LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Monday $2 million in funding to back Islamic studies at British universities as he urged the public to listen to the religion’s moderate scholars rather than to its radicals.
Blair’s government hopes the funding will lead to a major shift of the focus of Islamic studies from an Arab and Middle Eastern perspective to that of the plural society in Britain.
Blair told imams, scholars and clerics at a two-day conference in London that British Muslims “overwhelmingly” wanted to be “loyal citizens,” despite attention given to a small number of radicals.
“Around the world today there is a new and urgent impetus being given to promulgating the true voices of Islam,” Blair said.
He urged clerics at the conference to explain Islam to the world and place it in its broader context, how it has roots in Judaism and Christianity, and how it has developed. Blair urged them to explain “how far removed it is in truth from the crude and warped distortion of the extremists.”
The money is to be used to support recommendations of a report by Islamic scholar Ataullah Siddiqui that was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills.
The Siddiqui Report warned that many university courses in Islamic studies focus too narrowly on the Middle East, failing to reflect the modern “realities” of Muslim life in multicultural Britain
“Discussion over the years about Islamic studies in higher education has been conducted quite separately from, and probably in complete ignorance of, the Muslim community and their patterns of belief and practice,” the report said. “Equally, the teaching of Islam and the mentoring of students as mediated by madrases is, to a very large extent, oblivious of realities around them.”
Siddiqui’s review was commissioned a year ago amid concerns that some students were being exposed to radical Muslim preachers on campus who condone terrorism.
Universities UK, an organization of vice chancellors at Britain’s universities, immediately criticized the fund, denouncing it as meddling on the part of the government. The academics said they should decide on any changes to their own courses.
“All academic programs, including Islamic studies, are carefully developed and constructed as part of higher education institutions’ quality procedures,” Drummond Bone, president of the organization, said in a statement.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, also opposed the new educational fund.
“It is totally unacceptable that preachers of any faith should be trained by secular universities,” he said. “This sort of interference is nothing but social engineering designed to highlight Islam as a problem rather than a solution to extremism.”
Blair’s speech and the report are the latest effort by his government to prevent violent extremism in the name of Islam and to improve community cohesion among Britain’s 2 million Muslims.