Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New civics class asks what would Mohammed do?

By Jane Perlez  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BRADFORD, ENGLAND

At the Jamia Mosque on Victor Street in this racially and religiously tense town, Idris Watts, a teacher and convert to Islam, tackled a seemingly mundane subject with a dozen teenage boys: Why it is better to have a job than to be unemployed.

"The prophet said you should learn a trade," Watts told the students arrayed in a semicircle before him. "What do you think he means by that?"

"If you get a trade it's good because then you can pass it on," Safraan Mahmood, 15, said.

"You feel better when you're standing on your own feet," Ossama Hussain, 14, offered.

The back and forth represented something new in UK mosques: A government-financed effort to teach basic citizenship issues in a special curriculum designed to reach students who might be vulnerable to Islamic extremism.

In the long haul, the British government hopes that such civics classes, which use the Koran to answer questions about daily life, will replace the often tedious and sometimes hard-core religious lessons taught in many mosques across the land. Often, these lessons emphasize rote learning of the Koran and are taught by imams who were born in Pakistan and speak little English and have little contact with British society.

Written by a Bradford teacher, Sajid Hussain, 34, who holds a degree from Oxford, the new curriculum is being taught in some religious classes in Bradford, which is increasingly segregated between South Asians and whites.

The pilot project has the backing and the financing from the Labor government as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign that it hopes will eventually spread to other cities and help better integrate the country's mainstream Muslims into British culture. Approximately 2 million Muslims, mostly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, live in Britain.

Since four British Muslim suicide bombers attacked the London transit system in July 2005 and two other major terrorist plots were uncovered last year that British Muslim men were suspected of planning, officials have been struggling with how to isolate the extremist Muslim minority from the moderate majority.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last month that he wanted to demonstrate the "importance we attach to nonviolence" and "the importance we attach to the dignity of each individual," and in the process make unpalatable the "extreme message of those who practice violence and would maim and murder citizens on British soil."

"The question for us is, how we can separate those extremists from the moderate mainstream majority?" he said.

One of the virtues of the Bradford curriculum in applying Brown's vision, his aides said, is that it is taught by forward-leaning imams and is based on matching messages from the Koran to everyday life in the UK. The government has been concerned because, in part through its involvement in the Iraq war, it lacks credibility with many British Muslims.

An estimated 100,000 school-age Muslim children attend religious classes held at mosques in Britain daily, generally after school hours, said Jane Houghton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Communities and Local Government.

"The impact this teaching could have is quite considerable," she said.

But as much as the government likes the curriculum, it has faced opposition from some Muslims.

Why, asked Nuzhat Ali, the women's coordinator of the Islamic Society of Britain in Bradford, should Muslim children be singled out for civics lessons?

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