A secular state should not dictate private religious beliefs

PM David Cameron says some madrassas preach extremism

The secular British State has no business interfering in the teaching of private religious beliefs and practices, writes Jahangir Mohammed.  

At the Conservative Party Conference last year, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he planned to regulate madrassas in this country, arguing that some were teaching intolerance.

“But in some madrassas we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people. These children should be having their minds opened; their horizons broadened not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”. 

david-cameron-433941According to Cameron, madrassas should now be regulated by being forced to register and being subject to school type inspections, and even closure if found teaching “intolerance”.

Cameron provided no evidence to substantiate his allegations, yet his assertion is enough to justify the enforcement of around 2,000 madrassas to be regulated.


The UK Government has since published its consultation paper on proposals to regulate what it calls “out of school education settings” – read madrassas. That consultation period comes to an end on Monday 11th January, and has drawn widespread criticism from the Muslim community.

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Functional madrassas

Mr Cameron relying on his neo-con advisers appears to have little understanding of the primary function of a madrassa and how they operate. Most Muslim children have been to a madrassa. Parents send their children to such institutions primarily to learn Arabic and reading of the Quran.

They also learn the basic practices of their faith, such as how to do your ablutions, pray and fast, as well as learning their mother tongue. Some madrassas do provide a more detailed Islamic education, but most provide a low cost (often a few pounds a week), quick and easy way to learn the basics of their faith.

They are not educational settings per se, but more religious ones. They are not about advancing education, but advancing private religious beliefs. Yes, there are concerns in some about health and safety, and safeguarding children from physical harm, but these matters are already well within the remit of local authorities and covered by existing laws.

However, the idea that they are places where in depth Islamic values and knowledge are taught or learnt is not far from accurate. In many, even the Quran is taught simply in Arabic without understanding or elaborating on the content.

Attack on religious freedom

The idea that such settings should be controlled by the state, including the content of what is being taught, and monitored through snap inspections by state OFSTED inspectors, is a gross violation of the principle of freedom of religion.

It is not the business of a secular state with its predominantly non- Muslim OFSTED inspectors to dictate to Muslim parents how their child should be taught Arabic, the Quran, and the basic religious practices, which we are paying for privately. Nor is it their business to impose secular liberal British values in the teachings of private religious practices and beliefs. Madrassas are about private religious beliefs not “British values”, they go to school to learn that along with other societal issues.

British MuslimsIf we accept that Mr Cameron and the state has a right to interfere in our children’s learning of the Quran and the basics of our faith then, then we have accepted the idea that the British State has a right to control the content and the teaching of Islam and Quran. In doing so, we accept that at least for Muslims, there is no such thing as a “right to private religious belief” in Britain. It is the beginning of a slippery slope to start wanting to control the content of Islam education, and even the interpretation of the Quran.


The current madrassa system is not complicated, it is affordable to all, and it serves the purpose for which our parents designed it – high volume teaching of reading the Quran in Arabic and learning the basics of the faith. Regulation will require professional teachers, higher standards, compliance with added administrative costs, and headaches (including legal/consultant costs associated with state and media intrusion). That would inevitably lead to an increase in charges, which parents simply cannot afford to pay, and many would simply close. I doubt the state is willing to pay for all these associated costs, and nor do Muslims expect the taxpayers to do so.

Prevent in madrassas

Somewhere along the line the UK Government seems to have accepted an argument about the link between madrassas and violent extremism. It is easy to point the finger at a madrassa since almost every Muslim went to one, and you can always make a tenuous link; but does the fact that Muslim children who went to a madrassa end up in a life of criminality, or as doctors and lawyers, mean that the madrassa is responsible for their career path or their wrongdoings? Certainly not, that would be absurd. In that case we could equally blame state schools for those that turn to violence, drugs and general criminality.

The idea that private “out of school educational settings” should be subject to the same type of Prevent duty – to report children for “extremism” – as the public sector is now expected to do under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, is simply a means for an extension of Prevent into the Islamic teachings within a private sector.

The type of interference and control of religious teachings being proposed by the UK Government amounts to a fundamental interference of a secular state in the sphere of private religious beliefs. It will mean that the only space Muslims now have to teach and freely express their faith is at home. I wonder how long before the British state decides that the teaching of religion in a private home also requires regulation.

State control of religion is something that was implemented in Communist states during the Cold War, and it’s not very “British” I might add.

Jahangir Mohammed is the Director of the Centre for Muslim Affairs.

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