Islamic Schools Test Ideal of Integration in Britain

October 20, 2006

Source: The New York Times

The sports hall doubles as a prayer room and dining hall for male teenagers, at other times for young women, but never the two together. In the kindergarten, female teachers, warned of an impending visit by a man, draw full facial veils before receiving their guest. When the guest arrives, the children offer a chorus in Arabic: “As salaam aleikum” -- peace be upon you.

“Here we can keep ourselves on the path of religion,” said Nasir Nathalia, a 15-year-old student at the Leicester Islamic Academy. His friend Mohammed Seedat agrees. “There is less chance here of going off the track,” he said.

This is the piety that Britain’s expanding Islamic schools seek to project, casting themselves as typical of the thousands of faith schools, mainly Christian, that make up roughly one-third of all publicly financed British schools.

But the visible differences -- the way female teenagers wear the full-length dress and head-covering and the boys wear black robes and skullcaps -- play into a ferocious debate about the sense of separateness or readiness to integrate Britain’s estimated 1.8 million Muslims, about 3 percent of the population.

And the discussion touches on a much wider theme of ethnic segregation across the British state-financed educational system. “Segregation is now so extreme in some schools that there is not much further it can go,” Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, told a parliamentary panel. “It doesn’t help to prepare children in these schools for the real world.”