A Normative Approach to the Legitimacy of Muslim Schools in Multicultural Britain

By Peter Matthew Hills

Published by Taylor and Francis

Faith schools make up about one-third of the state-funded sector in England. Ninety-eight per cent of those schools are of Christian character; 0.05 per cent are Muslim. But it seems the issue of Muslim schools takes on a particular complexion in the present sociopolitical context. One important feature is sometimes called the “return of religion”, the idea that in a post 9/11 world, religions – and religious schools – are not going away.

So if religious schools are here to stay, can multiculturalism offer a meaningful way to mediate the varied world views that they reflect? The argument in Hills’s research boils down to a simple point: reports of failures of multiculturalism in recent years have been much exaggerated. Far from a failed project, Hills argues, multiculturalism has yet to be realised. It is the commitment to diversity that, for Hills, defines the core of multiculturalism.

Recent articles have revealed some interesting data about the relations between religious schools and British values, and evidence showing the growth of Muslim schools. Hills’s research takes a philosophical approach by examining the normative dimensions of the debate (that is, the “oughts” rather than “is”). Educational research struggles with the relationship between normative claims and empirical realities, a distinction that can sometimes make academic debates seem irrelevant. This appeal to the normative claims of multiculturalism offers an important contribution, however, not least because we urgently need to develop religious and cultural literacy.

“Reports of failures of multiculturalism have been much exaggerated”

Drawing on the political theory of Will Kymlicka, a Canadian philosopher, the research makes much of the distinction between the external protections of groups by the state (which are legitimate), and internal restrictions of individuals within a group (which are illegitimate because they restrict autonomy).

Examples of the legitimacy of external protections include the fact that the Muslim character of a school “attends to the well-being” of its students in ways that legitimise their Muslim identity. The same argument can hold for Christian schools, or schools of other faiths, or indeed of none. Attitudes to homosexuality offer an example of the illegitimacy of internal restriction. Muslim schools should not be allowed to restrict the autonomy of their students by requiring them to subscribe to Islamic doctrines against homosexuality. Again, as the author acknowledges, the same argument should hold for other faith traditions: internal restriction is, in principle, wrong.

However, this neat division of legitimacy is too blunt to unpick this sensitive issue. Who is to determine the criteria for distinguishing any activity as requiring external protections from an activity that places internal restrictions on people? For example, if a school requires its pupils to conform to a vegetarian diet as part of its traditions and ethos – as is the case at some Sikh free schools – is that an internal restriction of individual autonomy and therefore illegitimate, or a legitimate protection from the wider social imposition that takes eating meat to be normal if not precisely normative? Does it not hinge on where we define autonomy and what we regard as “well-being”?

Efforts to defend a set of practices that schools expect of students (like patterns of daily “worship”, or dietary practices) do not clearly fall on either side of this external/internal line. It is not obvious why the external equates to a kind of public sphere that requires protection since those who are subject to that protection might regard it as disrespecting their autonomy. Muslim women might, for example, feel that the state’s protection of their autonomy is in tension with traditions and cultural practices that they wish to respect. Nor is it obvious how this differs, at least in principle, from the imposition of internal restrictions – isn’t the definition of internal restrictions/external protections dependent upon one’s perspective? In the context of this debate around Muslim schools, the internal/external split may not lie at the same point for the liberal political philosopher as for the student or staff member of a faith school.

No tradition is homogeneous, and reducing any religion to a doctrinal bloc can generate more heat than light. This research reminds us to treat all religions as reflective and complex phenomena which, in the context of faith schooling, is too easily forgotten.