Saturday 01 April 2023

Why teaching Islam in state schools is a bad idea

This blog first appeared on Malta Today 

I am all for freedom of religion and freedom of worship but, as with all freedoms, we have to be careful that one’s personal liberty does not inch closer and closer to an imposition on the personal liberties of others.

The very misguided idea which is being mooted, of teaching the Islamic religion in state schools is a case in point. The whole thing started last week during Xarabank where the Imam said that Muslim students attending state schools should be taught Islam (just as Catholic students have lessons in the Catholic faith). This was seconded by the Archbishop himself in a telephone interview during the programme, who went so far as to say that, if possible, even Muslim children who attend Church schools should have the opportunity to be taught about the Islamic faith. (I find this latter idea patently bizarre because if you send your child to a Church school, you presumably believe in its ethos, so you need to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church).

On hearing this, parents were (very understandably) in an uproar even though the Education Minister Evarist Bartolo made it clear that this did not mean non-Muslim students would be forced to learn about Islam against their (or their parents’) will.

My first objection to this proposal is simple: in principle, I am against the teaching of any religion in state schools. If it were up to me, even the Catholic religion would be left outside the school gate of Government schools, and those who want to sit for their ‘O’ level in religion can do so on their own time. The reason for this is quite clear: it is really not necessary.

Let’s face it, we are hardly lacking in religious doctrine in this country: apart from what they are taught at school, children are “made” to go to catechism at an early age in order to do their Holy Communion, and later their Confirmation. Those who have parents who are practising Catholics are also introduced into their faith literally from the time they are born, when they are baptised. They then continue to receive and absorb religious instruction in Roman Catholicism throughout their young lives by means of the various rites of passage, as well as Christmas, Lent, Good Friday processions, Easter and the many, many (many) feasts dedicated to untold number of saints throughout the year. Every Sunday they participate in the celebration of Mass. Weddings and funerals, for the most part, are still held in the Catholic tradition. There are even workplaces which celebrate Mass on certain religious occasions (something which has always rubbed me the wrong way).

Anyone born and raised as a Catholic (even those who have lapsed) have learnt their prayers by heart so well that even after a long absence away from the Church, the recital of any prayer is recalled instantly and automatically, and you find yourself moving your lips almost against your will the minute you hear the familiar verses.

Those who are non-believers would call this indoctrination or even brainwashing, but for most devout Catholics, it is simply a way of life which seems as natural as breathing. Other organized religions, I would assume, are the same. And while I have great tolerance for all religions, and the right of anyone to worship who or whatever they want, the last thing we need is another religious faith to become part of the school curriculum (even if it is even if it is only intended for those of that faith). State schools should be secular.

This has all come about because the Muslim school in Paola is closing down and therefore Muslim students are being sent to state schools. According to the Malta Muslim Council Foundation, there are over 2000 Maltese and non-Maltese Muslim children attending primary and secondary school.

Those who are worried about the teaching of Sharia law have been assured by Minister Bartolo that what is being proposed is the teaching of the Islamic faith which “respects liberty and democracy according to an international framework….the Imam will not have any say in the way Islam will be taught at state schools”, he added.

Yet despite all these assurances, the idea still makes me very uncomfortable because it seems to me that the Muslim community is putting a lot of pressure on this Government to do things its way, rather than adjusting to the country they are living in. Muslims in Malta have their Mosque as a place of worship and within their own families they are quite capable of passing on religious instruction to their children. Apart from that, the Islamic faith can be taught in lessons held outside of school just like Catholics have tal-Mużew.

And what about other religions? If we say a Muslim child has the right to be taught Islam at a state school, then surely those who are Church of England, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist or any other religion should expect the same treatment?

If this was about the teaching of different faiths, for example a theology class which examines world religions in a holistic manner tracing the way they have evolved, how they are alike and how they are different, that would make sense to me and it would definitely go a long way to increase tolerance. But I’m afraid this idea, and this whole approach, has simply instilled more mistrust, fear and suspicion in those who are already prejudiced against Muslims. It is just stoking the fires of an already volatile simmering resentment.

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