Muslim education: should teachers be storm troopers or facilitators of debate and intercultural understanding?

Farah Ahmed

Delegates to this year’s NUT conference raised concerns about the new requirement for teachers to ‘counter extremism’ and ‘actively promote British Values’. This policy was characterised as requiring teachers to act as ‘storm troopers’ – expected to spy on young people and report them to the authorities, or face emergency inspections from Ofsted if schools have failed to ‘safeguard’ pupils from extremist influences. The Independent reports one case where “A female pupil asked her teacher whether she should go on a demonstration to protest about the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Under the Prevent guidelines to combat extremism, her teacher feared he should have reported her to the police.”

Unsurprisingly, many teachers report that this is stifling debate in schools and that children and young people are afraid to express opinions. This is certainly true in my experience as a Muslim educator. Increasingly, I hear young people talking about not saying anything in school on current affairs in case they are labeled as ‘extremist’. One student was lucky enough to attend a session with Jon Snow at her sixth form in the week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks but came home saying that she really wanted to participate but had been ‘afraid of speaking’.

Young Muslims are all too aware that they can be referred to Channel, the police intervention program that has been set up to monitor ‘extremism’ and begin the process of ‘de-radicalisation’. They are afraid that saying something now will mean that they will be ‘watched’ for the rest of their lives. Parents are instructing their children not to discuss political issues in school and Muslim teachers are worried about being labeled as extremists themselves. Independent Muslim schools are being scrutinized over their curriculum and are being challenged for teaching ‘too much Islam’.

On 8 May the IOE is holding a conference entitled Education, Extremism and Criticality. One of the questions it will address is whether liberal education has failed to enable young minds to critically interrogate the siren calls of violent extremist voices.

I would also like to ask whether this failure also results from inadequate knowledge and understanding about Islam and Muslim civilisations in general and a lack of culturally relevant education for young Muslims in particular? Why is it that when 8% of the school age population is Muslim, and Islam is a constant topic of social discourse, some teachers still have limited knowledge of basic Islamic beliefs and practices? There is even less knowledge about the history of Islam and Muslim societies, particularly the history of Muslims in Europe which can help enable young people to explore their hybrid identities.

Could a more culturally relevant pedagogy that draws on a range of aspects of Islamic and Muslim cultures build young Muslims’ self-esteem and enable them to critically participate in dialogue and debate about how to address modern political issues?

With deeper knowledge of their heritage, young Muslims might even believe that – rather than feeling the need to constantly apologise for actions that they would never support – they have something important to offer. In my independent Muslim school, we use a traditional oral Islamic pedagogy known as Halaqah (a type of circle time) to facilitate dialogue, reflection and critical thinking. I am currently researching how this pedagogy relates to Vygotskian sociocultural theory and the dialogic pedagogy developed by Robin Alexander. Through Halaqah, we provide daily opportunities for children to explore their hybrid identities, as Muslims, as inheritors of a culture from their countries of origin and as British and European citizens.

Our curriculum celebrates children’s heritage as European Muslims by teaching about the interaction between Islam and European culture through topics such as the intellectual and artistic interaction between Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities under Muslim rule in Spain and finding parallels in the work of Victorian community activists like Dr. Barnardo and Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam. Children learn that European democratic values are in part drawn from Islamic principles of consultation, pluralism and a culture of dialogue that was fostered during Muslim rule in Spain and that Muslim and non-Muslim community activists can make a difference to British society. By ensuring that our focus is on dialogue, reflection and developing critical thinking, we aim to provide children with the knowledge and skills to navigate the fraught journey of growing up as a Muslim in Britain.

Our approach, along with other ways forward, will be presented at next week’s conference. If you are interested in attending please email

Farah Ahmed is Honorary Research Associate, Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME), UCL Institute of Education

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Posted in Education policy, Teaching

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UCL Institute of Education

This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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