A prominent British Muslim leader has caused shock at an education conference after saying that it was acceptable for Muslim students to leave their classrooms in the middle of lessons to pray at set times.
Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, also told the conference that it was all right for Muslim boys to turn their backs on girls dancing in a school performance because “they need to make their feelings known”.
Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, told the 100 Group conference in East London that the two incidents had occurred at a state secondary school.
Dr Shafi subsequently retracted his statements after several school heads expressed shock, saying that students should follow the rules of their school.
Commenting on the introduction of guidelines on the teaching of ‘British Values’ in schools, Dr Shafi said that government inspections of Islamic schools to check if they were following the rules had sparked an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.
Dr Shafi said that Muslims were happy to promote values such as fairness and tolerance but said the manner in which the government had laid down guidelines on teaching those values meant that British Muslims felt they were under ever greater scrutiny.
He added that Muslims should not be made to feel that they are being “civilized” by these values.
His comments come as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced that her department would be extending regulations aimed at battling extremism in primary and secondary schools.
The measures are aimed at countering the type of problem seen during the ‘Trojan Horse Plot’ in Birmingham when radical individuals were found attempting to introduce an Islamist agenda at several schools in the city, which is home to a large Muslim community.
Dr Shafi however, defended the schools saying that they had suffered from “failures in governance” rather than a “caliphatic takeover”.
“In getting to the bottom of the Trojan Horse allegations we missed an opportunity for community cohesion. Instead for too many Muslims it was another episode where Muslims are supposed to question where they belong when in fact they are as British as anyone else”, he said.
“Children in these schools were achieving highly and had promising futures. The so called Trojan Horse allegations undermined that and effectively destroyed their confidence”, Dr Shafi added.
In the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal, the government set out a written definition of what constituted “British Values”.
These included “democracy, the rules of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
However one of Britain’s leading historians weighed into the argument at the conference, saying that the government’s definition of British values were “banal”.
David Starkey said they should include “queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity” and that England was under threat from radical Islam.
Mr Starkey added that the only thing that would stop this “cancer growing is to stamp on it very hard”.