issue. If this is done intentionally, it is malicious, if it is done unintentionally, he’s just plain stupid.

Dawkins used an oft-repeated argument – get kids of different backgrounds together, and world will be okay. This isn’t the case. There are numerous examples of state schools with massive social and racial divisions. Work done on the issue states that if children are to meet others and form positive views about the culture or group they are from, many factors need to be in place. The children need to be of the same economic background, similar language skills and educational level, they must be on an equal footing in terms of power and dominance (especially culturally) - without these factors, such interaction can sometimes confound prejudice rather them remove it.

I would argue that faith schools are in fact essential to a cohesive society.

No matter how good, no state school lacking religion can teach morality.

Faith schools’ RE lessons are not shady places, as Dawkins insinuates, in which children are taught to hate the other.

Rather, the values of faiths are conveyed in these lessons.

Teachings such as the whole of the Torah being ‘that which is hateful to you, do not do to another’ (Talmud), or Jesus (peace be upon him) saying ‘do to others, as you would have done to yourself’ (Gospel of Luke) and Muhammad (peace be upon him) teaching ‘love for mankind what you love for yourself’ (Bukhari).

By nurturing these values within children, their relationship with the rest of the world (not just humanity) becomes one of respect, love, and altruism. More of this is needed, not less.

Parents do have a right to choose the education of their children

Dawkins seems to prefer that the state has a superior say in how children are raised.

What particularly incenses me about Dawkins is that not only is he hypocritical, he doesn’t seem to realise it.

Is there a difference between telling a child ‘the world has a purpose, seek it out’, and telling a child ‘the world has no purpose, things just are’? In both cases, you are predisposing your child to a certain direction of thought. Science doesn’t engage with metaphysical purpose, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Parents are the primary source of education for children. If a parent feels that a child will flourish and grow more successfully in a school environment that compliments the morality and teachings at home – then a parent has that right. They are the primary agents responsible for the well-being of their children - not the state.

In closing, even as person of faith, I do recognise that there are some important discussions that need to take place around faith schools in Britain today. But Dawkins engages with none of them.

NB: Much of the above on faith schools is based on some academic work I did at university – so if anyone would like me to qualify the above with references and research, I am more than happy to do so.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Hidden Histories

Mosques in the UK have generally been pragmatic affairs. The communities that established them were often constrained by their resources and usually opted to establish mosques that met the immediate needs of their community.

The choice of location of a mosque was usually influended by three factors, geographic location, size and cost. The history of the buildings was not given much thought. That said, it's an interesting journey to look into this history, and often the discoveries it yeilds can hold important reminders for modern communities.

About a week ago, I spent a few hours in the Glamorgan Records Office, looking into the history of some local mosques in Cardiff. One mosque in particular attracted my attention as it is a mosque close to my own heart as well as many of the Muslim community in Cardiff - Dar-ul-Isra, on Wyeverne Road.

Dar-ul-Isra, meaning 'The House of the Night Journey', is a relatively new mosque, being established in the early 1990s. It was formerly a Parish Hall for St. Andrew's and St. Teilo's Church. Recently, it was renovated with the addition of two new floors - it's grand opening was only a few days ago (7th August 2010). I did hope to post what I found before it opened, but for various reasons this wasn't possible.

For a Muslim, worshipping in a mosque that was formerly a church or chapel adds to the sacredness of the location. A verse in the Quran states: -

"For had it not been that Allah checks one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein the Name of Allah is mentioned much would surely have been pulled down. Verily, Allah will help those who helps Him. Truly, Allah is All-Strong, All-Mighty. " Surah 22, Verse 40

God mentions the sacredness of monastries, churches, synagogues and mosques together - they are all places of reverence and of holiness. There are numerous other verses and Prophetic sayings which attest to this fact also.

Thus the Muslim sees a mosque that was formerly a church or chapel as preserving the sacrednesss of the location. However, it must still be a difficult experience for a Christian, to see a church or chapel turned into a place of worship for another religion. I hope that Christians will see, as Muslims do, that mosques preserve the sacredness of the Church building (saving it from the fate of being turned into a bargain goods store, as was the case for one unfortunate church) and that this shared history can be a source of unity for the two communities.

Back to Dar-ul-Isra.

The original plans for the building can be seen below.

The plans state that the building was for a Parish Hall comissioned for the Rev G L Richardson MA of No. 7 Park Grove.

Parish Halls, as I understand them (and I could be very well wrong, as I haven't looked into this in much depth) were not so much places of worship, but places in which other community needs were met. The equivalent of a modern community hall.

The stamp mark dates the plans to 9th April 1910. Interestingly, the renovations to Dar-ul-Isra were completed in August 2010, marking pretty close to 100 years since the building was first constructed.

In 1915, further plans submitted to build a Scout's Hall behind the Parish Hall.

The Scout's Hall was comissioned for the 4th Cardiff Troop Boy Scouts. Today, the Scout's Hall is still called the Scout's Hall, and used as a Scout's Hall (this time, for the 1st Cathays al-Huda Scout's group, a Cardiff based Muslim Scout's group). The Scout's Hall was brought by the Muslim community several years after the mosque.

Few changes were made to the building there on in, and a picture from 1959 attests to this.

And even after the Parish Hall was brought by the Muslim community to serve as a mosque, only minor changes were made. The above picture, and that below, taken from 2008, are remarkably alike.
The biggest alternation to the building no doubt happened when Dar-ul-Isra was renovated in 2009-2010. Two new floors were added and several adjustments to the interior layout. The picture below is from its grand opening.

I would, ideally, love to look deeper into the history of Dar-ul-Isra, as well as other mosques in Cardiff which offer very similar stories.

For the time being, I want to end with the (summarised and paraphrased) sentiments of Tim Winters, who remarked at a lecture he delivered in Cardiff at how British Muslims, mosques and Islam often continued and preserved British tradition and history and how Muslims, ostensibly portrayed as 'the other', were more indigenious in Britain than anywhere else.

I should thanks to the Glamorgan Records Office (who asked me to thank them) and Aunty Hasnah Khalid who provided the photos of the renovated Dar-ul-Isra.

I would also request that if anyone has information on the history of the local mosques in Wales, to email me. Particulary old photographs which are very difficult to come by.