Columnist argues that Britain should teach more Islam because “Muhammad had British values”

February 25, 2016 • 9:00 am

Sajda Khan is identified in The Independent as “a writer and researcher working towards a PhD on Islam in Britain”. And she (I think the name “Sajda” is female) seems to specialize in Muslim apologetics of the “true-Islam-is a-religion-of-peace” variety. Although she hasn’t written much for the Independent, she seems to have quite an oeuvre on PuffHo, including these articles:

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Unfortunately, when you try to go to any of these pieces (including the interesting ones like “Mulsim women complicit in their repression?”), you get this message:

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Now I can’t guarantee that this is the same Sajda Khan, but given the nature of the piece, and of the Feb. 1 Independent piece that is still up, “The Prophet Mohammed had British values—so the only way to combat extremism is to teach more Islam in schools,” I’m betting it’s the same person. And it’s not at all clear to me why Khan asked for her PuffHo pieces to be removed.  They don’t seem to convey any message different from what Reza Aslan has promulgated, enriching and promoting himself in the process.

The substance of Khan’s article is expressed in the title: “true” Islam is peaceful, democratic, and conciliatory, and those, after all, are “British values.” Ergo if we teach the true “British-value” Islam in schools, potential extremists, like teenagers attracted to ISIS, will become moderates.

Dan Dennett once told me that he was in favor of teaching comparative religion in schools, for belief has been such a powerful force in history and remains so today. I could see his point but, I argued, who would determine how each religion should be taught? It’s no simple matter. Would Catholicism, for instance, be presented in its “hard” form, in which homosexual acts are deemed a hell-worthy “grave sin”, or in the softer form that most Catholics practice. Would Christianity be presented as a literalistic or metaphorical faith? And what about Islam? You can imagine the conflict that would arise among Muslims about what tenets of the faith should be presented. There’s no time, of course, to present all the beliefs of all the brands of Islam, much less of the 40,000 sects of Christianity. I’m not opposed to the idea of teaching comparative religion, but doing so at the secondary-school level is a minefield.

Khan, on the other hand, is not only in favor of teaching Islam (she doesn’t mention other faiths), but presenting it in a particular way: the way Reza Aslan would present it. Islam would be shown as a peaceful religion, with Muhammad as a man of fully British values: a seventh-century Churchill. I kid you not. As Khan argues:

Many reading this will find it difficult to stomach, but the Prophet Mohammed had what we also call “British values”. Those values of social responsibility, respect for the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs that schools are now required to promote are not exclusively British, and are inherently Islamic. The teachings of the Qur’an are unambiguous on being inclusive, and treating others with justice and equality. There needn’t be a discrepancy between what is British and what is Muslim.

. . . The remedy to the poison of warped Islamic ideology is clear, then – we must teach the realities of Islam, that it is a religion of peace and tolerance. I strongly believe that it is a simple formula, one that requires no restriction of civil liberties or demonisation of minorities: Muslim scholarship must provide a genuine counter-narrative. Only then can young people be led to understand that groups like Isis use their religion an excuse – rather than a guide – to justify their barbaric actions.

This isn’t an objective portrayal of Islam, of course, but one strand of a complex faith: that strand that construes the faith as tolerant and accepting. I needn’t add that many schools of Islam, and many Muslims, aren’t so tolerant, favoring the execution of gays, apostates, and adulterers, and corporal punishment of criminals. (Do remember that the fatwa on Salman Rushdie calling for his murder, was just renewed, with the bounty increased.) If you doubt the extremist, “non-British” beliefs of many Muslims, I refer you again to the Pew Survey of attitudes of Muslims throughout the world.  Khan goes on:

This is a golden opportunity to develop within our schools a curriculum based upon the biography of Prophet Muhammad, which clearly demonstrates and embeds what are now also considered British values. This is what will develop a strong sense of identity within our youth and dismantle the perverse understanding of Islam peddled by a few. We must be brave enough to say that being a British Muslim is not an oxymoron; it is the most natural thing in the world.

. . . The government should instead understand that the success of Britain’s counter-extremism strategy will hinge not only on the wider engagement with the British Muslim community but also on re-discovering the legacy of Prophet Mohammed. Encouraging those who have found solace in religion to turn away from it makes little sense. Investing in a theological education that teaches the basic tenets of Islam is the only way we can genuinely win over those who have turned to extremism – whether we like it or not.

Now of course there are peaceful Muslims and non-extremist schools of Islam, but to say that those schools that are more extremist—those that have “non-British” values—are the “wrong” kinds of Islam is to engaged in dissimulation. Have a look at some of the less conciliatory verses of the Qur’an, or, better yet, read the whole document (there’s a Skeptic’s Annotated Qur’an that labels the verses by their tone, peacefulness, or divisiveness). And then judge for yourself whether Khan is being truthful.

