Is it all right for the Muslim parents of children at British state schools to prevent their sons and daughters from being friends with non-Muslim kids? And is it sensible? These questions have been knocking around my head like a pair of trapped moths, unable to find a way out.
Quite by coincidence and on separate occasions, in the past month I’ve met two (non-Muslim) women whose children have had trouble at Muslim-dominated state schools. The kids made friends easily in their first term, said the mothers, but as the months went by it became harder to stay pals. Their schoolmates never invited them home, nor would they come round for playdates or parties. The friendships faded away and the kids were left confused. One of the two mothers I met had decided to move house: new catchment area, new start. She felt guilty, she told me, because she’d been keen her son have friends of all faiths. But he was one of only two non-Muslim boys in his class, and he was lonely.
A dip into the toxic pools of mothers online shows this to be a more common problem than you might imagine. Even though I’m sure most Muslim families are undiscriminating, it still comes up as a frequent topic in chatrooms. A tentative mum will ask a question on Mumsnet, say, or Netmums: what should I do if my child can’t make friends with the Muslim kids at school? Inevitably she’ll get a savaging: ‘Why are you even mentioning this? Islamophobe.’ (This is the tone of voice in which internet mothers discuss every subject, from breastfeeding to sippy-cups.)
It’s not Islamophobic to raise the question. I think it might be important. Despite the endless run of features on parenting, children and schools, I haven’t once seen it mentiond in print, which strikes me as unwise. Buried issues fester. And it’s a slippery little problem. There’s no obvious answer. Yes, mothers of all sorts select their child’s peers: there are Jewish schools, Christian schools, private schools — but to discriminate within the classroom seems different. The child notices. The women I spoke to had struggled to explain the situation to their offspring: ‘It’s not you darling; it’s just the religion.’ Is that right? Nor is there parity. Imagine if Christian parents refused to invite the Muslim children home from school; imagine if they banned playdates or sleepovers for any non-Christian kids. Perhaps it happens — parents are terrible, anxious snobs — but it would plainly be wrong.
What’s interesting to me is how different the situation seems from different perspectives. If you’re the parent of a child who can’t make friends the issue seems clear and unfair. Any sort of segregation within a school is unsustainable. But then look at it from the other mothers’ perspective. (This is when the moths begin to flap.) Imagine yourself to be a devout Muslim mother living in Britain. Imagine looking around at the sex, drugs; the boozing and gangs. It might well be that your child’s best hope in this world (and the next) is to keep their faith, and the best way of ensuring that is to never let them go; to control who a child plays with and talks to after school.
If a Muslim mother were to turn to her own internet forums and the elders of her own community, she might very well find definite advice on this subject. Sound Vision Foundation is a popular website specifically designed to help Muslims living in the secular West. It seems to be the very opposite of an extremist outfit, offering practical tips for liberal Muslim parents in Britain and the USA. It has a motto in rainbow colours: ‘Helping tomorrow’s Muslims today.’ But Sound Vision is quite clear about the importance of restricting your child’s friendships with non-Muslims. Most of the 22 tips for parents on ‘keeping Muslim teens Muslim’ involve limiting their access to secular influences: make family life fun; keep them at home; make sure they interact with Muslim kids; get them married early. It says: ‘The societies of the West are permeated by sex: on TV, billboards, on the streets, buses, in movies etc. Getting them married early will ease the pressure and they don’t have to stop their studies to do this.’
It’s hard to ensure the survival of a religious community in a secular country. It’s entirely fair to want to. Look at the news. Step outside. Last weekend, as my toddler and I played in the park, there were teenage boys on bikes with face-masks on, looping about like jackals waiting, quite openly, for the opportunity to grab some poor sod’s phone. The next day, one of them tried to take my husband’s laptop from a café table. These are school-age boys. They’ll be in class on Monday. Who could blame a Muslim mother for wanting to keep her children in the fold?
But in the end, perhaps it’s not the non-Muslim kids but their Muslim peers who will suffer most if kept too close to home. If you don’t let them make friends, if you bring them up too separately from the culture around them, they won’t know where to belong.
I read a fascinating book recently, by the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, about two sisters who ran away from Oslo to Syria in 2015. To her great credit, the girls’ mother, Sara, was very frank with Seierstad. She’s a decent woman and a caring mother, keen to prevent other people’s daughters from suffering the same fate. It’s because she was a good mother that, as a Somali-born Muslim, she tried to keep her children from integrating too fully into Norwegian society. Her children attended secular state schools in Oslo but Sara kept them close. No non-Muslim friends. No multi-cultural playdates.
In the end it was a mistake, Sara told Seierstad. Segregation presented her children with a false choice: reject the West or reject Islam, when in fact they could easily have had both.