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Unholy Alliance

Denis Solomon • 1,223 words

Education systems are the biggest prize in this (denominational schools) battle. To increase the power of religion in education is to hand further generations of children over to obscurantism and superstition, in more or less sophisticated forms, and ensure a continuous renewal of their congregations at State expense

When the Prime Minister announced his intention to revise and extend the concordat with religious bodies for the operation of denominational schools, he was admitting that the education system has failed.

The concordat, signed by Eric Williams in the sixties, was a necessary measure to overcome the deliberate restriction by the British colonial authorities of educational opportunities for the population of this country. Its purpose was, or ought to have been, to buy time for the State to provide adequate education for all its citizens.

Now, instead of phasing denominational education out, the Government is proposing to phase it even further in, at a time when sects have proliferated in parallel with the increase in ignorance, and in the world as a whole the forces of secularism are battling to keep religious influence over the organs of State at bay. Education systems are the biggest prize in this battle. To increase the power of religion in education is to hand further generations of children over to obscurantism and superstition, in more or less sophisticated forms, and ensure a continuous renewal of their congregations at State expense.

Let no one tell me that denominational schools are the best in this country. They are, and probably by a wide margin. That is the problem. The question we have to ask ourselves is why. No country has flourished in the twentieth century unless its education system has been resolutely secular. In France and Italy, countries where the Catholic church is strong, State education is the norm and denominational schools are recognised as providing an inferior outlet for those who can’t make it in the state system. In the United States, there is an ongoing battle between secularists and the religious right over prayer in schools, despite the Constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion.

Let no one tell me, either, that in the former Soviet Union secular education, despite overcoming illiteracy and producing a large pool of scientists and technicians, collapsed together with the country. In the first place, secular education is a necessary but probably not a sufficient condition for development. Secondly, Soviet education was not secular. It was religious. Its religion was Communism, as irrational a cult, for all its pseudo-scientific trappings, as Christianity or Islam.

The greatest triumph of the Enlightenment in France was the guarantee of free, compulsory and secular education. It has produced marvels. France is rich in all the talents that good education can produce and develop.

And yet it too is under siege. Only this week there was a recurrence of the controversy that erupted a few years ago over the clamour by Muslim parents for their daughters to be allowed to wear the hijab in class. In a school in Normandy the entire teaching staff went on strike in defence of the secular principle when the father of a girl of Turkish origin claimed the right to have her wear a head scarf to school. In French State schools religion is rigorously excluded. Religious instruction is forbidden, as is the wearing of any “ostentatious” item of religious symbolism. The thin end of the wedge came some years ago when another girl was allowed to wear the hijab, on condition that she make no effort to convert her classmates. On the present occasion the action of the Turkish girl has prompted another Muslim pupil, who had not worn the hijab before, to begin doing so.

The irony is that Muslims in France and other secular countries who agitate for religious “rights” in state education would not be able to educate their daughters at all in many Muslim countries. In Afghanistan the Taliban have banned females from education, as well as from any work outside the home, including teaching. Women and girls must wear not the hijab but head-to-toe covering, including face masks. In Iran they must wear the chador, and if they wish to ride a bicycle they must go to a park reserved for women. In Saudi Arabia they are forbidden to drive a car.

Turkey, the home country of the girl in the French hijab controversy, has had no government since November last year, because neither of the two largest parties can govern without the help of the Islamic religious party, and the army, which sees itself as the guardian of the secular principle established by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, will not tolerate a coalition with the religious party in it. In Algeria, a paradoxical situation presented itself in which the result of a democratic election had to be annulled because it had thrown up an Islamic government dedicated to the overthrow of democratic freedoms. The terrible thing about religion in politics is that it provides its adherents with an excuse for anything, as our own experience in 1990 demonstrates.

The clamour for the hijab, therefore, like any other “right” demanded on religious grounds in countries already democratic, is merely another weapon in a struggle for political advantage, an example of minority discontent being hung on the peg of religion. Children are particular victims of this tendency, because when they are inevitably seduced by the freedoms of the larger society they come into conflict with the values of their elders. Girls, in particular, suffer the consequences, which often include death.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have as usual put our own surrealistic twist on this situation. The daughters of johnny-come-lately Muslim parents probably wear the hijab to school more willingly than any French Muslim child because it is an aspect of the ole-mas’ attention-getting syndrome to which the whole society is prone. In our State schools children can wear anything with a supposed religious significance, from hijab to dreadlocks, but learn very little, while it is the religious schools that manage to dispense a little education while banning manifestations of religious allegiance, or at least such of them as relate to other cults. In St. Joseph’s Convent, nuns covered from head to foot attempted to forbid a Muslim girl to cover her head. They couldn’t tell her to go to a Muslim school because the Concordat gave her the right to be there, and eventually the court decided that the concordat also gave her the right to wear the hijab.

The pervasive anti-intellectualism of this country (which its apologists call “spirituality”) has meant, too, that the pupils of the State schools are even more imbued with superstition than those of the denominational ones. Neither one group nor the other, therefore, produces intellectually free citizens. The only difference is that the degree of superstition varies with the social level of the institution and of its victims. The “demon attack” that afflicted the children at Chaguanas Roman Catholic School in October 1997, or the winking and nodding statues seen by the children of St. Patrick’s School when they were taken to church to pray to pass the Common entrance exam, would not have occurred at Holy Name or St. Mary’s. There, there would at most have been a discreet apparition of the Virgin Mary, or a guided tour to Medjugorje. As for the Hindus, luckily murtis are not found in schools, and can only drink milk in mandirs. But give them time. With a renewed concordat, the prospect is for more of the same, until we can get our act sufficiently together to take the upbringing of our young permanently out of the hands of the shamans.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top