Perhaps there’s a way to teach comparative religion to teenagers in school, but one way not to do it is Khan’s suggested strategy: using those classes as political tools to slant the portrayal of religions in a way that makes them seem more genial and benign. Let Muslims tell their own coreligionists such things. It’s not the responsibility of the British government to convince Muslims that their entire religion promotes “British values” when in many cases that’s palpably false. For one thing, the subjugation of women is not a “British value.”

One reader’s comment:

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39 thoughts on “Columnist argues that Britain should teach more Islam because “Muhammad had British values”

  1. “Islam would be shown as a peaceful religion, with Muhammad as a man of fully British values: a seventh-century Churchill.”

    Maybe not the best comparison! Speaking as a liberal Brit, Churchill had a lot of values that I heartily disagree with. These made him a good wartime leader (WW2, at least, in WW1 he was a major sponsor of the Gallipoli debacle) but a failure during peace.

    1. Many hindus would probably agree with the comparison between Mo and Churchill, but not for the reasons that Khan gives.

  2. This really is nonsense, the idea of some mandatory teaching of any religion in school. What next, lets start burning down the schools?

    I would hope that the U.K. does not fall for this junk. At least in this country it is illegal. Doesn’t mean they don’t try. FFRF sees it everyday.

    Do the under educated of our country really have time for this junk. Who thinks that instruction in Islam would stand alone anyway. Next the Catholics, the Lutherns, the Mormons, the SDAs and all others would ask for equal time. The kids are already growning up unprepared for life but hey, with this they would be prepared for death.

    1. Here in Tennessee they teach comparative religions in middle and high school, in a way that I don’t think is too slanted but as an effort to put them in historical perspective. I imagine that all religions are presented in, at worst, neutral terms, and it probably gives christian teachers an opportunity to push their personal beliefs, but I think the intention is good.

      The Islam section has, of course, enraged many citizens and legislators, who are proposing bills to ban any mention of it.

      Which is why I think religions should be taught, but in their historical roles in shaping the world, not in discussion of whether their tenets are valid or not, which would exclude any nonsense about any of them being all about peace and virtuousness.

      1. IMO its also somewhat slanted to portray any old historical religion as promoting 21st century values. No doubt there were at least a few 7th century Muslims and Christians who would’ve supported ideas like democratic government or equal rights. But the religions as a whole, at that time, certainly didn’t. And if they do now, it’s because the body of believers have changed their positions over time, not because modern nation-states have somehow ‘caught up’ with the liberal political theories espoused in those books. The latter thought is just laughably bad historical revisionism.

  3. Depends on how one defines “British values”; and which & when exactly.

    Just as an example, Alan Turing experienced the British values of his time; Muhammad would have approved, I suppose.

  4. Teaching comparative religion and history of religion in schools would be a great idea. In answer to Jerry’s question about which version of each religion, the answer of course is all of them. The fact that there are so many different versions and interpretations is a key point, as Jerry points out in FvF.

    Let’s start the education about islam by getting the kids to read Tom Holland’s “In the shadow of the sword” and then take it from there.

    Is there a good introductory textbook on the history of religion?

    1. Of course in secondary schools there isn’t time to go into depth or do a complete survey. It would have to be objective and balanced. You’d have to come up with an agreed upon list of topics to provide an overall view of the worlds religions. It might be tough to reach agreement from many parents, especially since the school could not promise to let the kids know which one is true (theirs) and which are false (all the others).

  5. Atheists/agnostics often score higher than the believers on religious knowledge. They’re closely followed by jews and mormons. Protestants and catholics are at the bottom. I wonder if it’s the same for muslims. Do ex-moslims know more about the Quran than moslims? Do moslims even read their holy book? Sometimes I get the impression they’re no more knowledgeable about their religion than christians are about christianity.

      1. This doesn’t mean they have really read it. Those Muslims who are not Arabs will not understand anything from the Arabic Koran. As for Arabs, I suppose their Arabic is so different from the Koran’s Arabic that, unless they have specifically studied the early form of their language, they will not understand much. I don’t know any language still understandable in a millenium without special learning of the older form.

      2. Only those parts necessary for prayer. And as maryamarkov already wrote: if you’re a muslim from a non-arabic country – like Indonesia – you probably don’t know what you’re reciting.

  6. Encouraging those who have found solace in religion to turn away from it makes little sense.

    Actually, yes it does. It would remove a lot of violence and suffering in the world.

  7. For all practical purposes, there was a comparative religion class in my high school, an elective called “Religion in Literature”. I believe it got away with murder (in a GOOD way) because my public high school was 3/4ths Jewish (mostly Reform). (The teacher and designer of the class was a liberal Presbyterian. A majority of the non-Jews at my public high school were Quakers.)

