My brilliant niece Freya was talking to my brother the other day about the religious education curriculum at her predominately white, middle-class state school in a pretty English cathedral city. She happened to mention ‘Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him.’ ‘Eh?’ said my brother. ‘It’s what we’re taught at school. After we mention “Mohammed” we have to say “Peace be upon him”.’
Now I know what you’re thinking: that Freya must surely have got the wrong end of the stick. ‘If this were a madrassa in Bradford, well maybe,’ you’ll be thinking. ‘But at a white, middle-class state school in a pretty English cathedral city? No way. Things aren’t that bad. At least not yet, anyway…’
But Freya is not stupid. That’s why, at the beginning, I referred to her as my ‘brilliant’ niece as opposed to my ‘incredibly thick’ one. Apparently, she assures me, they’ve been taught to use the ‘peace be upon him’ formula since Year 7 and though they’re allowed to shorten it to PBUH, they’re definitely not supposed to call him just Mohammed. ‘There’s sometimes the odd snigger when the phrase comes up but we’ve been conditioned pretty much to accept it as normal,’ says Freya. ‘It’s a bit weird, given that there’s only two Muslim kids in my year of 100.’
I find this scary for at least two reasons. The first is what it says about the death of our national identity. When Freya’s father and I were at school, we had to go to ‘chapel’ once a day, and twice on Sundays. In our scripture classes we were taught all the key bible stories, even to the point of having to learn the names of all the apostles. It didn’t turn us into religious freaks — anything but. What it did instil in us, however, was a sense of history and tradition. Like generations before us we were members of the Anglican Church, familiar with the same tales, the same liturgy, the same hymns and psalms, the same rituals, the same boredom.
Before the 1980s, I suspect, this was the experience of most British children, regardless of their race or religious background. It wasn’t a question of forcing Christianity down anyone’s throat — merely an accepted part of the fabric of British life. You went to church (at least occasionally — Christmas at any rate) in the same way you watched Top of the Pops and Morecambe and Wise, or you had roast beef and Yorkshire pud for Sunday lunch. It just was what you did.
Not any more. Sure, the old religion is still covered in RE classes, but at state schools like Freya’s only as an equally valid and certainly by no means preferable alternative to Judaism, Sikhism, Islam and the rest. ‘Jesus was the son of God! Do you agree?’ asks a sample Key Stage 3 question from Freya’s school website. Well, what a bloody stupid question to ask an 11-year-old. How are they possibly going to be intellectually equipped to produce any kind of meaningful answer?
A teacher at my old school, Malvern, told me that when new kids arrive he can no longer rely on their being familiar with even the most basic prayers and bible stories. No doubt the progressives who devised the new God-free curriculum will congratulate themselves on having finally freed young minds from the shackles of organised religion. (Probably they read somewhere that religion has caused more wars than, like, anything, man). But what they’ve really done is impoverished and deracinated and dumbed down a generation. They’ve denied Freya and her contemporaries the key that might one day have helped them unlock everything from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. They’ve vandalised 1,400 years of the history, literature and traditions which bound us as a nation.
But our failure to defend our culture is only the second scariest part of the PBUH story. The scariest, of course, is what it tells us not just about the growing dominance of Islamism but about our cowardice, fear and ignorance in so easily surrendering to it.
Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him? I suppose it would make sense for a non-Muslim to use that phrase were he, say, trying to persuade his Islamist terrorist captors in Mali perhaps or the Yemen not to cut his head off. But since when did it become necessary for white, notionally C-of-E-ish English kids in a middle-class school in a pretty cathedral town?
I mean it’s bad enough — as I’ve argued — to teach kids to think that their country’s religious traditions no longer really matter. But what is surely unforgivable is simultaneously to teach those same kids that there is one particular religion which matters so much that even when you don’t subscribe to it you must still treat it with the reverence, fear and awe of those who do.
Why? You can imagine the fuss if at every mention of the name Jesus Christ all children of whatever creed were forced to raise their arms in the air and add ‘Our Lord and Saviour, He is risen, Alleluia’. We ought to be equally appalled, I would suggest, at what children at Freya’s school are being forced to do with regards to the prophet of a rival religion.
I want to get my beloved and brilliant niece out of there. She deserves better. What I’d really love is for her to enjoy the education I and her Dad had at our old school, Malvern. If any reader feels able to help her out, I’d love to hear from them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012