RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
To Americans used to the separation of church and state, the school system in Britain is unusual. Not only is religion taught in British public schools, there are thousands of religious schools - mainly protestant and Catholic, but increasingly of other faiths as well - paid for with taxpayer money. Still, since the bombings in London three years ago, there have been questions about the integration of other faiths, especially Islam. NPR's Rob Gifford visited two different public schools in Leicester, England to find out how they work.
(Soundbite of playground chatter)
ROB GIFFORD: In some ways, Madani High feels just like any other school. Boys kick around a soccer ball during morning recess, where they talk about the things that teenage boys all across Britain talk about. But in other ways, the school, which is coeducational, is very different, indeed.
Dr. MOHAMED MUKADAM (Principal, Madani High): We're just going to go through these doors to the boys wing, and all the facilities here are for the boys. And on the other side, we have the girls with exactly the same facilities that you see in here. Conceptually, it's a co-ed school, but built in accordance with the Sharia so that male-only, female-only, but they receive the full national curriculum within an Islamic environment.
GIFFORD: The school's principal is Mohamed Mukadam.
Dr. MUKADAM: So we have kind of what is known as the hidden curriculum, the ethos, the value systems which we hope to develop in such a way that, you know, young people will feel I'm a Muslim, and I'm proud to be a Muslim. But at the same time, I'm learning all the things that other young people in Britain are learning, exactly the same way as the Catholic school, the Jewish school or the Anglican school.
GIFFORD: It's that hidden curriculum that worries some in Britain, who see a separate school for Muslim children to be exactly the sort of place that might allow some kind of extremism to flourish. It's an accusation that Dr. Mukadam has heard frequently, but that he completely rejects.
Dr. MUKADAM: All those people who have committed atrocities, not a single one who has been caught, let alone convicted, ever went to an Islamic school. Islamic schools are part of the solution, not part of the problem. They're helping to open up doors for young people who don't have those open doors. They're helping to integrate successful young people who have minimal chances of being integrated in our society.
GIFFORD: Mukadam says it's the drifters, the alienated youths in the Muslim community not taught the central peaceful tenants of what he calls true Islam who go on to cause the problems. Madani High School, like all schools, he says, has its own problems, but the message taught here is one of tolerance, peace and morality. Thirteen-year-old Uthman Hughes(ph) and 14-year-old Gulam Kulitz(ph) say they enjoy it and don't feel segregated at all.
Mr. GULAM KULITZ (Student, Madani High School, Leicester, England): We all support the same football team. We all play PlayStation. We're not different to them. We're still people, and we do the same things as them. We're just different color skin and have belief in a different God.
Mr. UTHMAN HUGHES (Student, Madani High School, Leicester, England): We're not isolated at all, as we are taught religious tolerance at this school. If we go outside, if you see me outside while I'm with many Christian people and many other faiths, and I don't believe that this school isolates us from other faiths. As I have many friends that are Muslims, at the same time, many friends that are Christians and Jews and everyone else.
GIFFORD: And, says Hughes, the school has helped him keep on the straight and narrow.
Mr. HUGHES: It's changed me a lot because with the faith, it tells us to respect your neighbors, and I do that. If you see me outside of school, I'm not really a bad person because of the faith. But if I was not put in this school, I would have let - you know, be, like, smoking around, doing all this, while here they teach you not to.
GIFFORD: There are plenty of people, both in and outside the Muslim community, who disagree with the whole concept of faith schools. So if you were a Muslim immigrant to Leicester and you wanted an ordinary public school education for your children, where would you go?
Mr. JEZ HOLDSWORTH (Assistant Principal, Moat Community College): Leila(ph)? Samia(ph)? Hamsa(ph)?
GIFFORD: Just a mile down the road from Madani High School, assistant principal Jez Holdsworth, a white non-Muslim, is taking the register in his class at Moat Community College, a public school open to anyone. If the legacy of religious education in Britain has led to accusations of segregation in Muslim schools, here it's pure demographics. Leicester is set within a few years to become the first non-white majority city in Britain. Jez Holdsworth says this suburb, known as Highfield, is an immigrant area, so 98 percent of his students are Muslim.
Mr. HOLDSWORTH: On the surface, we've got a melting pot of cultures. But when you sort of look a little bit deeper into it, there are very few opportunities for our children to integrate or to connect with the wider community beyond this area, Highfield, especially outside of the city of Leicester.
GIFFORD: Some of the kids in his class realize there's a problem. Fourteen-year-old Benazir Chowdry(ph) is from a Pakistani family who emigrated from Kenya seven years ago.
Ms. BENAZIR CHOWDRY: I think if we had more white kids in this school, then we wouldn't have the fear of, like, okay, that - you know, it's like we would fit in more because at the moment, it's white kids are different from us. That's how it feels because, like, they go to a different school. They have a different culture. We don't understand their culture and things.
GIFFORD: The Moat school's approach to religion is very different from Madani High. Religious education is taught simply as an academic subject, as it is in all British public schools. The issue of integration is addressed in a project called Community Cohesion, through which Moat is linked with a Catholic school in town.
Teachers like Jez Holdsworth put a lot of time and effort into such projects, but say there's not enough state funding to support it. And on top of these problems, some Muslim parents feel that the white non-Muslim community of Leicester is not always welcoming. They say they've tried to break out of the Muslim community to find a more integrated school.
Ms. GULBANU KADER (Assistant Principal, Moat Community College): Basically, you know, it doesn't exist. That's the bottom line.
GIFFORD: Gulbanu Kader is another of Moat Community College's assistant principals. A practicing Muslim, she wants her two young children to be in a mixed school. She moved them from the predominately Muslim public school to a predominately white school in a village outside Leicester, but she says the ghetto mentality works the other way round, as well.
Ms. KADER: I was invited to a birthday party along with my child, and the adults sat me down onto a separate table and then didn't talk to me for two hours. And then I tried to integrate myself and introduce myself and said, you know, whose mother I was and tried to make conversation, but repeatedly, the conversation went back to their little clique, and I was pushed to one side. Soon after that, I left the school because I'd been trying for over a year.
GIFFORD: Kader hasn't given up hope, and she says there are some successes in community cohesion. Now her children go to a school where there are some Sikhs and Hindus, but still few white people. She, too, says the government simply needs to do more.
Despite some of the pessimism, though, Jez Holdsworth says he thinks, eventually, history is on the side of integration.
Mr. HOLDSWORTH: I mean, if you look at the history of this country, it's a history of immigration, isn't it? You know, you're talking about black people in the 1600s arriving in this country and, you know, the Jews and, you know, the Irish and, you know, all the great movements of immigration into this country, it's all taken generations for it to sort of settle into a pattern that becomes part of the host culture, I suppose. So, yeah, I'm an optimist. I think it'll all work out well in the end.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GIFFORD: But even he says, ruefully, we may not see that in his lifetime. Rob Gifford, NPR News, Leicester.
MONTAGNE: Rob Gifford will be sending more reports from Leicester as it heads, as he just said, toward becoming the first city in Britain with a population where whites are in the minority.
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