Three separate cases in different parts of the world illustrate the moral complexities that arise with differing attitudes to the separation of religion and state in public-school systems. Different ideas as to what constitutes acceptable expressions of religion in the public sphere can lead to increased community tensions. Accusations fly. Those who wish to introduce religious elements into schools are frequently accused of imposing their religion onto others, while those who oppose religion in school are accused of religious discrimination.
These problems look set to multiply as Western societies become increasingly heterodox and diverse. The principles of toleration developed during the Enlightenment, perhaps most clearly set out by the English Philosopher John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), primarily dealt with the complexities of different denominations of Christianity tolerating each other. Only later were other faiths considered, beginning with Jews.
Growing Muslim populations in Western countries mean that issues of where and how to demarcate religion and state will become more pressing until they are resolved. If they are not resolved, either Muslim communities will become alienated and disenfranchised due to the discrimination they perceive, or Islamist extremists will abuse Western notions of religious freedom to impose their hardline agenda on others.
Neither scenario is a welcome one.
Clarion investigates where the line should be drawn in the following three recent cases in Europe. Let us know where you stand:
Syrian Christian in Ireland Forced to Learn Quran for Exam
A Syrian Christian father in Ireland is objecting to his daughter having to learn the Koran and answer questions on it for a high school matriculation exam.
All students who take the Arabic language exam must answer question about the Quran, Arabic verse and modern prose. Students are able to choose from a variety of examples of prose and verse, however, eight separate sections of the Quran are mandatory in the exam which tests the proficiency of a student’s command of the language.
“I am very distressed that having arrived in Ireland and having been granted refugee status on the basis of the threat to us as Christians we should now be discriminated against in this way,” said the girl’s father, Marwan, who asked that his surname not be used.
Irish authorities who design the tests stated that the Koran was chosen on the basis of its linguistic and literary value and not due to its religious significance. However, since the complaint was lodged, the exam will be reviewed by educational authorities.
Case for Exclusion of Quran in Exam
There is no need to include the Quran in the millions of texts available to learn the Arabic language, and indeed, this can be looked upon as a form of religious coercion. Certainly those who are interested in learning world history and culture could not understand these topics without understanding world religions. However, this exam covers a student’s proficiency in the Arabic language and is not an exam on history or religion.
Moreover, teaching religious texts with no context or learning them from questionably-qualified teachers are both educational conditions fraught with danger — especially on a high-school level when a student’s critical reasoning abilities are not fully developed.
To force minors to learn the Quran to ascertain their proficiency in Arabic, while offering no option to opt out, is a form of religious coercion and explicitly against the law in Ireland.
Case for Inclusion of Quran in Exam
It is impossible to divorce language from its cultural context. Though teaching the Arabic without reading the Quran would be possible linguistically, to do so would limit students understanding, since the Quran is easily the most important book ever written in Arabic.
In the context of a language course, the study of the Quran is not a study of the Islamic religion, but rather the study of a historical and cultural work in its original language. Mandating its inclusion in an Arabic-language course is as commendable from an academic standpoint, just as the inclusion of Shakespeare in an English language course would be. It is no more coercing children to become Muslims than reading the Iliad coerces children to believe in the Greek god Apollo.
UK Teachers Directed to Tell Students Not to Fast During Ramadan
UK teachers are being issued guidelines instructing them to tell their Muslim students not to fast during Ramadan if they think keeping the holiday, which includes fasting during the daytime and staying up “all night praying,” will interfere with their exam results. UK teachers say that good exam results are a large factor in entrance to a good university which can further contribute to landing a good job.
“Young people should be made aware that Islam does not require them to put their futures in jeopardy,” the guidelines read. “Students who have important exams should be advised not to spend all night praying to avoid tiredness. “Children and their parents or carers should be informed that extra devotions in Ramadan are voluntary; whereas for a child or young person to perform well in exams, given their consequences, is obligatory.”
Case Against the Guidelines
The fast of Ramadan is an important part of Muslim religious practice. It is widely accepted that parents have the right to give their children religious instruction in the religion of their choice and this right should be afforded to Muslims the same as any other group. Pupils taking exams at 16 and 18 are young adults with religious rights of their own and for a school to ask a student to give up fasting in order to improve grades is presumptuous at best.
Pupils who are fasting will already be keenly aware of the importance of their exams as well as the importance of their faith and have not made a decision lightly. Schools should support the rights of young adults to choose to fast and not try to influence their decision.
If a person becomes dehydrated to the point of medical risk then that is a different matter.
Case for the Guidelines
There is no issue of religious discrimination in this case because in Islam, fasting is not mandatory in a case where the person is not healthy (as in dehydration or other health issues where fasting would cause health problems). In addition, many Islamic scholars have also concurred that extra nighttime prayers are voluntary.
According to the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, the state is obligated to act in the best interests of the child. Issuing these guidelines, which do not violate the student’s religion, is perfectly reasonable.
Swiss Government Halts Naturalization of Syrian Family After Sons Refused to Shake Hands With Female Teacher
The Swiss government suspended the naturalization process for a family of Syrian refugees after their sons refused to shake hands with a female professor at their high school due to their religion.
The boys are aged 14 and 15.
They informed education officials that physical contact with women other than family members is forbidden according to their interpretation of Islam.
Their father is a Syrian refugee who was granted asylum in 2001. The local government in Therwil, Basel-Country, suspended the naturalization process of the family, but stressed that such suspensions are common in citizenship cases.
The president of the commission which oversees local citizenship applications told Swiss news outlet Le News, “I don't think we can talk of integration in relation to handshake objectors. Personally, I would reject their request.”
He did add “as president of the commission, I assure you that the request will be examined properly, like any other.”
Prior to the suspension, a compromise had been reached, in which the boys would refrain from shaking the hands of male teachers as well, to avoid gender discrimination. It is the custom in Switzerland for schoolchildren to shake the hands of their teachers.
The Case for Switzerland’s Position:
The demand that Muslims be exempt from the normative rules of the Swiss classroom is divisive and alienating. It creates a situation in which Muslim pupils are segregated according to their faith and afforded special treatment. In addition, many Muslims are perfectly comfortable shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. A secular school should follow be allowed to require its students to follow its rules while on the school’s premises or during school activities.
The Case Against Switzerland’s Position
Although culture and integration are important, there is no need to force students to violate their religious principles by making physical contact with the opposite gender. Differences of opinion within Islam (and other religions) about the theological permissibility of such contact should not be interpreted by the state as license to impose their understanding of gender relations onto pupils. Consent, as always, is key.
There is a longstanding tradition within Islamic jurisprudence that supports physical separation between unmarried men and women, as there is in other faiths (such as Judaism). As long as Muslim men are not using these traditions to discriminate against women, allowing them to follow their principles is a matter of religious freedom.
A handshake is a symbol of respect and cordiality. A short bow could easily serve the same purpose.
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at ClarionProject.org
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org