Over on Stephen Law’s blog, the debate with Ibrahim Lawson, the headmaster of an Islamic school, continues. I have previously referred to this three-month-long marathon in my 17 February post Islam in the West. It all started with a critical post by Stephen on 27 November [“Is religion dangerous?”], following Ibrahim’s assertion in a BBC broadcast that, in his view, it is OK to teach his pupils that the truth of Islam is a ‘given’ and must not be questioned. The discussion has since ranged far and wide over philosophical, religious, and mystical territory, and we are indebted to Ibrahim for his patience and stamina in returning time and again to rebut others’ criticisms and state his own position.
In his latest contribution he explains the rationale behind his decision to become a Muslim, and defends of his teaching methods. As regards his conversion to Islam, it turns out that there is no rationale – as Ibrahim says, “there is no why. ..my decision was rather an ‘acte gratuite’; but not in the negative sense of an irresponsible action.” It was “a pure act of will, undetermined by any external conditions”, and not based on any kind of evidence or argument. He quotes a Muslim scholar as saying “the man of Allah does not say ‘how?’ or ‘why?; he says ‘yes’.
As I pointed out to Ibrahim, there is a world of difference between a mature, highly educated man such as himself making this act of will, and instructing his young immature pupils with all the authority of an adult teacher that they must accept Islam as “the truth”. I asked him if he felt comfortable telling them this?
He made a long response, saying inter alia that “there is of course a huge difference between someone who chooses to be a Muslim following a long period of search and someone who is born to Muslim parents. We can’t do anything about that.” To which I retorted: “Oh, yes we can! We can ensure that they grow up with the awareness that although their parents are Muslim, there is nothing inevitable about them being Muslim, and they have a choice. It should be the business of educators – as distinct from indoctrinators – to provide them with the breadth of knowledge necessary for making an informed choice when they reach maturity.”
Ibrahim then said: “I grew up in a more or less permanent state of alienation from the society around me, as did many of my 60’s generation; born Muslims today will have their own version of this alienation. I was then, and remain, utterly convinced that ‘western’ society has serious problems, which are not solvable by tinkering but only by re-writing the whole paradigm” – presumably in the image of Islam.
Ibrahim continued: “So having decided that Islam is the answer, what are the implications for a school teacher?..…My view of the education of children is that it must, first and foremost, contribute to their individual ‘quest for the fullness of selfhood’ and that this is a subversive activity….In order to achieve this we must have questions that are worth asking, questions that demand a response.
“Teaching in the state system for 10 years, I observed that western liberal secular culture fails to provide children with such questions; the overwhelming sense is one of ennui. Muslim children, on the other hand, have in front of them all the time the enormous question: what does it mean to me to be a Muslim? This is why, for example, visitors to Muslim schools are frequently impressed by the degree of engagement demonstrated by many pupils in fundamental questions of self and society.
“So voila, my justification for ‘imposing’ my beliefs on my pupils: it is really more a challenge to them to face up to their own situation as ‘born’ Muslims as authentically as possible. Faith as a heuristic, if you like….
“I don’t know what you imagine goes on in our schools under the name of ‘indoctrination’. It could be made to sound very oppressive and tyrannical; we imagine Vietnamese communists brainwashing American POWs or scenes from Orwell’s 1984 [How many fingers am I holding up?] It’s rather that the specific question ‘Is Islam true?’ just doesn’t come up. It is taken for granted as the position from which we start….
“I can see that, yes, children are defenceless, they do not and cannot question what adults tell them at first; this only starts around adolescence. At this point we begin to introduce the skills of critical questioning about religion [quite different from critical questioning in other areas of the curriculum] and this continues into adulthood…..
“My point is that adults have to tell children something” [my italics], “and for Muslims that has to be Islam. I am comfortable with that, especially having seen the alternatives.”
Having considered this, I asked Ibrahim what the actual difference is between what he had just described and brainwashing? I await his answer with interest.
And a further pertinent question I intend to put to him: Does such an education properly equip those subjected to it to play a constructive role in our wider, largely non-Islamic, British society?