Category Archive • Islam
January 18, 2005
A Muslim response to Mr Bell's speech

A predictable response to Mr Bell's speech yesterday (see immediately below):

THE HEAD of a Huddersfield Islamic school has called on England's chief education watchdog to resign after 'ignorant' comments about Muslim schools.

Samira Elturabi, head of Islamia Girls' High School on Thornton Lodge Road, said the comments of David Bell, the chief inspector of schools for Ofsted, were ignorant about the facts of Islam.

I don't think this is very clever. Indeed, I think that it illustrates some of the exact fears that Mr Bell was expressing. Calling on Mr Bell to resign, just because his grasp of the nuances of Islam is shaky is foolish. The way to respond to speeches like Mr Bell's is to realise that here is an opportunity both to put across some of the facts about Islam that are in the "better than you thought" category, and to demonstrate that Islamic leaders can handle criticism politely.

I would say that she gets, at best, no more than one out of two.

… Mrs Elturabi, who has been head at Islamia for three years, said Islamic education was full education.

She added: "We not only do Islamic studies such as Arabic and the Koran but we also do the full national curriculum programme.

"Schools in this country have a lot of behavioural problems, but in Islamic schools the students learn responsibility and to be caring.

"Mr Bell should resign. Before he gives a lecture like that he should understand Islam."

Mrs Eluturabi's school came joint third in the Kirklees education league tables published last week with 71% of students getting five 'good' GCSEs.

Assuming that this is an approximately accurate report of what Mrs Elutrabi said, then I think she has – shall we say? – struck a rather bad note. At best, she seems to have given the Huddersfield Weekly News the chance to make it sound like that.

I realise that Mrs Eluturabi may be a bit frightened. But I think she ought to show a greater understanding of how the world looks to the people she is – or ought to be – trying to influence and whose minds she is – ditto – trying to change. Telling Mr Bell that he should resign is likely to persuade Mr Bell, and many others, only that Mr Bell was right about the potential divisiveness of these schools, and of the people who run them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:04 PM
Category: Islam
January 17, 2005
The fear of Islamic education

My feeling about this speech, which has undoubtedly been the big education news story today, is that I am glad he said it.

Head of Ofsted David Bell sparked anger among Muslims today after warning that Islamic faith schools must not be allowed to threaten the coherence of British society.

A traditional Islamic education offered by a growing number of schools "does not entirely fit" children for life in modern Britain, the chief inspector of schools said.

Mr Bell singled out Muslim schools for failing to teach pupils their obligations to British society, and called on them to promote “tolerance and harmony”.

The Muslim Council of Britain described Mr Bell’s remarks as "highly irresponsible" while the Association of Muslim Schools accused him of "Islamophobia".

The head of England’s schools watchdog made his comments in a lecture on citizenship education to the Hansard Society in central London.

"Islamaphobia" – like its verbal parent "homophobia" – is a clever piece of propagandistic invention. The purpose of the word "islamophobia" is to say that anyone who fears Islam is in the grip of a mental disease, rather than saying anything which might be true. I am emphatically not Islamophobic, because I don't have any phobia about Islam. But it does often scare me. And if me and many others saying such things means that Islamic educators become scared themselves about how we might react to their activities in our midst, then good. I want them to think that we are watching them, and worried about them, and I want them to be on their best behaviour.

Mr Bell, judging by this report, was rather circumspect about his exact objections to Islamic education, and if he really was so circumspect, he might have done better to spell it all out a bit more clearly.

Let me do it for him, by saying what I fear about Islamic education.

I fear that Muslims are being taught to be cruel to their own women, or in the case of Muslim women, cruel to themselves. I fear that they are being told that forcing their women into loveless marriages that are not unlike domestic slavery is virtuous rather than vicious. I fear that Muslims are being taught to regard cruelties to non-Muslims are also morally tolerable rather than morally wrong.

Politically, I fear that Muslim schools are teaching Muslims to vote Muslim, in a way that will attempt to be tyrannical, and will actually be deeply divisive. And I fear that a small but significant minority of the pupils of such places might turn into the next generation of terrorists.

