Separation of god & science
Especially on gender issues and sexual equality, religious
schools contradict society's achievements
May 16, 2005
In January 2005 David Bell, a School Inspector,
delivered a speech which was published in The Guardian about
the rise in the number of religious schools in the UK. His comments
have raised opposition by the Institute of Islamic Organisations
in the UK. This interview aired on TV
Soroush hosted the programme whilst Maryam
Bahram Soroush: You may have heard statements by David Bell and
also the response by the Institute of Islamic Organisations in
the UK. They have said he is picking on Islamic schools. Do you
think this is discrimination?
Azar Majedi: No I don't. Actually my position is to ban
all religious schools. I think education must be separate from
religion and the church. It is a positive move to investigate
faith schools, from a children's rights point of view.
It is of no surprise to me that they have found shortcomings
in Islamic schools. I think it will probably be more or less
the same with other religious schools. But perhaps other religious
schools try to follow the national curriculum and standards more.
Islamic schools are more into religious teachings than the regular
So you feel that religious schools altogether
across the board should be banned?
Yes. They must be banned and education must be separated
from religion and the church. Universal laws and standards are
the basis of a civil society that respects human rights and the
equality of all the citizens. Separation of religion from the
state and education is the basis of a secular society, where
free thinking is respected and encouraged. Religion, in my opinion,
is permeated with superstition and contradicts the scientific
achievements of humanity. For all these reasons religious schools
must be banned.
Furthermore, all religions are patriarchal and sexist. As it
regards Islam, it is well-known for its sexist codes and rules.
This is so because Islam has not historically been challenged
or reformed, as it is the case with Christianity. The development
of capitalism in the west resulted in significant social upheavals,
of which the French revolution is the most influential. These
upheavals challenged Christianity in different aspects and reduced
its grip on the society and polished its most crude prejudices.
When it comes to gender issues and sexual equality, religion
has a negative effect.
Religious schools, not only do not promote
sexual equality, they reinforce sexism and encourage a sexual
division of labour and differential gender roles. Islamic schools
are segregated and promote totally different roles for girls
in society and restrict girls from many activities. Finally,
these schools are more a place for indoctrination than scientific
teachings. By allowing religious schools to function, we are
discriminating against a section of society, and we are setting
In that case what do say to this argument that
we should look after children's and pupils' religious
needs and that is why we have faith schools?
I don't believe children have any religious
needs. When it is talked about children's religious needs,
it actually means their parents' need to indoctrinate their
children. "Children have no religion"; they happen
to be born in a family with a particular religion. I believe
there should be no official religious teachings to children.
Once they become of age, then they can decide whether they like
to pursue a particular faith or not. I strongly believe that
religious teaching to children is indoctrination, like exposing
them to any particular ideology. Therefore, it must be banned.
It is fine to teach them the history of ideas, the history of
religion but teaching religion as such should be prohibited.
Somebody made a comment in the recent controversy
that you have children who are in a religious family and when
they go to school, they go to a religious school and they come
back to a religious family. So 24 hours a day they are confronted
I think this is a very good and valid point. This
refers to a sad reality of a life of indoctrination which is
imposed on some children. I believe this must be stopped. This
is wrong both from the child's point of view and society's
point of view. To deprive a child of a normal happy life and
normal education has become integrated in the society as a way
of life. It is wrong to do that. They should be integrated with
other children in the society as citizens, with children of all
backgrounds. I understand that there are families with different
religions and cultures.
However, these religions and cultures
must not be imposed on the children. In societies today, children
are exposed to all kinds of religions and cultures. They should
be given the right of choice. Once they reach adulthood, they
can choose. And in any circumstance, education must be secular
and based on the latest scientific achievements. Children should
be free from religious brain washing and teachings and preaching.
The effect of non-secular, religious and segregated education
is very destructive on the society as a whole, and on our children's
happy, normal life, and upbringing.
As we can see even a school
inspector has come to recognise this fact. Of course this criticism
is not radical enough (probably
they have stronger criticisms themselves). It is carefully worded
as not to "offend" any religious groups. But with
a bit of insight one can recognise the severity of the problem.
I am more concerned about the lot of these children. They are
being deprived. Their basic rights are being violated. We cannot
sit and watch. We should take action to defend the rights of
these children to a happy, normal life, to safeguard their equal
access to the world's scientific achievements, to free-thinking,
and safeguard their integration into the society, with all other
In a sense these children are being sent to the
religious schools by their parents and are being denied the same
rights as the children who attend the mainstream schools. What
is your view on that?
Yes that is true. Mansoor Hekmat has a very interesting
and provoking statement regarding this issue and I have quoted
it in many of my speeches and articles: "The child has
no religion, tradition, and prejudices. She has not joined any
religious sect. She is a new human being who, by accident and
irrespective of her will has been born into a family with specific
religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of
society to neutralise the negative effects of this blind lottery.
