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Court upholds London school’s ban on prayer rituals, stirring debate on religious freedom

[Photo: Getty Images]

Azra Hoosen |
19 April 2024 | 11:00 CAT
5 min read

In a case sparking a national debate on religious freedoms in schools, a Muslim pupil in the United Kingdom has seen her court challenge against a prestigious London school’s prohibition on prayer rituals dismissed.

The student, whose identity remains undisclosed, brought legal action against Michaela Community School in northwest London, contending that the ban unfairly targeted her faith due to its “ritualised nature”. She contended that the school’s prohibition of on-site prayer constituted an unlawful infringement upon her right to religious freedom. Furthermore, she asserted that such discrimination contributes to the alienation of religious minorities from society.

In response to the decision, Katharine Birbalsingh, the head teacher of Michaela Community School, asserted that “a school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves.”

It was reported that the student and her mother expressed their disappointment with the ruling through their legal counsel.

Dr Abdul Wahid, a Commentator on political and Islamic affairs, shares his insight on the incident in an interview with Radio Islam.

Wahid highlights that the school’s structure is somewhat “unusual”; although classified as a state school, it deviates from the standard model of government schools.

According to Wahid, a select few government schools enjoy increased autonomy in shaping their school’s ethos. Notably, this particular institution has gained prominence due to its head teacher and governing body aligning with right-wing or conservative ideologies. Embracing traditional values, the school enforces rigorous discipline and maintains a zero-tolerance stance on rule violations, affording minimal leeway for deviation. While some practices, such as communal lunches, prove advantageous, others are notably stringent.

He contends that the majority of students attending the school do not hail from a conventional white English background; instead, they represent a diverse array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Approximately 50% of the student body is Muslim.

“One of the children was concerned that as she grows older and passes puberty, the issue of obligatory prayers would be difficult. In the UK, in winter time, the sun sets early, so the window of time to pray the zuhr prayer is between about midday and 2 pm, but the school day doesn’t finish till 3 pm, so it’s not possible to pray zuhr at home. So, this particular student wanted to start to pray. She decided not to raise it with the school directly because of various reasons. She said the school is so strict that if it’s not explicitly allowed, then you will be told you are not allowed to do it. She also heard that other students had raised the issue of congregational prayers before, but it was rejected, so she took some of her time during the lunch break to pray in the play area by herself just for 5 minutes, and from what I understand maybe some other children might have joined her,” he explained.

He said that the school administration made the decision to discontinue these practices, deeming them incompatible with what they define as a “secular ethos” within the institution. However, this move has sparked considerable controversy and debate.

“There were other factors that were taken into account. For example, the school says that they approached a certain mosque that said it would be okay for the children to make Qadha prayers (to make them up afterwards) if they miss them at school, but the mosque actually issued a statement saying that they’ve never been part of this decision, so they don’t know where this came from,” he added.

The bottom line is this is being seen as a victory for secularism over the right of a Muslim student to pray during school time, and the law there is supposed to be an equality law and human rights law here; there was talk in their diversity training, in schools, in healthcare, in every walk of life that peoples religious freedom is something that is protected

Wahid emphasised that this outcome is ultimately perceived as a triumph for secularism infringing on the right of a Muslim student to engage in prayer during school hours. This brings to question the application of the equality and human rights laws, which safeguard religious freedoms. Discussions in diversity training in schools, healthcare, and various other sectors have long emphasised protecting individuals’ religious freedom.

“You would have thought the fact that Muslims, by faith, are obliged to do ritual prayers five times a day, you would have thought this would be something that is protected, but the judge, in this case, had ruled on the basis of the information before him that this was not the case. In fact, the judge said the school was an explicitly secular school, so when the child chose to go there, they knew there would be some restrictions on what they could do, and if they made that choice, they could go to another school which accommodates these things,” he said.

Wahid posits that the concept of a purely secular school is nonexistent in Britain. Instead, civil schools exist, which predominantly embrace a multi-faith and multi-cultural ethos.

“There are a few faith schools which have a particular faith ethos, but I can’t see it on this school’s website explicitly saying it is a “secular school” like France is a secular country or like China wants to abolish all kinds of religious practice. Yes, it does promote certain types of integration within the school, but the idea that a child praying for 5 or 10 minutes in the playground during break time is some kind of threat to the school ethos suggests to many of us that the school ethos is very weak actually if they see it as some kind of threat,” he said.

He suggests that this perspective offers insight into Britain’s prevailing trend and trajectory guided by political currents.

According to Wahid, the schoolteacher has affiliations with the right-wing conservative government, having previously served as their advisor. Furthermore, a notable former governor of the school is recognised as one of Britain’s most extreme politicians, vehemently opposing pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London. “She characterised them as “hate marches” and wanted to see them banned, so this is seen, by the Muslim community, as a very political decision by the school and maybe even by the judiciary in line with a lot of what happened in Britain in recent months and years actually,” he added.

Wahid stated that Muslim organisations are currently evaluating the possibility of challenging this ruling. Their focus will be on fostering healthy and constructive dialogue with schools at the local level. In many schools across northwest London, particularly those with a significant Muslim minority or majority, there is a tradition of accommodating practices such as prayer during lunchtime.

“But it does lend us some food for thought as Muslims here. 50% of the children going to this school are Muslim, and the school is famous for getting excellent academic results compared to other schools; as Muslim parents, we have to decide if we want to prioritise our legitimate desire for our children to do well academically over our legitimate desire for our children to do well in terms of their Islamic identity and Aakhira if we do then we will sadly you will put your children into schools that don’t accommodate their islam in any way, shape or form and in fact, the school will work hard to undermine that Islamic identity in favour of a secular identity,” he said.

Wahid posed a poignant question: “Should we prioritise choices that enhance our children’s overall well-being and education rather than solely focusing on the exams they take at 16?”

LISTEN to the full interview with Mufti Yusuf Moosagie and Dr Abdul Wahid, a Commentator on political and Islamic affairs, here.



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