And I think that part of the way to prevent such schools cranking out bigots and Stepford wives and political pains-in-the-arse, and the occasional terrorist, is for the people in them, teachers and pupils alike, to know that in these particular respects they are not entirely trusted. On the other hand, if, after fifty more years of Muslim education in our midst, we are not overrun with bigots, and our politics continues to be reasonably smooth, and absolutely no terrorists have been incubated by such places, then fine, people like me (not me because I'll be long gone) will alter their prejudices and fears, and relax. Meanwhile, we're on our guard, and if Muslims don't like that, tough.

None of which is any excuse for any of the rest of us to be personally impolite to any Muslims, still less to commit crimes against them.

I am absolutely not scared that Muslim schools are doing a worse job of producing scientists and technologists and lawyers and doctors than are the regular state schools. If they do this worse, so what? Who cares? This only matters insofar as it gives the Devil and opportunity to find mischief-making work for idle brains. Meanwhile, my prejudice is that such schools probably do at least as well as the other schools.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Islam
November 03, 2004
Chasing the terrorists – in schools and everywhere else

A recent Islamabad news item:

Pakistan's Education Minister Lt Gen (retired) Javed Ashraf Qazi has said that a few of the Madarssahs or religious schools situated near the country's border were involved in terrorist activities.

According to Dawn, Qazi who accompanied the outgoing US ambassador Nancy Powell to a community school in Nirola said that the government was keeping a close watch on the activities of seminaries suspected of being involved in terrorist activities and was contemplating serious action against them.

He further added that the government was seriously trying to streamline the madarssahs into a compact system and had even entered into collaboration with the Wafaqul Madaris in this regard.

"Streamlining of madaris is going on at a good pace and the ministry in collaboration with Wafaqul Madaris is taking every possible measure for timely Madarssah reforms," the report quoted him as saying. (ANI)

As I wonder what I'm going to add to that, I'm watching a BBC4 TV show about Who Runs America (scroll down to the final one), and an FBI terrorist chaser is being interrogated about his work by a bloke from the BBC. Yesterday there was a Presidential Election in which the War on Terrorism was the number one issue.

It may be that all this effort will eventually come to be thought of as a huge overreaction to what was actually a quite minor problem. But that will only happen if there are no more major terrorist successes, and personally I'd settle for that. The FBI guy is talking about this War being "won". But if that happens, it will be because, one day, people realise that hey, we aren't thinking about that Terrorism thing any more. He won't get a big parade. He'll just find his department downgraded, and if he is personally felt to have done well, he will simply find himself assigned to other duties.

Meanwhile, for the time being, the interest that the rest of us have in the nature of Islamic education is going to be about more than just how they teach things like the 3Rs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
Category: IslamPolitics
September 27, 2004
Graduates with a difference

From Instapundit to Dean's World to Iraq at a glance and a description of a TV programme about a school:

The teacher said: ‘we learn those kids the morals and ethics of Islam, how to respect the people, we are studying the Koran, and learn it by heart, the pupils here are so happy and proud of their future as they'll grow as good men'

Till now, I asked myself: 'so what?..what’s wrong with this system, since it is an ordinary school, and does not hurt anyone, let them learn what they want to learn, but without harmful outcomes'..

However …

Future troubles began to be clear half an hour from the beginning of this movie.

The kids were talking about the Jihad and how they are ready to be one of AlMujahideen, their parents were so happy with their 'courageous and strong' boys, and that they would get AlJannah (the paradise) sooner or later.

Then, the manager of this school and some also bearded guests came by (obviously the big leaders) and started to talk in front of a crowd of teachers and boys explaining how the United States want to spoil their youth and destroy Islam, how they came to Afghanistan to destroy and make an end to Islam and how they want to control the Islamic world and many other thoughts, and then began to shout and scream: 'God bless our great leader Osama bin Laden, God bless our great leader Mullah Omar’ ‘Death to America'..'Death to America and her collaborators' and the crowd replied in a louder and scary voice the same 'great' words of their supervisors!

So attract innocent kids, put them in this religious school which resembles the jail, no one kid has the time to talk or see anything except his teacher and the Koran, wash their brains completely for years and fill it with hatred and hostile ideas using dangerous strict thoughts in the name of Islam, and then, It's obvious from the environment of this school what will the 'graduates' be.

The word 'education' covers a multitude of sins.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:20 PM
Category: Islam
May 19, 2004
Afghan girls doing maths

Joanne Jacobs, who is indifferent to pictorial content on account of having sufficient content of her own, links to this picture, which unlike her I here reproduce:


Here's how the accompanying Christian Science Monitor story starts:

A second-grade math class in Kabul, Afghanistan, met in the school breezeway with a blackboard on wheels. The young scholar was shy about speaking in front of her class. A proud teacher watched. A classmate reached out her hand to offer support.

