Should Islam be taught in schools in Malta? This question has recently featured quite prominently in the public sphere. The issue peaked some days ago on Xarabank, the programme which everybody loves to criticise but everybody loves to watch. I saw most of it and was impressed by the civil debate despite disagreements among participants.
I also discussed the issue during some sociology lectures at the University of Malta and, again, I was most impressed by the passionate exchange among students at the University of the Third Age.
Indeed, there are four basic positions within the Islam debate. I would define these as assimilationist, secular, integrationist and multicultural.
The assimilationist view would argue that Malta is constitutionally and culturally Catholic and that, therefore, this religion should feature prominently within the educational system. As the argument goes, Malta should be proud of its religious heritage. Guests as well as religious minorities should respect this fact and, at best, pupils and students could be exempt from taking religious lessons. Assimilationists add that if future religious lobbies also call for their own religious education in schools, social cohesion and stability would be under threat from a mishmash of cultures.
The secular view also disagrees that Islam should be taught in schools. But seculars argue that no other religion should be taught, too. Instead, schools should remove religious symbols and practices and all students take up ethics. This ‘French’ model believes that secular education ensures that students are equal citizens with rights and responsibilities. In a way, the secular model is assimilationist but it replaces Catholicism with humanism.
At the opposite end one finds the multicultural view. This perspective argues that the education system should celebrate different cultures and provide for a plurality of religious and non-religious beliefs through a culture of tolerance. One major challenge of this perspective is where to draw a line and how to avoid cultural ghettos or non-compatible beliefs.
In practice: should Malta’s educational system permit religious beliefs which, for example, promote intolerance?
Finally, there is the integrationist view. This perspective gives priority to the integration of students within common values. But it does not necessarily exclude plural identities. Hence, this perspective could argue that Islam may be taught in Maltese schools provided that what is being taught does not violate Malta’s Constitution. Education Minister Evarist Bartolo is adopting this perspective. He acknowledges the right of students to have a sense of belonging to their religious background but he also made it clear that it is up to the State, and not religious lobbies, to set the curriculum.
Personally, I agree with the minister’s perspective. Incidentally, a dissertation by Omar Rababah, which I supervised, showed that parents of Muslim children in State schools would have a stronger sense of belonging if their religious identity is respected. Thus, if mutual respect takes place, this could provide a win-win situation through a culture of tolerance and respect of basic values.
This perspective can therefore provide an intercultural framework that would establish redlines as to what is acceptable and what is not. Social theorist Jurgen Habermas had dubbed this practice as ‘constitutional patriotism’.
I would however go a step further and ensure that ethics is a compulsory subject for all students while respective religious subjects would be optional for students depending on their respective religious or non-religious backgrounds.
Let us keep in mind that the Islamic education issue has parallels in other fields. For example, the learning of Maltese language. Again, I agree with the Ministry of Education’s efforts and directives to ensure that all students, irrespective of nationality, should learn Maltese and, if need be, they should be provided with extra lessons.
This too helps enforce social cohesion and integration. Various State, local council and EU-funded initiatives are also assisting in this regard.
Another related issue that requires sober discussion in Maltese society relates to the proposed anti-discrimination legislation. It is not clear where lines should be drawn between freedom, identity and dominant values, which, in the case of the proposed legislation, are liberal. Hence the need to further the deliberative process.