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‘Creating a British Muslim culture’ for kids

At a London school founded by Yusuf Islam, former music star Cat Stevens, pupils are taught a "British Muslim culture."'s Jennifer Carlile reports from the British capital.

“I know we’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me, where do the children play?”  — Cat Stevens.

As jump ropes swirl and soccer balls fly across its playground, Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, need not look any further than the Islamia Primary School, which he co-founded more than 20 years ago.

Islamia — a Muslim school now fundedby the British government — has an excellent scholastic reputation. However, since the terrorist attacks in the United States, Madrid and in London over the past five years, questions have arisen here and across Europe about the value of funding Islam-based schools with taxpayer money. Meanwhile, the students in such schools have been forced to grapple with their Muslim identity and confront incidents of discrimination.

At Islamia, about 10 percent of the student body was intended for non-Muslims, but “at present it’s only theory because the current image of Islam is not a positive one,” said co-founder and principal, Abdullah Trevathan.

Opened in 1981, Islamia Primary School was the first full-curriculum Muslim school in the United Kingdom, and has received state funding since 1998.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed funding of faith-based schools, a long-standing practice in the United Kingdom. Most of the country’s 7,000 government-maintained religious schools are Christian, mainly Catholic and Church of England; just six are Muslim, but two more Muslim schools have just been approved for funding, and around 40 of the country’s 120 Islamic schools are in the process of applying.

Islamia, which has 210 pupils, has been praised for its students' high exam scores and gained publicity from the presence of its hippie-turned-devout-Muslim co-founder.

With 3,500 children on the waiting list and high-profile visitors including Prince Charles and Muhammad Ali, it sets the standards for budding non-Christian state-funded schools.

"There's a very big waiting list because it's got a good reputation around here," said Abdurraheem Rushton, an 11-year-old pupil. "I'm very happy I got into such a good school," he said.

Making the grade?
Despite making the grade educationally, scrutiny over Islam's role in Europe has called into question the funding of such institutions.

“Traditional Islamic education does not entirely fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain,” said David Bell, the ex-chief inspector of schools, at a conference last year.

Some politicians claim that government sponsorship of religious schools is helping to create a “ghetto-ized education system,” and an ICM/Guardian poll taken last year found that two-thirds of Britons opposed state funding of all faith-based schools.

In particular, since the terrorist bombings in London last summer, many here have questioned how to promote integration of minorities and the development of a sense of British citizenship. While isolating Muslim children within a school may appear to counter such efforts, Trevathan said children are more likely to be more self-confident and well adjusted if their home and school values match.

Conversely, if the balance is not present, he said, “there can be an identity crisis that can lead to some choosing a fundamentalist agenda which offers black-and-white views of the world.”

The issue has divided Europe, from the Netherlands, which funds about 40 Muslim schools, to France, which is strictly secular and has banned hijabs (head scarves) and overt religious symbols from all state schools.

‘Jumping Abdullah’ and a typical day
Mostly oblivious to the debate, for the moment, are the four to 11-year-olds, who study, play and pray here daily.

This week, kids in the assembly hall practiced a “Circus Show” play, featuring “Acrobat Girl,” “Jumping Abdullah” “and the “Double Trouble” twins.

Elsewhere, pupils baked cakes, read English books and honed their computer skills in well-equipped classrooms decorated with numbers, letters, drawings, science projects and collages.

Kids chatted with visitors and were quick to offer hugs. And Trevathan, a father of 10, appeared to know every student by name. At recess, teams of children ran around kicking balls, jumping rope, laughing and playing, like at any other school.

But at Islamia, half the hopscotch quadrants are written in Arabic, the assembly hall also doubles as a mosque — where boys pray on a separate side of the room from the girls — food is halal, and girls over 8 wear headscarves as part of their uniforms.

In the kindergarten classroom, four- and five-year-olds could be seen coloring the Arabic letter “Ha,” along with the “Hod Hod” bird, an exercise to help them remember the sound.

As well as the national curriculum mandated by all government-funded schools, "we study Arabic, the Koran — writing and learning it — and Islamic studies," said Rushton, the well-spoken 11-year-old, who, like the majority of pupils at his school, comes from a multi-ethnic family.

"My dad's from England and my mum's family's from India," he said.

‘Creating a British Muslim culture’
Created by Yusuf Islam and Trevathan — a New Yorker who converted to Islam some years after following the hippie trail through Afghanistan, India and Africa — the school was established to offer students an alternative way of learning, together with a foundation in Islam.

Based in the Sunni tradition, the school also has Shiite teachers and students.

But Trevethan said that while attention is paid to different cultures — students at the school represent 23 different nationalities — "we're in the business of creating a British Muslim culture, not preserving another culture.”

"We have a spiritually based ethos," he said, adding that students are asked to be "critical friends" who question everything from the values of consumer society to what they learn about Islam.

While teachers at the school discuss evolution and creationism points of view in classes, Trevathan said that, as with other subjects, students are urged to weigh both arguments for themselves and come up with their own conclusions, "bearing in mind that there are some Muslim theologians who go along with the evolution theory but say that it was part of the divine plan."

Unlike fundamentalist Muslims or Christians who he says seek hard truths, Trevathan said the beauty of spirituality is its “mysticism” and that not everything has to have an absolute answer.

Worldwide politics seep in
The students, for their part, talked about feeling cared for and protected by their teachers and classmates.

Asked what makes his school unique, Rushton said: "At Islamia they help Muslims, because there's loads of Muslims around here (in London) who aren't praying and are doing what they're not supposed to do. This school is encouraging you to do what you're supposed to do, so that's what makes it different."

But, while the school has worked hard to create a “safe haven” for its children, worldwide politics have had a way of seeping in.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, “the children felt guilty,” Trevathan said.

“They were asking themselves, did my community do this? Are they part of this? Are my parents part of this? And, am I part of this? There was serious trauma. We spoke to those feelings — we spoke to the unconscious in them and saying it’s not your fault,” he said.

With the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment, some students and teachers have had to deal with discrimination.

“Some kids (from his neighborhood) said I couldn’t play because I was Muslim,” Rushton said.

Guilt and prejudice
While teachers and students were better prepared to deal with issues of guilt and prejudice by the time the Madrid and London bombings occurred, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other Mideast turmoil, have also had a serious impact on students with relatives in those countries.

Trevathan insists that students are taught not to take a victim's stance and blame the world for Muslims' problems, but are instead asked to engage others so they can give and gain respect and learn with the wider society.

“Sometimes we have to counter the teachings that the children might be getting at home — not often but sometimes,” he said.

And, Trevathan said, services at an interfaith chapel, open-house events and meetings with Christian and Jewish children, present the students with the opportunity to meet non-Muslim peers.

Speaking of his upcoming transition to a secular state school next year, Rushton said: “I wouldn’t actually mind mixing with other people who are not Muslim because I can learn from them, but still it’s quite comfortable to be with your type of people cause you do the same kind of things.”