    We read “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis (high school in 1972!!!) in addition to “Paradise Lost” and Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

    We were taught there were a wide varieties of Christianity, and how Quakers were different from Puritans, etc.

    Any decent comparative religion class will not only teach Catholicism and Protestantism separately, but separate evangelicalism from Progressive Christianity, and will deal with a variety of subcultures in Catholicism.


    Wonder if Google’s cache or the Wayback Machine has any of this person’s back posts.

    1. Parliamentary Democracy, the Rule of Law, Freedom of speech and of the press, economic development, civil society, the value of literacy and respect for education…. doesn’t sound too bad to me.

      Countries that have maintained those values after gaining their independence from the British Empire have generally done rather well since then. Those that have ditched them are now mostly basket cases.

      1. Perhaps “adopted those values” would be more accurate than “maintained those values”. May of “those values” (eg, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and of the press) were not available to the populations colonized under the British Empire.

        1. That isn’t a British value. The head of the British state, the Queen, is also the head of the church of England. Thanks, Henry!
          There are also bishops in the House of Lords.

  8. The Importance of Being Muhammad.

    I can just see it now, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and John Locke sitting down with Mo for some tea discussing ethics and societal norms. Though it would be more interesting if Mo brings his nine swords to debate the finer points of his philosophy.

  9. Teaching comparative religions or history can be done in high schools, in the broad sense. We did it when I was growing up in Quebec. Problem was it was done completely uncritically – Acts was taken as history, as were the stories (read from a secondary source!) about the patriarchs (particularly Abraham).

    1. In our schools, it is done piecemal in history and philosophy classes, and it is in the line of “Christians believe this, Muslims believe that”. I don’t see problems with it, actually approve it. Without some systematic knowledge about religions, there will be gaps in understanding of history and of today’s world.

  10. I find this a little hypocritical. Britain has a problem with extremism being preached in mosques. If you really want people to think Islam is only about peace, maybe start with the Imams, not the secular government.

  11. +1 for the quoted reader’s response. Though MM did miss a chance to get in a dig about the part of the Koran where Mohammed discusses the benefits of a bicameral parliamentary constitutional monarchy.

  12. When theists claim that some version of their religion X isn’t true X, not only do they commit the NTS fallacy, but they undermine their own insistence that morality is dependent on religion. When they look at the different versions of X, they have to appeal to some external (relative to the religion) moral sense in order to decide which one is the most moral and therefore the “true” version. I think it was Steven Weinberg who said they’re not using religion to define what’s moral; they’re using their own innate morality to define what counts as religion.

    It’s basically another instance of the Euthyphro dilemma.

  13. I think Dan would reply that as part of teaching about Catholicism etc, you would cover the major variants. His pony was that song away with the insular environment most religions try to enforce and religion looks like across the globe would encourage skepticism.

  14. Since there is no evidence outside the “holy books” that Jesus or Mohammed existed, Mr Khan’s effort to make these ancient blood soaked fantasies more palatable will not go down well in the UK

    1. To me, blood-soaking gives any fantasy enough flesh and blood to mandate its teaching at school. In other words, I think that a being that motivated or at least excused the Crusades did exist in some sense, even if he did not exist as a real historical personality. As for Mohammed, I cannot doubt in his historical existence (as I cannot doubt in that of Julius Caesar).
      We cannot pretend that religion does not exist or is unimportant.

  15. doesn’t the “WayBack Machine” (or something similar) have archives of “embarrassing” posts?

  16. Hey Jerry, we are already taught comparative religion in UK schools. It’s called R.E. or Religious Education. I have a GCSE in it. Back when I was in school, you were required to take RE as a GCSE. You could either take the short or the long version. I took the full course, because RE was actually one of my favourite subjects at school. It was one of the few school subjects where we students were allowed to have debates about morality and things. As for what we were taught about Islam, I remember being taught the five pillars and about the different sects, sunnis and shi’ites. If you want to get some idea of what it’s like, try this site:

    The thing about Mohammed is that he was the law, or so he claimed. So respect for the law in his case means ‘do what I want’. I have some respect for Jesus and the Buddha as people but I despise Muhammed. He comes across as a bloodthirsty narcissist. A bit like the mormon guy, but worse. There’s that story about how he wanted to marry his adopted son’s wife but that was forbidden, so lo and behold he gets a revalation that says ‘it’s ok if Mo does it’. There are stories about his critics mysteriously dropping dead.

    I don’t have a problem with kids being taught a little bit about Muhammed but it should be from an impartial point of view and since the UK is only 2% muslim then it should only take a tiny bit of classroom time. Since atheist/agnostic people are now 25% of the british population that would mean we’d spend a quarter of RE covering atheist philosophies like humanism if we were being fair- of course in reality the humanist society has had to fight to get humanism mentioned in RE at all.

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