In order to win the struggle for a comprehensive education, many Muslims think that the only solution is the creation of private “Islamic schools,” subsidized by the state almost totally, partially, or not at all, depending on the systems in force in the United States and the various countries of Europe. For people who are dissatisfied with the educational methods and curricula, and deeply mistrustful of the atmosphere in public schools, which they consider to be lacking in morality, the answer seems to be to consider a parallel system that would integrate the fundamentals of Islamic education and its moral standards with the compulsory traditional and secular subjects from the national curricula. Schools of this type have been in existence for more than twenty years in Britain, the United States, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands, as well as in smaller numbers in other countries. How can we assess these experiments, whose achievements in terms of methods and curricula have undergone considerable evolution in recent years?
It is the intention here not to oppose Islamic schools in principle but to note what has been attained by these institutions and what they lack. It goes without saying that offering children a body of teaching in which they have a sense of their Islamic identity through living their education in accordance with the rhythm of the daily prayers and the events of the Muslim calendar (e.g., the Ramadan fast, the feasts), while immersing them in a school program in which their religious education—learning the Qur’an, tradition, and Arabic—is integrated has an extremely positive effect. In an Islamic school, children understand the essentials of their Muslim identity and the priorities of their upbringing through their relationships with their teachers and fellow-pupils and also acquire the tools that will help them to succeed in the other disciplines. To judge from performance indicators, most Islamic schools produce excellent statistics and are often at the top of regional and national school tables.
However, this is not the complete picture. The first comment to be made is that, taking the Muslim communities living in the West as a whole, these schools take in only a very small percentage of children, and so in this sense they can hardly be regarded as “the solution” for Islamic education in the West. Other approaches have to be found for the other children. It must also be pointed out that in most cases (those in which the schools are not heavily subsidized by the state,—that is, up to 75 percent, depending on the country), only the children of affluent parents are able to enroll because fees are high, often above the very limited scholarships. And beyond these measurable realities, we should study the motivations that have often been behind the creation of these schools. In most cases, the purpose has been to protect the children from the bad influence of society, to distance them from an unhealthy environment, and make them live “among Muslims.” These motivations often make themselves felt in the way in which these schools are run, with their programs and educational activities all run internally. The result is that “artificially Islamic” closed spaces are created in the West that are almost completely cut off from the surrounding society. We comfort ourselves by asserting that the programs are in line with national requirements, but what is no less a reality is that these young people live in a society surrounded by adolescents who do not share their faith and whom they never meet. The school puts forward a way of life, a space, and a parallel reality that has practically no link with the society around it. Some Islamic schools are in the West but, apart from the compulsory disciplines, live in another dimension: while being not completely “here,” neither are they completely from “there,” and one would like the child to know who he is . . .
Moreover, teaching staff are often not well educated, and many teachers have no pedagogical background; practice in some disciplines leaves much to be desired. The Arabic language, for example, is taught by women and men who know the language but are not always adequately trained.
With regard to Islamic teaching properly so called, there are some questions worth asking. By adding “Islamic” disciplines (e.g., learning the Qur’an and the traditions) and teaching them in the classical manner (that is to say, usually as it is done “there”), do we really give the pupils the tools they need to live here, pious, self-fulfilled, and aware of their responsibilities? After more than twenty years of experiment, it is well worth asking the question. A scattering of Islamic teachings, verses learned by heart, and values idealistically passed on do not necessarily forge a personality whose faith is deep, whose consciousness is alert, and whose mind is active and critical. It is no argument to quote school performance indicators in self-satisfaction: the “success” of an Islamic school cannot be measured by success on examinations. If that were the measure, there would be no place for putting so much effort into these projects: it would be enough to look to the “good” public schools. The legitimacy of an Islamic school should be evaluated by its ability to respond to the comprehensive objectives we have spoken of in the previous section and to provide syllabuses coherent with them. In most cases, we are still far from having achieved even a small part of these aims, and some schools continue to serve up an education that pushes children toward the development of two contradictory personalities—one within a school that tries to provide a happy environment and where Islamic teaching and behavior have been inculcated, and the other outside school, where they end up getting lost without knowing how to use ethical references to establish their own ethical guideposts because they have not really been prepared to face life in society and to interact with others in it. Having been given a solid education in an artificial environment, the students are deeply fragile in real life: how many young people live torn between the two, how many feel “bad” or “guilty” because, having received so much knowledge at school, they feel unworthy because of not knowing how to live an integrated everyday life? Whose fault is it? They have often been instructed in the ideal, but they feel so ill educated and ill equipped in the real world.
Even if we have not yet found an “Islamic” alternative to the crisis of educational systems in the West, we must still refer to some interesting developments and initiatives: a few Islamic schools (a small minority), particularly in Britain, Sweden, and the United States, have been founded in a totally new spirit. They are open to qualified teachers of any origin and are thought of as inner-city schools, so it is not enough for them to pass on ossified Islamic teachings in a protected, artificial environment. They are in touch with the outside and, through a variety of activities, make it possible for their pupils to get a better grasp of their surroundings and to interact with children of the same age and with their fellow-citizens and to put their ethical teaching into practice through visible acts of solidarity grounded in the society in which they live. Their programs have gone through a considerable evolution and allow for more contextualized teaching in step with society and with a culture that is Western and not imported from the East. These developments are extremely interesting and permit us to think that Islamic schools will be able to provide part of the solution to the problem of Islamic education in the West, if they avoid the mistakes we have mentioned and rise to the criteria of openness, contextualization, and interaction with the surrounding society. It is a long road, because mind-sets still have to undergo a fairly complete evolution: we often feel inclined to discourage some projects to establish Islamic schools because they are so far from a spirit of openness and are not ready to reform and encourage development in the field of education where too many Muslims behave rigidly and self-consciously and hide behind copying old models (taqlid) to prove their faithfulness to principles. But, as we have seen, there is a great difference between historical models and universal principles, and today everything is proving that the formalistic imitation of models in an age other than one’s own is in fact the betrayal of principles. In the area of education, this has serious consequences. The investment of time and money involved in establishing an Islamic school is huge, and often it touches only a few hundred children at most. Can these astronomical sums not be used to touch more children? Should we not be more creative in suggesting new initiatives? As I have said before, this is not to oppose the idea of Islamic schools in principle, but it would be better to avoid involvement in such projects if the conditions we have mentioned are not sure to be respected. And, in any case, the question remains: what is to be done for the other children?