Society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal
living conditions for children, their growth and development,
and their active
participation in social life. Anybody who should try to block
the normal social life of a child, exactly like those, who would
want to physically violate a child according to their own culture,
religion, or personal or collective complexes, should be confronted
with the firm barrier of the law and the serious reaction of
I believe the position is very clear. We should have the interest
of the child before us. Providing a happy, normal life for any
child, and the creation of a harmonic society on the basis of
secularism i.e. separation of religion from the state, are the
right principle and the basis of a right and just position. Respect
for multi-culturalism and cultural relativism leads to discrimination
against some sections of the society, violations of human rights
for some sections, double standards, and the creation of a disintegrated
and segregated society, where people are put into different pigeon
boxes and identified by their cultural or religious backgrounds,
instead of as equal citizens.
Diversity is fine but creating
boxes and stamping people's foreheads with their religion
or their family's or community's religion is wrong.
Furthermore, children are not given proper scientific education
in these faith schools. They are given a one-sided education
which is more based on superstition than science. Thus a normal
life is denied from them.
We then come to the question of gender and sexual equality.
Faith schools in general, and Islamic and Jewish schools in
are based on sexist values and beliefs. In all religious schools
there is a very definite defined gender role. Girls are considered
as a whole different kind of human being than boys. There you
have gender apartheid and segregation which is very discriminatory
against girls and women. We have a long history of fighting
for women's rights in Europe. Especially the gender roles have
been challenged significantly in the past 30 years in Western
Europe. The religious schools deny that and contradict society's
achievements. They turn the clock backward. We should not let
this happen. Bringing up children in religious schools is wrong
and has to be banned.
Some might say fair enough, you want secular
education, that children should be left alone until they reach
the age of maturity, until they are 16, and then they can decide
what religion to have or what not to have. But they also say,
what about the rights of the parents? Don't they have any
rights and responsibilities towards raising their children? Aren't
you excluding them of their rights?
No, I am not excluding any one of their rights.
Parents definitely have a responsibility towards their children.
They also have some rights. These rights and responsibilities
must be defined by the society as a set of universal laws.
Parents are responsible to provide their children, in
the framework of
their means, with a happy, normal and safe life. They must
provide their children with love, security and safety.
But this does
not mean that if a child is born in a poor or disadvantaged
family, the society will leave the child to have only
what the parents
are capable of providing. Society has a duty toward the well
being of the child. That is why there are internationally recognised
charters and declarations to safeguard and protect children.
Modern society has recognised the need for such laws.
why every civilised society has laws regarding obligatory education,
prohibition of child labour, criminalising physical and sexual
abuse of a child and so on. By passing such laws, the society
has taken the matters in its own hand out of the parents' realm
of rights. We are not living in a feudal system where the parents
- actually the father - decide over the whole family's
existence. For example, according to Islamic laws, a father or
a grandfather can kill his children without being prosecuted.
This is a law in some countries. Modern, civil society has abolished
I want to say rights are not absolute and ahistorical.
Each society must define these laws according to the well being
of children and in light of children's interests. In my
opinion, indoctrination of children is one of those so-called
rights that must be taken away from parents. Education must be
standardised and universal for every child in a given society.
What I am trying to say is that there is a responsibility by
the society towards children as much as there is parents' responsibility
towards children. That happy, normal and secure life that I was
talking about is partly society's responsibility in all
aspects: economically and education wise. The society will not
leave it to the parents just because the children are born in
a particular family to teach them whatever they want and brain
wash them with superstition. There is actually a law and a limited
safeguard that the society offers to children if the parents
are abusive. Society would intervene and take the child's
I think abuse is understood as merely sexual or physical and
verbal violence whereas indoctrination and brain washing of children
with superstition and prejudgments must also be recognised as
abuse. Inflicting or imposing religious or cultural customs upon
children that hinder healthy physical and mental development
must be considered as abuse. I consider child veiling as a serious
violation of children rights. In the same token, sending children
to religious schools is a serious violation of their rights.
It particularly affects the girls. Doesn't
It does. Religion by its nature and as an ideology
is very much sexist and male chauvinist. Christianity has been
challenged in the 18 and 19th century, from the French revolution
to the transformation of the European society from a feudal society
to a capitalist system. It has been pushed back in the society
and is more or less behaving itself. Islam however, has not gone
through the same process. Islam has never been dealt with like
this in the societies that it was born in. Islam has never been
challenged in this way, has never been pushed back from the society.
Moreover, for the past 3 decades a political movement
has been born and developed, which takes its ideology and policy
Islam and is very reactionary, i.e. political Islam. This movement
is not only religious but also political. We can see what political
Islam is doing, gaining more and more inroads in western society
as well. We know Islam's record, what Islam says; it is
written black on white and we know how male chauvinistic and
sexist it is. Gender apartheid is the basis of Islam. The veiling
of children and many other abuses should be stopped. If you
expose a girl or even a boy to that culture and education, you
depriving these children of a humane life, especially the girls.
Islamic schools must be stopped because this gender discrimination
is embedded in Islam.
Azar Majedi is the head of the Organisation
of Women's Liberation.