Much of the British public’s awareness of madrassas – out-of-hours schools which teach Muslim children about Islam – has been shaped by the media, with high profile programmes such
as BBC Panorama and Channel 4 Dispatches focusing on instances of  violence against children and allegations that extremist views are inculcated in these institutions. Moreover, IPPR analysis of media coverage since 9/11 has shown that national outlets have generally been negative and sometimes hostile. For this reason it is of ever-greater importance that the Muslim community overcomes its hands-off approach, and faces these criticisms by acknowledging it is time for reform of Islamic supplementary schooling. We have witnessed some outrageous incidents that have happened in a small number of madrassas – and these need to stop. But more fundamental changes are needed across madrassas in general.

Madrassas can be doing much more to show young Muslims how being a good Muslim and integrating into mainstream British life are not incompatible. I strongly believe that madrassas can be a force for good in UK society and I have personally benefitted from attending a madrassa. I believe that madrassas in the UK would greatly benefit from a partnership system which includes both the mainstream school and the involvement of parents. This strategy will help reduce some of the limitations that madrassas have.

First, there is a lack of flexibility in adapting to current times; second, there is a lack of engagement with wider society; and third, there is a lack of transparency about how madrassas operate. To tackle these problems we need first to recruit and train more teachers who are British-born, educated to a high level and with a greater insight into the mainstream culture and the challenges facing British youth today. Such people would be in a much better position to implement a structured curriculum that is faithful to Islamic teachings but takes account of day-to-day issues in the UK.  In particular, we must be educating and training far more women to be teachers of Islamic scholarship.

Gender equality in madrassas is no straightforward matter. It is the belief of Muslims that segregation between the sexes should be embedded within Islamic schools and in other situations in life. However, curtailing the entry of Muslim female teachers based on this precept is, in my opinion, illegitimate. There is a long tradition of Muslim female scholarship which stretches back to the beginning of Islamic civilization – the best example being that of the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, who herself taught the Muslim intellectuals of her time. The gender equality I subscribe to then is very much aligned with the framework as laid down in the Quran and is also supported by the works of Asma Barlas, Jamal Badawi and Anouar Majid, among others.

Contrary to the views of Cassandra Balchin, it is my view that gender equality in Islam is not to be achieved so much by radically reinterpreting texts to meet people’s ends but to understand how we define the term ‘equality’ of both sexes in Islam. The western definition of ‘equality’ is not the only legitimate one. There are certain functions that men and women perform that are different, but can overlap. This should not be manipulated to fit a patriarchal order but rather we need to understand that this is God’s decree: we don’t submit to man, but to God.

A further issue for madrassas is that they are marginalised from mainstream society, and often almost invisible to the public eye. This can fuel accusations that madrassas are secretive and shadowy, creating an unwarranted fear of what ‘goes on’ in them.  As part of its ‘Madrassas in the UK’ project, IPPR filmed at a madrassa in London earlier in the year and anybody who watches the film will see that the best of these schools are generally happy, positive places, where children can learn and have fun. There is nothing to hide and certainly nothing to worry about in these well-run institutions. Madrassas need to have the courage to be more open, raising awareness of the positive contributions they make to society. For this to occur, madrassas must begin to shift towards a partnership and networking model to gain the confidence of the wider community. This way madrassas can also secure more funding from community sources.

Madrassas are distinctive institutions. Many of them follow different creeds and subscribe to various interpretations of the Quran. Islam and Muslims respect this diversity, so long as it does not lead to abuses. Rather than seeing diversity within the community as an obstacle, Muslims should begin to embrace this difference by uniting behind the cause of bettering the standard of Islamic education. For difference of opinion has been part of Islam’s historical tradition, dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions. I believe this strategy of unity will minimise the neo-orientalist gaze that is cast upon the community by the media, which also locates them in the backwards ‘other’ category.

Some madrassas are still being reported in the media for failing to carry out Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. CRB checks are important not only for the safety of the child but also that of the teacher and institution. Madrassas need to begin to see the importance of conducting these checks. One way of supporting madrassas to do this is to network with schools that can lend support in this area as well as train madrassa teachers on child protection policies. This way madrassas would be ensuring a more open approach to their educational service and create a safety net, protecting both child and teacher.

To sum up, madrassa education is and can be a valuable asset to British society. At the same time, the Muslim community needs to act fast and respond to the challenges thrown down by media investigations. Issues such as madrassa inflexibility, disengagement and lack of transparency can be turned around.. Most Muslims I believe would agree that the suggestions made here of encouraging better quality teaching, including more female teachers, implementing a partnership system and carrying out security checks are a step in the right direction. This approach will help to tackle the reductive representations of madrassas, and produce a generation of forward-thinking young British Muslims.

This article originally appeared here

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