Battling Extremism with Education

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Faith lessons Muslim children at a Bristol madrassa learn about British laws and society

Foezul Ali is explaining the concept of shura — the Arabic word for collective decision-making by consultation — to a small class of adolescent girls at a madrassa run by the Aziziye Mosque in Stoke Newington, north London. Consultation, he explains, requires taking into consideration the views of all members of society, including Christians, Jews and secularists. Ali reads a quote from the Koran that requires Muslims to seek the advice of the nonfaithful on important matters. So, he asks the girls, can we learn from non-Muslims? When they respond affirmatively, he smiles. "That's right. As you can see, the Koran opens up dialogue between Muslims and others." Down the hall a similar class for young boys is in session.

Madrassas are known in Britain as supplementary, after-hours schools, often run by volunteers in mosques and community centers. They typically teach youngsters how to recite the Koran and ground them in Islamic fundamentals. But over the past few months, 30 madrassas across the U.K. have trialled a program called the Islam and Citizenship Education (ICE) Project. Funded by the government, the ICE Project aims to teach madrassa students aged 7 to 14 how to use Muslim values to be better citizens.

The project is a push back against radical elements within Britain's 2 million or so Muslims. This is a matter of some urgency. Everyone remembers when 52 people were killed by homegrown suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system on July 7, 2005, and security officials say there are at least 2,000 known Islamic extremists living in the U.K. Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary until she resigned on June 3, says the project aims "to ensure young people are equipped with the skills they need to stand up to violent extremists."

All British secondary school students attend citizenship classes, but this 20-week course is designed to complement those lessons, incorporating Koranic scripture as a key teaching tool. The classes cover topics including What is Democracy?; Law and Order; and British or Muslim, or British Muslim? Officials say the trial classes, which ended in April, were a success. "The feedback we received was very positive," says Khalid Mahmood, project manager. "Teachers have said [the materials] kept the children very engaged." From May 22, final versions of the lessons went online at While it's a voluntary program, "we expect there will be a significant take-up," says project director Maurice Irfan Coles, in part because the lesson plans have been "validated" by a large number of Muslim scholars. Several madrassas downloaded the draft materials even before the trials had ended, and ICE's website has already garnered more than 88,000 hits.

Teacher Ali calls the lesson plans "very good, very well researched." Still, he's uneasy with the project's working assumption that young Muslims in particular need to be taught the importance of good citizenship. "Citizenship is inseparable from Islam," he says. "As a Muslim and a teacher, I can't separate these things."

Harsher criticism still comes from Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Leicester-based Muslim Forum. He agrees that efforts to quash extremism are needed, but says they should come from within the Muslim community. Though the government says it financed ICE at the urging of British Muslim leaders, Moghal is skeptical of that claim. "What the government is hoping to get is a state-compliant Islam — it will not happen."

Though Stoke Newington is just north of the gentrified streets of richer Islington, the area remains economically mixed, with blocks of shabby council housing spread among more desirable Victorian terraces. While the students at the Aziziye madrassa say they enjoy the ICE classes, it's clear that, as for other young urban British Muslims, their most immediate concerns are the threats of crime, drugs and racism. Radicalism, says Sumeyye, 12, shaking her head resolutely, "That is not Islam." For those tempted to disagree, the government hopes the new citizenship lessons will help change their minds.