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 International. Bahram Soroush hosted the programme whilst Maryam Namazie was away.
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 curriculum.
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 double standards.
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 by religion.
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 children.
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 society.”
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 particular 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.
That is 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 this right.
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 side.
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?
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 from 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 are actually 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.