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Islamica Magazine

The Need for Education

The educational legacy of Dr. Zaki Badawi provides us all with a glimmer of hope in our troubled times

by ANAS AL-SHAIKH ALI

The First Zaki Badawi Annual Memorial Lecture, jointly organized by AMSS (UK) and Lambeth Palace, was held at Lambeth Palace, London, on 26th April 2007. The lecture was presented by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the topic of "Islam, Christianity and Pluralism". The event was marked by a presentation of the prestigious AMSS Building Bridges Award to Dr. Rowan Williams, in recognition of his distinguished contributions to a better understanding between faiths. Lords, policy makers, academics, and community leaders were all in attendance to pay tribute to the role Dr. Zaki Badawi had played in giving British Islam a voice. We publish here excerpts of the speech by Dr. Anas al-Shaikh Ali, Chair of AMSS UK, which presents an impassioned case for education as the only long-term solution to tackle racism, intolerance, Islamophobia, and all forms of xenophobia, affecting society.

It was in 1996 that Dr. Zaki Badawi and I attended a seminar organised by the Oxford Academy for Advanced Studies. The seminar brought together some 30 Muslim academics, scholars, and theologians to examine research on Islam in higher education and Muslim graduate studies in the West. After much discussion, the participants resolved to establish an association dedicated to the promotion of the Islamic position in various academic disciplines.

Dr. Zaki and I were asked to follow up, and in 1999 the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) was launched at the London School of Economics. Since then and until his sad passing last year, Dr. Zaki was an integral and inspirational member of its executive committee.

The AMSS has based its activities on the belief that the development of Islamic thought and intellectual discourse, designed to create an awareness of Islamic alternatives and opinions on issues relevant to Muslims, is vital for the healthy continuity and development of Muslim communities today. This cutting edge approach shared with other organisations as well as individual Muslim scholars and thinkers in the West will also have a ripple effect across the Muslim world, developing perspectives in a positive way. In addressing issues of Islamic thought, the AMSS has sought to combine what it terms "the two readings", the reading of the Revelation and the reading of the real-existential, that is of reality and time-space. And this is exactly where Dr. Zaki proved to be particularly successful, addressing as he did a wide range of challenging and complex issues which required a combining of his knowledge as a Shari'ah scholar and Azhar graduate with his training and knowledge in psychology and other areas of the social sciences.

Towards this end and since its inception in 1999, the AMSS has tried through international, European, and local conferences and workshops, some jointly organised with universities and think tanks, to deal with topical and emerging issues pertaining to Islamic thought and Muslim communities. Issues of Pluralism, Diversity, Social Responsibility, Muslims of Europe in the New Millennium, Identity, Citizenship, Fiqh for Minorities, Security, and Democracy have been a few among the many themes debated and discussed at the Association's conferences by leading international and local Muslim and non-Muslim academics, researchers and scholars as well as Muslim theologians.

One of the areas that the AMSS has given special attention to over the years has been Education. Why? Because we strongly believe, as did Dr. Zaki, that the only effective long-term strategy to defeat racism, extremism, Islamophobia and all forms of xenophobia is objective and enlightened education. Education systems produce, among others, the future teachers, policy makers, politicians, artists, writers and media experts of our societies. Therefore, the values of
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humanitarianism, morality, citizenship, peaceful coexistence, revulsion of racism and discrimination, acceptance of the "other" should be married to actively taught skills of critical thinking and awareness, forming part of all national curricula. The AMSS has taken various initiatives in its drive to promote the case for Education. In 2004 it produced a report entitled Muslims on Education: A Position Paper in cooperation with other organisations. It was the first comprehensive paper to have been produced by the Muslim community on Education in UK Schools and which was to be used as a basis to initiate dialogue between various government departments and the Muslim community. In 2002, the Association organised a European conference in Germany on Muslim Education in Europe. Although attended by leading Muslim and non-Muslim academics, experts and practitioners, no European government, regrettably, sent a representative to attend. Then again, in 2005 the AMSS jointly organised a conference on Islam in Higher Education with Birmingham University and the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies. This was six months prior to the tragic events of 7/7.

Although the invitation stressed that the conference sought to highlight and examine the complexities of the teaching of Islam and other related issues not only at universities but in private Muslim institutions as well, no government department in the UK responded to our invitation to attend or speak at the event. Yet a few months after the appalling events of 7/7 the Department of Education commissioned a report on this very same and specific issue-a reaction rather than a carefully thought-out and strategically planned action! Knee-jerk reactions, however, will always be problematic and may aggravate any given situation rather than resolve it appropriately.

Today we have a fairly volatile set of trends fuelling an alarming rise in Islamophobia, and in the West a growing fear of Muslims and of Islam increasingly perceived in monolithic political terms. It is most unfortunate that things have reached such a precipice. A climate of fear, however, should not be replaced by a climate of despair. What can be done to address all these challenges and produce long-term, multi-dimensional lasting change? If I may quote a well-worn phrase but inject it with clear-sighted determination, yes, that can be done through: Education, education, education.

A recent key proponent of this vision is a report published in June 2006, by a UK think-tank, the Focus Institute on Rights and Social Transformation, underlining the need to address racist attitudes and behaviour from an early age -in nurseries and children's centres and schools-and the positive impact of such an approach in combating racism throughout society. The report, entitled Right from the Start, calls for the adoption of "a national strategic approach" across all levels of the government to foster racial equality in early years services and settings.

Fourteen hundred years ago, a wise Arab (most probably a woman) stressed: "Learning in childhood is like engraving in stone" — that is, destined to leave an enduring mark, hopefully for good! This is what Dr. Zaki as an educationist strongly believed in and promoted.

Therefore, in Education, there is hope. The concepts of human dignity, citizenship, democracy, co-existence, plurality, and shared values can be better taught, and better understood and realised. It is true that some action has been taken; but none to my knowledge has focused exclusively on education as the prime force for long-term change. We need to educate the younger generation to understand the value and importance of other cultures and faiths, and to instil respect for humanity in general. This global vision of our planet will allow future generations to tackle, if not all, but most forms of intolerance and seek real, durable solutions to complex problems.

Dr. Zaki put his concept of education on the map by setting up The Muslim College. It was a far-sighted approach. Also discerning was his vision for The College to teach courses on other cultures and faiths. To ensure fairness these were I might add taught by their own practitioners rather than by Muslims, so the course on Judaism was taught by those of the Jewish faith, and the course on Christianity by Christians. We hope that the College will continue to maintain the standard he set. Incidentally, Dr. Zaki would be delighted by the u-turn, which those in the community who used to criticise him have since made, and who moreover seek to mimic his example. In fact he once wryly noted that the "new moderates are making us, the traditional moderates, look like radicals!" I only hope that they manage to do so with some of the knowledge, wisdom, vision, and charisma which he had.
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Today, we do not seem to have learned lessons from past tragedies and atrocities. Anti-Semitism is indeed a light sleeper and resurfacing, while Islamophobia has become the new accepted face of xenophobia, of promoted hatred and racism.

We must go beyond creating a culture of tolerance to one of a culture of trust and acceptance. Toleration is dangerous and fickle, a thin crust which separates reason from violence, and can easily crack under the slightest pressure, and neither community will fully live at ease with one another unless we understand how to stop the anger, often intentionally, provoked and spread on both sides, and how to deal with it.

It is mainly through education that a lasting change as well as a climate of trust can be achieved. We ignore this at our peril.

DR. ANAS AL-SHAIKH ALI is Chair of AMSS UK.

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