Muslim groups blast ‘dangerous’ school prayer ruling, mosque denies input in ban

Muslim groups have condemned a court ruling upholding a ban on pupils praying at a London school, including a mosque which denied having involvement in supporting the school’s controversial policy.

Last Tuesday, a high court ruling upheld controversial headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh’s ban on pupils praying at Michaela community school in Brent.

The Muslim Council of Britain said the decision sets a “dangerous precedent” for religious freedom in the country.

“We would urge Michaela Community Schools Trust to reconsider its stance on this matter,” it said.

“Denying such a reasonable request not only alienates young people from their educational environment but also undermines the collective efforts of schools to create welcoming and inclusive spaces for all students, irrespective of their religious beliefs.”

Meanwhile, The London Central Mosque denied telling the school that deferring obligatory afternoon prayers was permissible.

Justice Thomas Linden said the pupil could perform ‘qada’ prayers ‘to mitigate the failure to pray within the allotted window.’ 

The court documents included details about the alleged involvement of the mosque regarding prayer deferral, which proved contentious among British Muslims.

But the mosque, also known as Regent’s Park mosque, published a statement stating it was “not involved in, and was not asked to be involved in this court case in any way whatsoever.”

The mosque said it disagreed with the judgement and that preventing Muslim’s praying was “a violation of the religious and human rights.” 

Mosque denies advising pupils can defer prayer

According to the written ruling, Birbalsingh claimed she spoke with an imam at the London Central Mosque about Muslim pupils making up missed prayers later.

The document stated: “Ms Birbalsingh argues that… observant Muslim pupils who miss the Duhr (afternoon} prayer can make up for it later in the day, including by praying at the Brent Civic Centre.”

“She says… she also spoke with the Imam at the London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre who agreed with this view and offered to speak to any Muslim parents who had doubts on this point.”

But the mosque said it only got involved to find a solution after Birbalsingh’s prayer ban created “tension between the school and the community.” 

It stated it told the headteacher that students must pray within the allotted time.

On making up missed prayers later, the mosque said it informed the school this was possible in summer when there is more time between the Duhr and Asr (afternoon) prayers, and therefore, Duhr could be delayed until the end of its allotted time. 

“We made it clear that in the winter it would NOT be possible to pray later as times are much shorter,” added the mosque.

Ban doesn’t reflect British values

The case was brought by a Muslim pupil who argued the school’s policy banning prayer was discriminatory and “uniquely” impacted Muslims.

While acknowledging the ban would be detrimental to Muslims, the judge said it was “a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims” of Michaela school. 

He added that it did not interfere with religious freedom as the pupil could move to another school that allowed prayer.

It was a view echoed by Birbalsingh, who said students are made aware of the strict rules before enrolling: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.”

After Tuesday’s ruling, she claimed it “a victory for all schools” to be “free to do what is right for the pupils it serves.”

But the Muslim Council of Britain said the suggestion that Muslim children go elsewhere to pray contradicts the British values of inclusion and diversity.

It highlighted that schools across the UK support various faith practices and “demonstrate a genuine commitment to ensuring that all children feel a sense of belonging.”

“The approach that children should go elsewhere if they are unhappy that their faith won’t be accommodated for does not reflect the Britain we are all proud of because of its inclusion of diversity,” the MCB said.

“It is also discriminatory towards those Muslims who want state education while upholding their religious traditions. It implies that the two are at odds with each other: a line regularly spouted by bigots,” it added. 

Birbalsingh’s controversial connections

Birbalsingh is no stranger to controversy with her outspoken views on issues like “woke culture” in schools — for example, she’s alleged to have said that some people from the poorest families should set their sights lower.

In January 2023, she acknowledged her divisiveness by stepping down as head of the Social Mobility Commission, saying her public comments were “doing more harm than good.”

Birbalsingh has ties to the right wing of the Conservative Party, including Suella Braverman. Braverman, who on the same day as the ruling was criticised for speaking at a far-right convention in Brussels featuring figures under investigation for extremism, was a founding governor of Michaela school.

Byline Times investigated the financial and ideological connections between the school to the Tory right.

The ruling sparked outrage from many British Muslims and anti-racism groups on social media. 

The interim CEO of the Runnymede Trust, Shabna Begum, called it “outrageous” and said it stemmed from a “hostile, Islamophobic mood stirred up by political and media elites.” 

Others suggested the decision displayed “structural Islamophobia” and pointed out how the news of the ruling fuelled an “eruption of Islamophobic slurry” on social media.  

Some criticised the ruling as showing how school privatisation can allow right-wing ideologues to impact state education. Others questioned why secular principles weren’t applied evenly across other faiths.

The debate also raised the question over the suggestions that Michaela school was a high-performing outlier in its area, given that many inner London schools achieve strong results without such policies.

Amid the backlash, some concurred with Birbalsingh and urged Muslim parents to simply withdraw their children from Michaela.

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