This ban on Muslims praying in school is a dystopian

Muslim students gather to pray inside a classroom at Liberty High. Photo courtesy of Lara Solt/KERA News
Muslim students gather to pray inside a classroom at Liberty High. Photo courtesy of Lara Solt
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Muslims perform prayers five times a day, beginning before sunrise and ending after sunset. It is a central pillar of our faith and we believe it is one of the first things God asks of us after we die.

As a Muslim secondary school teacher, I pray in my own classroom at lunchtimes – and in winter, when the days are shorter, I pray once more after lessons are finished. Never has this private, spiritual act threatened the cohesion of the schools in which I have worked. Never has it diminished my Britishness. And yet, that is exactly the argument given by the controversial headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh this week as she defends the decision to ban “prayer rituals” at her north-west London secondary, Michaela.

In a high court case brought by a Muslim student looking to overturn the “discriminatory” ban, it was revealed that Michaela students were praying in the playground, kneeling down on their blazers for about five minutes every lunchtime, because the school did not provide a prayer room. However, in the eyes of the school, this threatened social cohesion and “divided” the students. The KC representing the school trust said that some Muslim children were seen by teachers to be putting pressure on others to be more observant. And so the decision was made to ban all prayer on site.

Well, I say all prayer. The fact is that – as lawyers for the Michaela student who brought the case point out – this ban would not effectively prohibit a Christian student quietly sitting on a bench and praying in silence. No, this specific ban is saved for visible, overt “prayer rituals”. Of course, whether intended or not, this means Muslim prayer in particular.

Posting on social media, Birbalsingh has defended this decision by saying that the policy is vital in ensuring that “children of all races and religion can thrive”. Aside from the bleak and frankly insulting assumption that, in order for all of us to live harmoniously, we must become robots with no beliefs or ideas of our own, this also poses questions about what kind of school environment could so easily be destroyed by one group of students publicly expressing their religion for a mere few minutes a day? And is such an environment healthy for young adults who are going to enter a world where people do have the freedom to express their beliefs in public? While of course nobody should feel pressured to pray, can a school not find a way to leave room for those who wish to openly express their religious belief?

“Our children, whatever their background, are British,” Birbalsingh wrote in her statement. In the name of Britishness, what Birbalsingh offers us is a dystopian, sinister vision of multiculturalism in which we might all have different racial features but we are blank canvases on the inside – primed for the state to paint us in the colours of the union jack and pat itself on the back for how diverse our nation is. This does nothing for us as ethnic minorities. Indeed, it does nothing for us as a nation. Although, I suppose that’s little surprise coming from a headteacher who once seemed to say that parents should back their child’s teacher even if the child insists the teacher is racially discriminating against them.

For all the controversies surrounding “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, though, Birbalsingh is merely a symptom of a state that seeks to promote a version of Britishness that is monolithic and absolute. It’s no coincidence that she is an establishment figure, favoured by the government as an ideal archetype of a school leader who conveniently dismisses race theory and seems to embody the Thatcherite, small-c conservative ideal that only hard work can get you out of poverty.

It’s also no coincidence that this ban targets Muslims in practice. We are living in an atmosphere that seeks to criminalise Muslimness at every level. From the Prevent counter-terror strategy rendering Muslim children unsafe and hyper-policed at school, to the portrayal of pro-Palestine demonstrations (which are actually full of people of all backgrounds) as “hate marches” by the former home secretary Suella Braverman, to the Muslim MP Zarah Sultana being told by Rishi Sunak to ““call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate” the situation in Gaza (as though all Muslims have Hamas on speed-dial), there is scarcely a sector of public life in which Britishness and Muslimness are portrayed as truly compatible.

While we await the outcome of this high court case, it’s important that we look at the wider picture. As much as I hope that Michaela pupils win the right to pray at school, we must interrogate the environment that has given rise to a headteacher in one of the most diverse areas of the capital believing that the route to social harmony lies in banning a fundamental part of who some of her students are. Why have we bought into this idea that Britishness looks, sounds, thinks and acts a certain way? Why have we allowed schooling to become an endeavour in brainwashing children with a myopic view of what it means to be British? And if it can be suggested to kids, in a comprehensive school in London of all places, that praying in public is somehow un-British, then what message are we sending the next generation about who gets to be British and who doesn’t?

Imperial Hospital Sylhet

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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury

Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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