The Crusades on our playgrounds?

Abstract: There is something that could threaten to tear apart even moderate Muslims and Christians – a potential battlefield on our children’s playgrounds…

Ever heard of Pollokshields? I doubt it. In fact, I doubt if anyone outside of this suburb of Glasgow has ever heard of it. And yet it may be a defining player in Islam’s relationship with the West that could have repercussions in South Africa.

I have just returned from the UK where the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoon debacle is still making the news. In a country that boasts a press that is legendary in its tenacity and sovereignty, the British press has been remarkably restrained. Unlike some of their European counterparts, they refused to publish the ‘offensive’ cartoons. Their moderation had nothing to do with censorship though. Like South Africans, the British are sensitive towards offending different religions, especially Islam. But for how long?

One gets the sense that their patience is running thin. In one week the British press relished in their coverage of the jailing of the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza who had openly advocated acts of terror against his fellow Britons. They also covered the protests in London against the Danish cartoons. But more than one newspaper drew attention to the arrest of two men at the protests for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’ because they were distributing copies of the cartoons (not the brightest thing to do) under the banner of ‘press freedom’. The papers found it a little strange that as they were arrested, some marchers behind them were holding placards encouraging people to ‘Behead those who insult Islam’ – not a particularly peaceful sentiment.

Again the issue was raised of the TV broadcasts of an Iranian fanatic who has called for attacks on British targets and nationals in Teheran. He recently announced: “This is war TV. We do not believe in democracy.” The irony is that he broadcasts from Barnet in North London, and he is allowed to do so because Britain is a democratic country.

The press also gave extended coverage to a certain Mr Omar Khayam who made the desired headlines when he dressed as a suicide bomber to protest outside the Danish Embassy in London. He was vociferously unapologetic, but then suddenly became unreservedly apologetic when the press uncovered that he had spent time in prison for the possession of crack cocaine.

Like South Africa, the UK is home to a very strong and respected Muslim fraternity who are an integral part of the nation’s identity, and who have been almost universal in their condemnation of the acts of extremists. They are also quick to point out that although these extremists make a lot of noise, they are by far in the minority. This is clearly true. But amidst all of this, it is the events at Pollockshields that could provoke a backlash against even moderate Muslims and fuel the claims of right-wing nationalists that Islam is colonising Britain.

The Scottish daily The Herald recently carried a story of Muslim parents of children at a small primary school in the Glasgow suburb who protested when their children had to attend Mass. The school – St Albert’s – is a Roman Catholic school run by the Roman Catholic Church. The protestations became heated when some parents accused the priest who led the service of potentially inciting “religious and racial hatred”. Instead of calming things down the parish priest reacted by stating that the parents’ “intention was to show their contempt for the Christian faith”. Surely, you may ask, the Muslim parents are in no position to complain? After all, they sent their children to an openly Catholic School. In fact, democratically, they do have a right to complain – the majority of the pupils at the school are Muslim. Apparently more and more Muslim families have been settling in the area and their children enrolling in the school until they now outnumber the Christian children. This poses a dilemma: does the school remain Roman Catholic, or does it become Muslim?

What happens if Pollokshields explodes into a battleground between Christianity and Islam? This country, and others, could become fertile conscription centres for young soldiers for both sides. Here in South Africa, as in the UK and elsewhere in the world, children of different faiths are enrolling at openly Christian schools, as is their right, and then insisting that their religious rights also be respected; whether it be, say, to attend mosque on Fridays or to take days off over Yom Kippur. The question is: if they choose to attend a Christian school, is this their right or is it a privilege? If the roles were reversed and Christian children started attending, say, Muslim schools, would they be entitled to demand the right to celebrate Lent? Can a ‘secular’ primary school deny a Muslim child that they celebrate her religion but then still insist all the children draw pictures of colourful eggs at Easter and stage a nativity play at Christmas? Surely this is just a subtle form of marketing Christianity? We need clarification on such concerns, because, unfortunately, we can’t rely on parental common sense to deal with them if and when they arise.

Children can be breeding grounds for radicalism. They lack the maturity and depth of thought to balance perspectives. They are often unable to understand what is right and what is wrong. They are also easily influenced by the expressions of adults and are intimidated by their emotional outbursts. Tell a child that Islam or Christianity is wrong and then use an isolated passage from a religious text to support that opinion, and who is the child to argue? All it takes is a single phrase or statement to plant a seed of racism or religious intolerance in a child. It will then fester and flourish into a twisted perspective of another child in the same class who is of a different religion; and manifest itself in subtle but cruel remarks, even psychological or physical harassment.

Cool heads are needed here. Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations must never be allowed to manifest itself on our children’s playing fields.


Originally published in the Sunday Times, 5 March 2006