This scene, so natural, so universal, was nonexistent in Afghanistan for many years when the Taliban were in power. Laws prohibited women and girls from attending school or even leaving their homes.

A breezeway sounds like something out of doors.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:42 PM
Category: IslamMaths
April 18, 2004
The Citizen's Foundation schools of Pakistan
The following article, by Joanna Pitman, under the headline "Lessons in hope", which I am taking the liberty of reproducing in its entirety, appeared in the (paper only I think – I couldn't find anything linkable to other than this Citizen's Foundation website) Times Magazine of yesterday, Saturday 17th of April. I hope no copyright toes are being trodden on, but it so impressed me that I am taking that chance.

I have done a posting at Samizdata about this article.

Samreen is a ten-year-old Pakistani girl who lives in Machar Colony, one of the biggest and most desperately poor of the 553 slum communities that are multiplying and choking the port city of Karachi to death. Her living conditions are medieval. On reclaimed harbour land, just a mile and a half from the impossibly remote, high-rise financial centre of the city, she shares a small, dark, dirt-floored room, no more than a box, with her mother and four brothers and sisters, hidden away down a narrow, stinking alleyway swarming with people and vermin. All around, as far as the eye can absorb, is a sea of filth, shimmering beneath a hot brown fog. In open sewers, rats,
playful as baby rabbits, mingle with malnourished children struggling to get through the day, labouring for miniscule wages, listlessly scrounging for food scraps and minding the babies, often their own. Generation follows generation quickly here, men and women as easily replaceable as the hovels in which they live. It is a special kind of human waste that comes with this sort of established destitution. And for the hundreds of thousands marooned in Machar Colony and other slums like it, cruelty no longer has a meaning. It is life itself.

Samreen's father has abandoned the family and disappeared, but she works alongside her mother and siblings, earning one penny for an hour's work peeling tiny, slimy shrimps. Every day they share some tea for breakfast. At lunchtime they have a piece of roti bread, made from flour and water, and in the evenings they usually manage to put together a meal of sorts - more roti and a few lentils, perhaps some vegetables if they've earned enough during the day.

Samreen is one of the lucky ones. On weekday mornings, after she's done her first two hours peeling shrimps, she puts on her school uniform and walks proudly to school. Built and run by the Pakistani educational charity. The Citizens Foundation (TCF), her school is an astonishing oasis in the middle of this desert of utter degradation. Entering the school gates she crosses a neatly swept playground planted with ornamental trees, and goes into the purpose-built primary school building equipped with six light and spacious classrooms, a library, an art room, a computer room, clean washrooms and staff quarters. She shares her classroom with 19 other children, roughly equal numbers of boys and girls, each of whom has his or her own desk and chair, exercise books and pencils. On the walls are colourful tissue paper pictures of rabbits, horses and cows made by Samreen and her classmates, the letters of the alphabet and a range of educational posters about volcanoes, dinosaurs and the solar system. Oxford University Press textbooks are piled neatly on the shelves and a string of numbers, cut out and coloured by the children, is pegged to a washing line strung jauntily across the sparkling window. The classroom would not look out of place in one of London's top private primary schools.

At school, Samreen has learnt not only Urdu and English, but also how to use a loo, wash her hands properly, brush her teeth and plait her hair. She can read and write, recite her times tables, work out complex percentages and compose poems that make her teachers laugh. She studies science and uses the school's computers every week. Each term she has three sets of assessment tests, and her mother - who had never seen a school before - attends three parents' evenings to discuss the results. Samreen's grades are excellent.

Samreen is, understandably, thrilled with her school. She adores her teachers, all of whom are women specially trained by TCF, and she enjoys all her subjects, particularly English. One day, she says, her eyes bright with excitement, she wants to become a teacher. To her mother, this is a concept as ungraspable as owning her own home. but instinctively she is proud of Samreen, and endures the beatings she gets from her brother-in-law who is opposed to the idea of education for girls. Although they miss the income Samreen would bring in during the mornings when she's at school, her mother is happy that her daughter is being given a chance in life. "When she grows up," she says shyly from behind her veil, "she won't have to do shrimp-peeling like me. Something better will come along and I can feel I've done my best for her."


