The right to belong

Louise Chircop • The request for Islamic Studies is legitimate, not only because the students are Maltese citizens but the State should not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of faith

1 April 2017, 11:40am
Feelings of belonging foster a positive attitude towards the society in which we live. Giving Muslim students the possibility to learn Islam would cultivate a socially just and democratic community
Feelings of belonging foster a positive attitude towards the society in which we live. Giving Muslim students the possibility to learn Islam would cultivate a socially just and democratic community
Mariam Albatool School is a Maltese school in which students follow the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). The only difference between this school and other Maltese schools, is that religious education focuses on Islam instead of Catholicism.

The secondary school will stop operating as from the next scholastic year and Muslim students will have to attend other schools. A number of them will surely enrol in state schools. The closure of the secondary school prompted the Imam to request again for the teaching of Islamic Studies in state schools. The first time I heard Mr Mohammed Elsadi speak of the teaching of Islamic Studies was during an information meeting about Ethics in Schools, way back in 2014. I find this request by the Muslim community justified for a number of reasons.

1. Entitlement to a quality, holistic education

The first principle of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) says, among other things, that every student is entitled to a quality education. It promotes the development of a holistic education. This means that every student is entitled to an education which focuses on the development of her or his physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

As things presently stand, Muslim students in schools (except for those attending Mariam Albatool) are not receiving their just entitlement, as their spiritual wellbeing is not being considered. If equality in education is to be achieved, it is important to be aware and acknowledge the relationship between education and socio-cultural, political, economic and affective systems that exist in society. Teaching Islamic Studies in schools would mean equalizing access and participation, leading to a more holistic and integrated approach to achievement of equality in education. 

2. We are living in a diverse society

The NCF also acknowledges that Malta is no longer the perceived homogenous nation of the past, and so our education system must be prepared to address the ever growing diversity within its schools. In order to do this, the NCF proposes, among other things, that schools should be inclusive environments, where diversity is respected in all its forms. Consequently schools cannot be considered inclusive unless they address the existing diversity within them.

Part of this diversity is faith, and in our educational context, where Religious Education is confessional, inclusive schools should be able to provide for diverse faiths. I consider the request for Islamic Studies as legitimate, not only because the students are Maltese citizens, and the State should not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of faith. In teaching Islamic Studies, schools would firstly be legitimising the presence of Muslims in schools; they would no longer be considered outsiders, due to their faith. By providing lessons in Islam, schools would be showing respect to the culture and religion of the largest minority in Malta. Social recognition is vital for the students to grow. 

3. The right to belong

Schools are sites in which much more than instruction takes place. Schools provide an educational experience when they foster in their students a sense of belonging, a sense of well-being and make school a place where they feel safe and secure.

Schools, as sites of educational practices, should foster a climate of acceptance and respect for all students. Part of this acceptance is acknowledging the diversity of the students and engaging in practices that support the diverse needs that are manifest in our classes and schools. Muslim students too need to feel respected, accepted and that they belong within the educational institution they attend.

I believe that feelings of belonging foster a positive attitude towards the society in which we live. Giving Muslim students the possibility to learn Islam would cultivate a socially just and democratic community. This is integral in the constructions of understandings of learning that are holistic, and that acknowledge the whole person. Individuals whose worth is acknowledged become empowered and are more inclined to become active participants in society. I consider the teaching of Islam in schools as a step forward, a step towards making our society more inclusive and accepting of who we, as Maltese, have become.

Louise Chircop is an Ethics Support Teacher within the Directorate for Quality and Standards in Education. She is currently concluding her Ph.D. dissertation, a study of educators’ constructions of social diversity