The issue of prayer in schools has been at the forefront of both the national media and the world of education this week, as we await a high court decision on a prayer ban enforced at Michaela Community School in north-west London.
The controversial case has given rise to a wider conversation about the role of prayer and indeed religion as a whole within schools. From the beginning though, glaring double standards have been all too clear. For one, the Michaela prayer ban targets ‘ritualistic prayer’ specifically – meaning that it wouldn’t impact a Christian student saying a silent prayer.
But most alarming of all is the Islamophobic moral panic that has prevailed, giving way to sensationalist newspaper headlines from the likes of Nadine Dorries MP calling for an all-out ban on “prayer mats and hijabs” in schools. Other columnists have implored that Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh must win against “Islamic bullies”.
Over the past few days, the torrent of Islamophobic abuse Muslim teachers like me have faced for speaking out in defence of prayer at school has been difficult enough to deal with, but perhaps the most frustrating part has been witnessing Islamic prayer portrayed as a sinister, intimidating act that seeks to disturb social cohesion and encroach on the very purpose of education itself. This warps the practice from an independent and entirely innocuous five-minute act of private spiritual devotion into a culture war being waged in our places of learning.
In my seven years of teaching, I have prayed almost every single lunchtime and often after school too. From my own classroom to a rather large store cupboard made into a makeshift prayer space thanks to a few rugs and an air freshener; from massive, echoing sports halls designated for prayers on Fridays to empty classrooms voluntarily staffed by Muslim teachers so our students have somewhere safe to pray. I have worked in schools where I’ve been the only Muslim and schools where we have been in our thousands. And through all of these experiences, one simple truth has prevailed: prayer has never, ever been an issue.
What we have been told lately is that prayer leads to a breakdown of social cohesion, causes intimidation and even segregates students, yet all I have seen is the opposite. If students were sacrificing a portion of their lunchtime to practice the clarinet or revise for their French test, we’d commend their dedication. Don’t we want to teach students to take personal responsibility and develop a sense of duty, especially given our statutory obligation as educators to foster our pupils’ social, moral, cultural and spiritual development?
What’s more, children are not like adults. They are curious and open to each other’s differences. You’ll see white British children happily pausing their football match while their mate runs off to pray for five minutes, reminding each other to keep the noise down so they don’t disturb their friends’ silent devotion. You’ll overhear complex conversations about theology and philosophy from the panini-stuffed mouths of twelve-year-olds who are intrigued, not offended, by what their classmate believes. You’ll see a community that is respectful and aware of each other’s differences, not rigidly oblivious to them. This creates a school environment that is all the richer – not to mention young adults who will navigate our multicultural world with empathy, awareness and respect.
Much of the hysteria around praying in school lately has portrayed Muslimness in direct opposition to Britishness. After all, I haven’t seen any alarmist newspaper headlines about how the hundreds of Church of England schools must stop using prayer and hymns because they get in the way of learning. I’ll hazard that not many Christian teachers have been told to “go back to the desert” for advocating for their pupils’ rights online either.
But if we tell Muslim children that in the name of Britishness they must shirk the fundamentals of their faith, then what are we teaching both them and their peers about what Britishness looks like? And what message are they getting about who gets to be British and who doesn’t?
Nadeine Asbali is the author of Veiled Threat: On being visibly Muslim in Britain