Samreen's is just one of thousands of such heartbreaking stories that pour out of the hellish slums housing the dispossessed of Pakistan. Her school, Machar Primary School 1, was among the first of the 180 schools that have been built by TCF since 1995 in 17 cities around Pakistan, each one of them a small drop of hope in the middle of these parched and blighted communities.

The problems TCF is addressing are, of course, immense, but TCF is a remarkable charity. Raising funds through the donations of wealthy Pakistanis at home, through the expatriate community in the oil-rich Gulf region, in the UK and North America, and through corporate sponsorship, it has proved so successful that it now opens new purpose-built schools at a rate of one a week; and last year it received donations totalling £2 million.

There are many reasons why we should be interested in TCF,but one in particular will strike a chord with those in the West concerned about the rise of Islamic militancy. TCF schools offer an alternative to the most extreme of the madrassahs - the religious schools - that often target poor areas and become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism. These schools only came to the attention of the West after September 11, but in many Karachi slums it has long been normal to see walls plastered with graffiti calling for volunteers to join Taleban-style Islamic organisations. Over the past two decades, madrassah schools have sprung up across Pakistan, offering the incentive of a free education. Some of them also offer the prospect of a wage earned through activism for a hardline group. Today, evidence indicates that madrassah schools are not operating in areas where there are clusters of TCF schools.

TCF was founded nine years ago by six wealthy Pakistani businessmen living in Karachi, who had become increasingly disturbed by the level of begging on the streets. "The divide between rich and poor was getting wider and a large proportion of the population was becoming isolated from the mainstream," says TCP chairman Ahsan Saleem, an entrepreneurial industrialist, whose Crescent Steel group has interests in banking, engineering and textiles. "It was a burning issue and a fashionable topic for pious talk at expensive dinner parties. One day, a group of us were coming back from such a dinner and we just felt nauseated. Either we continued to sit back and watch the place decline or we would do something about it We knew the solution had to come from within Pakistan."

The six of them - all highly successful top-level managers - met in August 1995 and began to think seriously about the problems. They addressed poverty, health, intolerance, population, education, water and sanitation, and concluded that the solution to all these issues was education. In Pakistan, education remains desperately, stupidly low on the list of government priorities. The state schooling system, riddled with corruption, has been either non-existent or on the point of collapse for many years. The result is a massive intellectual deficit: out of a total population of 145 million, the country has 28 million children entirely unschooled and 41 per cent of adult men and 70 per cent of adult women illiterate. Ironically, in some areas, the first parents queueing to send their children to TCP schools rum out to be government schoolteachers.

The six businessmen decided to set up a corporate-style charitable organisation to build and run schools offering high-quality education to both girls and boys in the poorest areas of the country. Within four months, the ground had been broken to construct the first five schools, paid for out of the pockets of the founders, and by May 1996 all five were operational. Only once the schools had been running successfully for a year did TCF begin to expand – not through advertising or asking for funds, but simply by taking people to see the reality and letting them spread the word.

Its target is to build 1,000 primary a secondary schools by 2010, which will cater for 350-400,000 children at a time, offering them a high-quality, secular education that is the envy of most government schools and comparable to the country's elite private schools. "We want these children to compete with our own children," says Saleem, whose four teenage children are being educated at the best Pakistani private school and at the American School.

TCF stands out from other non-governmental organisations because it uses modem, professional management techniques. "TCF is one of the best endeavours in the private sector to compensate for the total decay in the government system," says Imran Khan, whose constituency is one of the most backward in the Punjab region. "There is an apartheid in education between the rich elite and the masses and TCF is trying to bridge that gap."

From the donors' point of view, all the boxes can be ticked. TCF has a clear vision, a set of rules, transparency and longevity. No one individual fronts the organisation, and none of the six founders has a role in its management. Just 5 per cent of funds are spent on administration. The rest goes into the building and running of the schools, providing equipment, uniforms, books, milk and biscuits for the children, and specialist training for the teachers, which is done from a central teacher training college in Karachi. All the teachers are women, which in a Muslim society makes the parents more comfortable about sending their daughters to school; and they are transported in TCF vans to and from their schools, which placates their parents. Every teacher is evaluated during the year and attends a refresher course each summer.

