Visiting the Mosque: What Happens When Parents Object
The Reverend Dr Tom Wilson is director of the St Philip's Centre in Leicester, which provides training and consultancy on interfaith and multifaith issues for a wide range of local and national bodies, including the Home Office, schools, the city council, and the police.
A significant proportion of the work that the St Philip's Centre undertakes is educational work with school children. We are recognised providers of learning outside the classroom. Our focus is on bringing religious education to life. Rather than pupils reading about Sikhism in a textbook they will visit a Gurdwara, see the reverence afforded the Guru Granth Sahib and smell the vegetarian food cooking for Langar. Instead of discovering that Muslims wash before they pray from a book, they are taken into the Wudu area of a mosque, and their guide explains, step-by-step, the process of purification he undertakes before joining in congregational prayers.
Mosque visits unfortunately have become more difficult in recent years. Some parents have begun to voice concerns about whether such visits are appropriate, whilst schools may cancel or postpone visits following major terrorist incidents.
The response of the St Philip's Centre is always to engage, as directly as possible, with those who have expressed these fears. Simple statistics are not especially helpful here. Whilst it may be true that the percentage chance of dying in a terrorist attack is much smaller than the likelihood of a road traffic accident, that type of raw data will rarely be persuasive at allaying anxiety.
Our approach is first of all to reassure the school as to the professionalism of the visit. We provide details of the day, which mosque will be visited, who will be the guide and so forth. But more importantly, we always offer to meet with those parents who have expressed concerns. When parents are willing to engage, the results are overwhelmingly positive. In the summer of 2017 Riaz, a practicing Muslim and Deputy Director of the Centre, visited a school where a number of parents had expressed concerns about a visit to Leicester the following week. The result was transformative; not only were they reassured as to the value of that particular visit, but they told the head teacher they expected him to be doing more of the same in the weeks and months ahead.
However, occasionally such encounters do not achieve such a positive result. Sometimes a head teacher has to remain resolute in the face of protests. In one situation, Sunni Muslim parents approached a head teacher and expressed concerns that their children were being taken to an Ahmadi mosque. The school is a private one, and the parents threatened to withdraw their pupils unless they were permitted to miss the visit. The head teacher explained that whilst he welcomed their involvement at the school, he expected all pupils to be open to meeting others, including those with whom they had doctrinal disagreements. There was no expectation that these children might change their religious perspectives as a result of the visit. But refusing to take part at all was not an option the head teacher was prepared to accept. Happily, the pupils were able to participate, and so had an encounter that would never have taken place in any other circumstances.
We do not condemn those who have concerns; censuring others does not build productive relationships. We question the legitimacy of those concerns, doing our best to educate people about the lived reality of Islam in the UK today. But we also recognise that not all fears are rational or logical. Only by taking them seriously and building relationships that enable people to let go of their fright and take hold of friendship can we begin to learn how to live well together.
Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat recently published Learning to Live Well Together which offers insights into the interfaith encounter in the UK today.
To read an extract from the chapter on 'Trust', click here.
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