Row erupts over wearing of hijabs in our schools
Academic calls on Catholic schools to allow 'more inclusive' uniforms
A leading academic has called on all Catholic schools to allow their Muslim pupils to wear the hijab and tailor their uniforms to respect their religious identity.
Trinity College lecturer Dr Ali Selim said: "The hijab for Muslims is an essential aspect of character. Depriving Muslims of the right to wear hijabs is very threatening to their identity."
Although there is no legal ban on the hijab in Irish schools, Dr Selim said wearing the headscarf is a "divine obligation" for Muslim girls and urged schools to be more flexible about incorporating it as part of their uniform.
"In today's society we need to apply a more pluralistic approach when it comes to the school uniform," said Dr Selim, who has lived in Ireland since 1999 and formerly served as Secretary General of the Irish Council of Imams.
"It is not dangerous to wear a hijab in class, some may argue that they are dangerous in PE, but there is a special sports hijab that Muslim women wear in the Olympics."
Dr Selim, whose five children attend Catholic schools, also wants religious crests on school uniforms to be removed.
"Sometimes our school uniform might have a religious identity. If I don't believe in this religious identity does this put me in a difficult situation with regard to my faith values. In order to provide children with an inclusive educational environment these obstacles need to be removed."
Dr Selim, who is also the author of a new book called Islam and Education in Ireland, also accused some Catholic schools of having discriminatory admission policies.
"Admission policy . . . is a practice of discrimination in my understanding," he said in reference to the 1998 Education Act.
Dr Selim made the controversial comment at the launch of his new book in Trinity last week.
However, Iona Institute director David Quinn, who attended the launch, said he had "issues" with Dr Selim's views.
He said that while Muslim parents have the right to send their children to Catholic schools, the ethos and identity of the school should not be compromised.
Mr Quinn told the Sunday Independent: "A faith school is by definition set up to mainly cater for children of the faith of the school."
However, Mr Quinn said Muslim students should be allowed to wear their traditional headscarves, as long they do not cover their faces.
He added: "Covering the whole face acts as a barrier between the person, the rest of the class and the teacher . . . it is going too far in the other direction".
When contacted by the Sunday Independent, the Department of Education and Skills said uniform guidelines are specifically set by individual schools.
"School uniform policy is a matter for each individual school, preferably in consultation with its own stakeholders . . . parents, students, and any other relevant parties," it said in a statement.
There are now more than 60,000 Muslims living in Ireland, making it the fastest growing community in the country.
There are currently a total of 3,165 primary schools in Ireland, of which 91pc are under Catholic patronage. There are just two Muslim primary schools in the entire country, with both based in Dublin.
Although Dr Selim has been involved in Ireland's inter-faith dialogue for more than a decade, the Islamic Foundation of Ireland (IFI) and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) - the official body for Islamic education in Ireland - rejected his views.
In a statement to the Sunday Independent, the IFI said: "As patron of the Muslim National schools in Ireland since 1990, we can confidently assert that such opinions are neither shared by the IFI, the ICCI nor the majority of participating members in the Islamic community here."
The IFI praised schools and management bodies such as Educate Together and the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) and said many Muslim children have passed through primary, secondary and third-level education without losing their cultural or religious identity.
"We have found that Catholic school managements have made wonderful efforts to make their schools as inclusive as possible without losing their own ethos."
With regard to schools' admission policies, the IFI said: "We acknowledge that there is always pressure on schools and on parents of all denominations and no faith seeking places, which sometimes results with many parents not receiving their first choice."
However, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson agreed with Dr Selim that all schools in the Republic need to be more tolerant of students from other religions.
He told the Sunday Independent: "Those who are not of a tradition can actually learn and share their childhood together and will be able to stand for respect, integrity and tolerance if situations become aggressive . . . if you learn about that at an early stage it will continue to inform your reactions as an adult."
Archbishop Jackson also said there should be "scope for negotiation" around the wearing of uniforms that display religious crests
Atheist Ireland said Dr Selim's version of inclusivity is "not practical".
"If he wants schools to promote specific beliefs of other groups then he should recognise that the Islamic schools should also openly respect atheism and other religious views," said chairperson Michael Nugent.
"The only realistic way you can have proper inclusivity in education is to have a system that is neutral rather than one than manifests all beliefs."
The National Parents Council Primary and the CPSMA both failed to return calls to the Sunday Independent seeking comment.