British mosques teach civics to combat extremism

Posted in Broader Middle East | 20-Aug-07 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Regents Park Mosque in London

BRADFORD, England: At the Jamia Mosque on Victor Street in this racially and religiously tense town, Idris Watts, a teacher and convert to Islam, tackled a seemingly mundane subject with a dozen teenage boys: why it is better to have a job than to be unemployed.

"The Prophet said you should learn a trade," Watts told the students arrayed in a semicircle before him. "What do you think he means by that?"

"If you get a trade it's good because then you can pass it on," said Safraan Mahmood, 15.

"You feel better when you're standing on your own feet," offered Ossama Hussain, 14.

The back-and-forth represented something new in Britain's mosques: an effort to teach basic citizenship issues in a special curriculum designed to reach students who might be vulnerable to Islamic extremism.

Over the long haul, the British government hopes that such civics classes, which use the Koran to answer questions about daily life, will replace the often tedious, and sometimes hard-core, religious lessons taught in many mosques across the land. Often, these lessons emphasize rote learning of the Koran and are taught by Pakistani-born imams who speak little English and have little contact with larger British society.

Written by a Bradford teacher, Sajid Hussain, 34, who holds a degree from Oxford University, the new curriculum is being taught in some religious classes in a city that is increasingly segregated between South Asians and whites.

The effort has the backing of the Labour government as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign to better integrate the country's mainstream Muslims into British culture. Approximately two million Muslims, mostly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, live in Britain.

Since four British Muslim suicide bombers attacked the London transit system in July 2005 and two other major terrorist plots supposedly planned by British Muslims were alleged last year, officials have been struggling with how to isolate extremists.

The new prime minister, Gordon Brown, said at his first news conference last month that he wanted to demonstrate the "importance we attach to nonviolence, the importance we attach to the dignity of each individual," and in the process make unpalatable the "extreme message of those who practice violence and would maim and murder citizens on British soil."

"The question for us," he said, "is how we can separate those extremists from the moderate mainstream majority."

One of the virtues of the curriculum in Bradford in applying Brown's vision, according to his aides, is that it is taught by forward-leaning imams and is based on matching messages from the Koran to everyday life in Britain. The Labour government has been particularly concerned because, in part through its involvement in the Iraq war, it lacks credibility with large swaths of British Muslims.

An estimated 100,000 school-age Muslim children attend religious classes held at mosques in Britain daily, generally after regular school hours, said Jane Houghton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Communities and Local Government. "The impact this teaching could have is quite considerable," she said.

But as much as the government likes the curriculum, it has faced opposition from some Muslims. Nuzhat Ali, the women's coordinator of the Islamic Society of Britain in Bradford, asked why Muslim children should be singled out for civics lessons.

"One of our primary concerns is: Why the Muslim community again?" Ali said.

"Extremism is a problem in all communities, especially among the British National Party," she added, referring to a rightist party that has articulated white-supremacist views. "The issue of terror and extremism needs to be addressed across the board rather than saying, 'Here, Muslims, go into your corner and have your curriculum.' "

Some of the specifics of the curriculum met with disapproval, too.

In lesson plans provided to imams by Hussain, the teachers were asked to pose questions to their students based on recent events in Britain.

In one example, the students were to be asked what they would do if a friend bought a large quantity of fertilizer and announced he planned to build a bomb with it. The question was based on the evidence in a recent trial in London in which five Muslim men were found guilty of buying fertilizer, storing it and planning to use it for a terrorist attack.

Another question involved a character, "Ahmad," whose friends were hatching a plot to attack a supermarket in retaliation for the war in Iraq. "Is it right for Ahmad to harm innocent Britons just because their government invaded a Muslim country?" was the proposed question in one of Hussain's lesson plans.

After a heated meeting with the critics in Bradford, Hussain, who said he had submitted the curriculum to a vetting panel of half a dozen Muslim scholars, agreed to remove the examples from the curriculum. "They were perhaps a little too frontal," he said.

But the important point, Hussain said, was to show Muslim students that their religion provided some answers to issues they confronted every day.