British Muslims for Secular Democracy

By Tehmina Kazi, originally published in the 2016 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

Tehmina Kazi is the former director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), an organisation which aims to raise awareness of the benefits of democracy and its contribution to a shared vision of citizenship. She writes about some of the issues currently affecting Muslim pupils in the UK

Tehmina Kazi, former Director of BMSD

Tehmina Kazi, former Director of BMSD

Tensions surrounding Muslim pupils and their access to music lessons first came to the fore in 2010, after a BBC London News investigation found that a number of schools were allowing parents to withdraw their children from these lessons.  The issue has hit the headlines again in the last two years.  In June 2016, Ofsted criticised an Islamic independent school, after inspectors found leaflets which claimed music and dancing were “acts of the devil.”  This was on a par with school standards more generally: inspectors had made an unannounced visit to the Darul Uloom Islamic High School in Birmingham, after having previously rated the school as “inadequate”.”

In 2014, an OFSTED report on the East London Islamic School found that: “A pupil in Year 1 explained to inspectors that he would ‘go to Hell’ if he participated in music or dance.” This is despite the fact that the subject is a compulsory part of the national curriculum, and parents are only legally permitted to withdraw children from sex and religious education. It is important to assess in our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural educational institutions, what unfairly makes music an exception to this rule.

This concern, as presented by various national newspapers, was originally sparked by a primary Muslim-populated south London school. Eileen Ross, head of Herbert Morrison Primary School in Lambeth, where almost a third of children come from mainly Somali Muslim families, said: “There’s been about 18 or 22 children withdrawn from certain sessions, out of music class, but at the moment I just have one child who is withdrawn continually from the music curriculum,” she said. “It’s not part of their belief, they feel it detracts from their faith.” Although Herbert Morrison Primary School is an exception to the general rule, one doesn’t need to look far to find qualms about settling religion in the classroom.

The Muslim Council of Britain in turn stated that 10% of Muslims, an obvious minority, would subscribe to the view that music is haraam (forbidden). While there is a plethora of scholarly opinions on this issue, it is extremely telling that Dr Diana Harris, author of the book Music Education and Muslims, told the BBC: “Most of them really didn’t know why they were withdrawing their children. The majority of them were doing it because they had just learned that it wasn’t acceptable and one of the sources giving out that feeling was the Imams, particularly Imams who had come over from Pakistan, didn’t really speak English, and felt threatened. I think they were adhering to very strict lines about what was acceptable.” These parents most probably thought they were doing ‘the right thing’ by removing their children from music lessons, not realising the wider implications for the education of minority communities in Britain.

British Muslims for Secular Democracy are about to release an updated version of our February 2010 guidance booklet for teachers, to help them address cultural and religious issues affecting Muslim pupils. We assert that creativity is considered to be a divine blessing in Islam.  While conservative Muslim scholars prohibit the use of instruments with the exception of basic percussion, it is important to remember that there is no specific Qu’ranic proscription of music. There are many scholars who state that as long as the songs in question do not promote obscenity or immorality, music is not outlawed in Islam.

Of course, it is not just educators who need to equip themselves with the skills to teach in a multi-faith environment: Muslim students and their parents also have a responsibility to learn how to adapt to them. And with British schools and teachers under increasing scrutiny, teachers may often be inclined to acquiesce to every cultural or religious demand from pupils’ families. However, this is not a satisfactory solution, particularly when certain parents do not really know why they are making the demand in question.

It is crucial that our children are raised as well-informed individuals with open minds, and it is equally important that they make the effort to adapt to their society and their school environment. The true meaning of multi-culturalism is people living side by side under one shared identity, whilst proudly holding on to their own so that nobody feels resentment or a lack of belonging.  With this vision we can fight back against fringe groups that insist that Muslims and Islam are “incompatible” with Western democracy, and it starts with the education of children. By encouraging all students – including Muslim students – to view each other as equals, we can take steps to correct the disengagement that has been felt by many British Muslims for far too long.

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