State school pupils are set to be taught Islamic traditions and values in compulsory citizenship lessons.
The move—part of a package of initiatives announced by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears yesterday—is designed to curb extremism.
Education campaigners warned however against giving Islam a privileged position over other faiths.
Other plans announced by Miss Blears also drew criticism—including a state-funded panel of Islamic scholars and theologians to provide community leadership.
Prominent Muslims said this scheme was naive because Government endorsement would erode the credibility of those taking part, especially among the young and disaffected.
Another measure will see Muslim children being taught citizenship lessons by imams in mosque schools—in the hope that they will be better equipped to resist extremist messages.
Many Muslim youngsters in the UK attend evening classes at madrassah schools attached to mosques, where imams give instruction in the Koran and Islamic history.
Ministers want imams to stress that the Koran places a duty on all Muslims to be good neighbours, carry out voluntary work and play an active part in civic society.
Pilot schemes will begin in October in London, Leicester, Birmingham, Oldham, Rochdale, and Bradford.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has tasked the Islam & Citizenship Education group with producing the teaching materials for mosques.
The organisation, however, wants to extend its remit to mainstream state schools by ‘teaching Islamic traditions and values in the school citizenship curriculum’.
David Conway, senior research fellow at the Civitas think-tank, said: ‘Some will see this as another sign of a creeping process of Islamisation—an insidious process which plays down the Christian basis of our culture and encourages children to learn more and more about Islam’s contribution.
‘Muslims are still a relatively small minority in Britain and, while I have nothing against children in our multi-religious society learning about each other’s faiths, for one particular faith to be privileged in mainstream schools seems to me pointless, and won’t make for greater harmony.
‘I fear it will play into the hands of the small minority who want to see the Islamisation of Europe, and believe they will triumph through sheer numbers.’
Unlike religious education classes, citizenship lessons, which do not cover issues of belief, are compulsory.
Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: ‘We should not single out one particular faith. Citizenship is supposed to be secular.
‘Children can learn about particular religious values in religious education lessons. That’s why parents have the right to withdraw. It’s a very different matter to promote a particular faith’s values as part of compulsory citizenship lessons.
‘It seems to me dangerous to single out the one faith which is probably linked to the most problems with terrorism at the moment for special treatment.’
Khalid Mahmood, project manager of Islam & Citizenship Education, stressed that the project was at a very early stage.
He said: ‘The material is being developed for the madrassahs but we are putting it together so that people in mainstream schools would also be able to use it.’
Miss Blears announced details of the panel of 20 leading Muslim experts which will have £100,000 in state funding.
Based at Cambridge University, the experts will be expected to compile reports on key issues in the lives of British Muslims, such as the wearing of Islamic veils by women.
Miss Blears insisted the new panel would be independent, adding: ‘It is not for Government to dictate on matters of faith or religious teaching.’
Dr Azzam Tamimi, of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, said the scheme was doomed to failure.
He said: ‘This is a naive initiative. This not how Muslim education or awareness works.
‘When a Muslim individual seeks advice or knowledge he or she would usually go to a person they consider to be credible or an authority, and usually Muslims are suspicious of government-sponsored or organised commissions.’
Dr Tamimi told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme ministers were trying to dictate to Muslims over religious awareness and education.