Thursday, 7 June 2007

Britain to emphasise Islamic studies

LONDON (Reuters) - The government announced a new emphasis on Islamic studies on Monday in an attempt to offset fears of extremism but was only able to come up with an extra one million pounds ($2 million) to fund the initiative.

The relatively small boost to funding follows a review of university Islamic studies courses that found that curriculums were frequently out of date or focused on narrow interpretations of Islam.

It also comes amid increasing tension between Britain and its 1.7 million-strong Muslim community, particularly since the July 7, 2005, suicide attacks by young Muslims on London's transport system that killed 52 people.

The subject will now be designated as "strategically important", with an emphasis placed on how and by whom it is taught, and a wider variety of students, including more Muslims, encouraged to study it.

"This would in turn contribute to preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam and improving community cohesion," the department for education said in a statement.
"It is important that the study of Islamic studies within higher education is up to date and focuses on relevant issues."

The initiative follows a government commissioned report which found that Islamic studies teaching at degree level often concentrated too much on a Middle Eastern focus, while ignoring the realities of Islam in modern Britain.

Speaking at an International Conference on Islam and Muslims in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to the need for increased emphasis on Islamic studies, saying the "true voice of Islam" needed to be heard.

"There is an interest and appetite across all sections of society to know more about Islam in all its diversity," Blair said. "This is not, repeat not, about equating interest in Islam with anxiety over extremism. But it explains, in part, the desire to learn about what motivates our Muslim communities."

University administrators welcomed the government's initiative while cautioning that any changes to the curriculum should ensure that "critical intellectual rigour" remains.

"It is important that all academic disciplines follow the normal quality procedures," said Drummond Bone, the president of Universities UK, a vice-chancellors' organisation.

The Ramadan Foundation, a non-politically affiliated Muslim youth organisation, also cautiously welcomed the initiative and Blair's speech, but warned that words would not be enough.

"The government's very good at announcing things... but when it comes to substance there's often not much there," said Mohammed Shafiq, a spokesman for the group.

"You have to judge the prime minister on his record, and the fact is his government has introduced lots of legislation that discriminates against Muslims. What he's done in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to terrorism."
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft)


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