"It takes real courage for these women to teach in schools surrounded by this level of poverty," says Neelam Habib. TCF's manager of donor relations. "Their commitment is very high. They all have clear objectives and the results they're getting are wonderful - of the first batch of students to take the Class IX Board Exams, 92 per cent passed and 25 per cent got A grades."

Each school employs at least two women from within the community who are trained in hygiene. Part of their job is to convince parents to send their children, especially the girls, to school. Although many of the schools have huge waiting lists, their task has not been easy. Many men are opposed to educating girls, and it is not unusual for mothers or older sisters to be beaten by male relatives for sending the girls to school. A child at school also means the loss of valuable income. As a result, most of the children work before and after school, often well into the night. One ten-year-old boy, who has no father and whose mother is blind, is responsible for five younger siblings. Every morning, after a breakfast of water, he works two hours before school and then again after school. With his earnings he buys food in the evening for the family. He puts a plate in front of his mother, and she asks him if they have all eaten. When he tells her they have, she eats her fill, and only then does he allow himself and his siblings to eat, sharing whatever leftovers there are.

But despite individual difficulties, the value of these schools is immeasurable. At a cost of £6 per month per child, TCF schools are giving these children the chance to have a real childhood, at least for a few hours of the day, away from the horror of their home environments, as well as the potential for a future outside the slums. Although it is still relatively young, TCF is already providing a model for a professional, privately run system that could be replicated in other developing countries - there is talk of establishing a similar organisation in Brazil. And it has also set up its own support chapters across the world. "Since 9/11, around half of our UK supporters are of non-Pakistani extraction," says Tariq Hussain, a Trustee who helps run the UK chapter of the Friends of the Citizens Foundation, a UK Charities Commission registered charity. "That's a real boost for us."

The professionals who run the UK Friends of TCF on a voluntary basis, are typical of those who have set up TCF chapters around the world. Its trustees, Hussain himself, Khurram Jafree. a successful City investment manager and Dr Azhar Aslam, a Harley Street surgeon, formed the chapter in 2001. Hussain was born in Stranraer, the son of Pakistanis who moved from the Punjab to Scotland in the Fifties. His father, a self-made entrepreneur, built a successful apparel wholesale business primarily to support his children's education. Tariq went to Glasgow University, qualified as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen, completed an MBA at IMD international business school in Switzerland, and is now a managing director in the corporate finance department of a global investment bank in London.

"Every summer holiday we used to go to Pakistan to visit family in Lahore. I hated it at first The country was so poor. But it has so much charm that seeps into your blood and you want to give something back. Many years later I was hunting around for an educational cause to support in Pakistan and I found TCF on the internet. I'd never heard of it, but it had been given a UN award. It was transparent, apolitical, and not fronted by any single personality. The more I saw, the more impressed I was. Khurram, Azhar and I asked TCF if we could set up a UK chapter and we currently raise roughly 20 per cent of TCF's annual budget through corporate and individual donations and special fundraising events. Because we come from professional backgrounds we believe donors should be able to see a professional structure and modern teaching methods. TCF likes to be judged by its actions rather than by spin. Donors are encouraged to visit the schools to see how their funds are spent"

And the children themselves are contributing funds, too. To give them a sense of dignity and to encourage pride in their education. the families of all students make a nominal contribution to fees and to the costs of uniforms, books and stationery, depending on their income - anything from 5p to £1 a month. At times, the results are amazing. Two years ago, a TCF boy won a Unilever sponsored international art prize and had his work exhibited at Tate Modern.

There are many incredible stories of these physically stunted, undernourished children who struggle so hard, taking on the responsibilities of adults to make ends meet, so they can attend these schools. There is the 14-year-old girl from a rural community outside Lahore who, working late at night last year, lost all the fingers of her right hand in a food cutter, but went straight back to work and has also, with help from her teachers, learnt to write again. There is nine-year-old Samina who peels shrimps for six hours a day in return for 6p and attends TCF school along with her brother and sister. Her father spends his meagre earnings on drugs and beats their mother for allowing three of their five children to go to school. And there are so many more like them. It is humbling to see the spirit of these children, their palpable energy and purpose, their enlivened hopes. But it is also humbling to witness the compassion and dedication of their more fortunate compatriots who are providing them, against all odds, with life's most valuable gift.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:51 PM
Category: IslamPrimary schools