Gideon Mendel / Corbis

Ramadan ban part of UK’s profiling of Muslim kids

For many Muslim children, fasting may become a test of Britishness as the ‘war on terrorism’ expands to schools

June 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

On June 10, a week before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Barclay Primary School in East London sent a letter home with its students. “The policy of both Barclay Primary School and all schools within the Lion Academy Trust does not allow any children attending the schools to fast,” the letter read, suggesting that fasting would endanger the health and education of students. After a public outcry, the Lion Academy Trust, which runs the school, said that exceptions would be made in certain cases and that parents who want their children to fast should meet with school officials.

The news of the fasting ban prompted criticisms from Muslim leaders. “We believe that this … should be decided by parents with their children, who can together reach a collective decision whether or not the child can fast,” a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain told The Mail Online. On the surface, the fasting ban appears as a misguided policy enacted by overzealous school administrators who believe that they, instead of parents, know what is best for their young students.

“We have sought guidance and are reliably informed that in Islamic law, children are not required to fast during Ramadan,” the Barclay letter said. It is odd that a secular school would try to tell Muslim parents what their religion does or does not require. In any case, the incident offers important insights into the problems the U.K. faces with its Muslim minority.

Unlike the United States, the U.K. does not have a strict, constitutionally mandated separation of church and the state. And since the Anglican Church is a crucial part of the state machinery, citizens cannot keep religion out of schools by appealing to a law that applies to all faiths. (It is the state church, the queen is the head of the church, and a number of state and church functions are linked.) This is why the authorities have turned to creating a state-sanctioned and unthreatening brand of Islam, whose practice they can permit without worrying about incipient terrorism. In the view of primary school administrators in East London, children’s fasting is not part of this moderate Muslim practice. Resistance to the school’s no-fasting rule can hence be considered a sign of anti-state sentiment and an opposition to supposedly British values — markers of potential radicalism.

Telling the faithful what their religion does or does not allow is an old project. In colonial India, for example, the British codified Islamic law and eliminated the plurality of the multiple schools of Islamic thought. And a new statute-based Islamic law that supported the colonial project of control and conquest was constructed in its stead. This allowed the British to decide whether a practice was permissible under Islam. The latest iteration uses the same strategy: telling British Muslims that asking their children to fast is not Islamic.

The story raises further worries. British primary schools are turning into a battleground in the United Kingdom’s “war on terrorism,” in which teachers serve as the government’s eyes and ears. It is part of the recent surveillance and monitoring schemes targeting Muslim students, which may serve only to further isolate the very youths whose radicalization they are ostensibly designed to prevent.

For Muslim students at the Barclay Primary School, fasting will no longer be a simple, if arduous, act of faith but a test of their claim to being British before an omniscient and meddlesome state.

In February the British Parliament passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which, among other surveillance measures, enlists schoolteachers to monitor early signs of radicalization, administer tests meant to detect terrorist sympathies and use monitoring software on Web searches at the school. The legislation will take full effect on July 1.

Before its passage, the government released a consultation paper to provide “guidance for specified authorities on the duty to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” These specified authorities include nursery schoolteachers, who, along with other school administrators, are required to “assess the risk of pupils being drawn to terrorism, including support for extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology.” To ensure compliance, the paper notes, “early education funding regulations have been amended so that providers who fail to promote the British values” do not receive support.

The espionage work has already begun. Last month students at the Buxton School in East London were administered a test. Among others questions, the students were asked to pick three words that best described them from a list that mixed faith identities, such as Hindu, Christian and Muslim, with words like “student” and “British." Students, some as young as 9, were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “I believe that my religion is the only correct one.” When the test came under scrutiny, school administrators said it was part of a pilot program to promote inclusion. The school then posted the text of the test online — after altering some of the questions, as evidenced by pictures some students took of the original test.

British schools will soon begin using monitoring software known as Impero to assist teachers in screening for future terrorists. Installed on all school computers, the software will look for searches such as “jihadi bride” and “you only die once.” Cumulatively, these surveillance measures will construct Britain’s public school as sites where the baby terrorist-to-be can be identified early and rounded up. This will make schoolteachers enlisted warriors in the U.K.’s “war against terrorism.”

From a ban on fasting to surveillance of minors, these tactics are designed to make British schools accomplices in the government’s effort to produce compliant citizens who are not excessively or dangerously Muslim and hence potentially terrorist. Toward that end, young Muslims, including toddlers, are fed state-mandated British values, which elevates the primacy of Britishness over their Muslim identity via screenings disguised as tests and patriotic performances. It is a frightening situation. Whether or not the students at Barclay Primary School defy the ban and fast this Ramadan, the choice before them has been transformed: Fasting is no longer a simple, if arduous, act of faith but a test of their claim to being British before an omniscient and meddlesome state.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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