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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 16:58 GMT
Learning lessons from UK Muslims
By Emily Buchanan
BBC News World Affairs Correspondent

As the "war on terror" continues, the finger of suspicion has often been pointed at Pakistan's thousands of unregulated religious schools, the madrassas.

A group of leading mullahs from Pakistan have been touring Britain to set the record straight and to see how British Muslims are leading the way in Islamic education.

Muslim at prayer
Teachers say a balanced education protects Muslim students from militants

The governments of both the UK and Pakistan are hoping moderate models of Islamic teaching can be beneficial in combating the threat of religious extremism.

In a small street behind the East London Mosque, the delegation visited Ebrahim College.

It is in the heart of London's Bangladeshi community and caters for 17- and 18-year-olds who want to study A-levels alongside Islamic studies.

Many of them will go on to become Islamic scholars and imams.

Most Islamic colleges teach in Urdu, but here all the lessons are in English.

They also teach Arabic so students can actually read and understand the Koran.

Moderate models

Head teacher Mohammed Meshfiq believes a balanced course makes Muslim students more employable, and protects them from the militants.

That view echoes the hopes of both the British and Pakistani governments that moderate models of Islamic teaching can be beneficial in combating the threat of religious extremism.

As they sit in the spacious meeting room, complete with large prayer rug, the visiting mullahs must find Ebrahim College very different from the kind of schools they run.

Pakistan's madrassas educate, feed and clothe 1.5 million of the country's poorest children.

The mullahs hope their tour of Leicester, Sheffield, Blackburn, Oxford and London shows they are willing to challenge preconceptions of madrassas.

For years they only taught Islam, but more recently they have begun to include other subjects. This does not stop the accusations of links to terrorism.

One of the mullahs, Dr Ata-ur-Rahman - the principal of the Jamia Islamia branch of the Sunni Muslim faith - is adamant that accusation is unfounded.

"They [madrassas] are imparting education only," he said. "They have no link with military training because they are above ground, open, anytime people can see them."

Many young Muslims, whether Pakistani or British, lack knowledge of their own faith. They are the ones at risk of being hijacked by extremists.

That is why reform of Islamic education is a top priority in the UK and in Pakistan.

'System adoption'

The British government is now looking into funding Ebrahim College, and would like to export the model to Pakistan.

Pakistani Religious Affairs Secretary Vakil Ahmad Khan, who was accompanying the delegation, didn't really like the word "export".

"If you say it's an export of the UK system, I will say, no, it's not an export, it's the adoption of a system which is there in the UK and which is going to be in Pakistan as well," he says.

As the mullahs' visit came to a close, they realised it would take a lot of time and money to modernise their schools, even with a generous injection of cash from their government to fund computers.

They hope to fight poverty and unemployment. And they also have to fight the fact that there are still eight million Pakistani children who don't go to any school at all.


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