LONDON (AFP) – Irish-Moroccan or Egyptian-English, with headscarf or without, the diverse students at Britain’s first state-funded Islamic school are at the vanguard of a trend toward a distinctly European Muslim culture.
The Islamiya Primary School of north London and its 210 students are famous across Britain, and not only because the institution was founded by Yusuf Islam, better known as the folk singer Cat Stevens.
Islam started Islamiya in 1982 along with several friends, then had to battle through anti-Muslim stereotypes under prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative rule in order to win state recognition.
“The Thatcher government feared we would teach a radical Islam and how to make a Molotov cocktail,” headmaster Abdullah Trevathan recalled.
Their goal of instructing religion, so prevalent at Christian and Jewish schools across the country, was considered radical.
“We wanted our children to be extraordinary in the true sense. We wanted to educate them ourselves,” said Trevathan.
In 1995, after a 13-year campaign, the Islamiya School won the breakthrough right to public funding that the British government has long awarded to Protestant and Catholic schools.
Today its student body comprises 23 different ethnic communities, with most students the product of an ethnically-mixed marriage.
“We are Irish-Moroccan, Egyptian-English and a lot of Somalian and Pakistani people. Everybody learns from each other,” the school head said.
“We are not here to preserve a culture but to create a European-British-Muslim culture,” he added.
Islamiya follows the national state-directed curriculum, but also includes classes in religion and Arabic.
From the age of seven, children go to pray at the school mosque.
Girls are given the choice of whether to wear an Islamic headscarf.
The mix of British education, Islam and cultural diversity seems to inspire: Islamiya’s students have chalked up a reputation for academic excellence.
Their teachers believe they have devised a model, moreover, that can fend off a trend of Islamic radicalization among some disaffected European youth.
“We believe that a child from a minority who has the same culture reflected at school and at home becomes a confident person who has self-esteem. As the teenagers grow up, they don’t have an identity crisis and don’t tend to turn to fundamentalism,” Trevathan said.
Religion, he argued, is treated in a critical manner at Islamiya, where students are encouraged to question, doubt and analyze in a Cartesian manner instead of blindly learning set Islamic rules by rote.
But the idyll of the well-adjusted European Muslim British school has been shattered by Islamic radicalism at home and abroad, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and chaos in Iraq.
“Being affected by why happens at the opposite end of the world is not the daily stuff of a primary school in London, but there it is,” the school director sighed.
Since September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war, he said, students tend to say little about the issues but are clearly worried, so teachers make it a point to discuss them openly in class.
“After 9/11, I realized that the whole community was traumatized pretty seriously. Like in a divorce, the children blamed themselves. They were wondering if their parents were responsible, if they were responsible themselves,” the headmaster said.
“Today I still feel anger against these people who have nothing to do with us,” he said.
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