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A comparative study of how social cohesion is taught in Islamic religious education in Finland and Ireland



Based on classroom observations and semi-structured interviews with teachers, parents and students, this comparative study looks at how social cohesion is promoted in Islamic Religious Education (IRE) lessons in Muslim schools in Ireland and non-faith schools in Finland. The study analyses teaching in the following areas: intra-religious cohesion; inter-religious cohesion and commitment to society. The findings reveal that despite differences in the governance of IRE as a subject taught in both types of schools, the IRE classroom emerges as a space, whereby teachers use power as agents for internal governance of religion. The authors conclude with some implications and offer some considerations for future research and practice.
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British Journal of Religious Education
ISSN: 0141-6200 (Print) 1740-7931 (Online) Journal homepage:
A comparative study of how social cohesion is
taught in Islamic religious education in Finland
and Ireland
Inkeri Rissanen & Youcef Sai
To cite this article: Inkeri Rissanen & Youcef Sai (2017): A comparative study of how social
cohesion is taught in Islamic religious education in Finland and Ireland, British Journal of Religious
Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2017.1352487
To link to this article:
Published online: 14 Jul 2017.
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A comparative study of how social cohesion is taught in Islamic
religious education in Finland and Ireland
InkeriRissanena and YoucefSaib
aSchool of Education, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland; bIndependent Researcher, Ireland
Based on classroom observations and semi-structured interviews with
teachers, parents and students, this comparative study looks at how social
cohesion is promoted in Islamic Religious Education (IRE) lessons in Muslim
schools in Ireland and non-faith schools in Finland. The study analyses
teaching in the following areas: intra-religious cohesion; inter-religious
cohesion and commitment to society. The ndings reveal that despite
dierences in the governance of IRE as a subject taught in both types of
schools, the IRE classroom emerges as a space, whereby teachers use power
as agents for internal governance of religion. The authors conclude with
some implications and oer some considerations for future research and
Introduction – Islamic Religious Education (IRE) in Europe
During the past decade, religious education has increasingly become a topic of political interest and
an important arena of multicultural education, which is expected to answer the needs of an increas-
ingly diverse European society (Revell 2012, 26–29). The role of religious education in public discourse
and the recognition of its potential to contribute to both dialogue and the resolving of conicts have
stimulated academic research. Recommendations for religious education at new European-level, such
as the Council of Europe publication ‘Signposts’ is one notable contribution (Jackson 2014). In this
publication, religious education is presented in the broad context of intercultural education. While
it is acknowledged that there can be no common ‘European solution’ that would t for the dierent
European countries, the similarity of challenges in these contexts has given reasons for emphasising
religious education primarily as a means to promote social cohesion. European countries are encour-
aged to develop approaches to religious education that promote understanding of religions through
developing competences and dialogue, and cultivate appropriate attitudes and values such as tolerance
and civic-mindedness (Jackson 2014, 33).
Although not explicitly stated it appears that the increased presence of Muslim populations in
European societies correlates strongly with the sudden political interest in religious education and
its potential in promoting social cohesion and democratic citizenship. Currently, minority rights in
Europe are exceedingly tied to demands of loyalty to the nation states and their core values, and many
European nations endeavour to regulate the values of their citizens through, for example, their respec-
tive educational systems (Himanen 2012). Koenig (2007) states that ‘Muslim Europeans are seen less as
participants in the construction of a new, transnational collective identity but more as a policy problem
Islamic Religious Education;
social cohesion; Finland;
© 2017 Christian Education
CONTACT Inkeri Rissanen
to be “managed”’ (927). European governments’ policies increasingly include active management of
religious minorities, and religious education has become a site of governance of religion (Sakaranaho
forthcoming). In the UK, for example, pressure has been put on the government to regulate madras-
ahs amidst suspicions of physical abuse of children, indoctrination and the promotion of extremism
(Wintour 2014). In 2005, the Chief Inspector of Schools for England, David Bell, expressed concern that
Muslim schools were ‘undermining the coherence of British society’ by not adequately preparing their
pupils to accept or at least understand its values (Lightfoot 2005). In the aftermath of the London bomb-
ings in 2005, this issue took on greater importance and resulted in the launch of special programmes
for the development of citizenship education within several Muslim faith schools (Mandaville 2007).
IRE, in general, has invoked suspicions and public debates in several European countries, but studies
conducted in Sweden (Berglund 2010) and Germany (Heimbrock 2007) observed that teachers of IRE
supported the students’ willingness to embrace the values and norms of liberal democracies.
A common trend towards integrating Islam into European educational systems is evident, but there
is no uniform trend in its structure and approach. The ways in which education for Muslims is organised
depend on many local factors related to the place of religion in the society, the nature of the educa-
tional system and the general approach to religious education (see Aslan 2009). Approximately half of
all European countries have given some eort to include Islam in some form or another, as a subject in
the curriculum or as extra-curricular subject, in public school instruction (Maréchal 2002). When IRE is
implemented, it is often understood as a form of diversity management and as a way of coping with
problems related to the integration of migrant Muslims (Veinguer et al. 2009).
Public schools, where the majority of European Muslims are educated, are often posited as the best
way to integration. The fact that some Muslims want their own education invokes suspicions among
other citizens. Islamic schools or supplementary Qur’anic schools have even been accused of being a
possible cause for Islamic radicalism and hindrance to the integration of Muslim students into society
(Meijer 2009, 24). However, there are also problems in the inclusion of Muslims in public schools. While
Muslim families view Islam as cultural capital, schools might view it as oppressive and a hindrance to
students’ academic achievement (Archer 2002). Parents’ and community leaders’ desire to protect their
children have resulted in their willingness to establish private Islamic schools in, for example, Britain,
Netherlands and some Nordic countries. The fear is that by being taught a non-Islamic curriculum
by non-Muslim teachers in a class with non-Muslim pupils, Muslim children will eventually impact
negatively on their Islamic identity. In terms of content, European textbooks commonly present the
relationship of Muslims and Islam as conict-laden and dicult (Jonker and Thobani 2009). In addition,
the books may represent a ‘sanitised’ ahistorical form of Islam that makes it easier to t it into a western
liberal conception of religions and omit features that seem incompatible with western values which
is a serious form of misrepresentation that does not help in challenging Islamophobia and prejudices
(Revell 2012, 64). The provision of separate Muslim schools aim to protect and nurture religious identity,
and in other ways act as safe havens that resist assimilation of the Muslim community into the majority
culture (Haw 1994; Modood et al. 1997).
However, many Islamic religious schools have adopted a similar kind of orientation to citizenship
development as non-faith schools, where promotion of participation in a democratic society is actively
encouraged. For instance, in some Dutch and British Islamic schools, there has been a mentality shift
where the school environment is seen less and less as a place that protects children’s religious identity
against the un-Islamic inuences of the mainstream society, but rather as a tool to prepare them for
their role as active citizens’ (Niehaus 2009). It is worth noting that the vast majority of Muslim parents in
UK, for instance, choose to support the integration of their children to society by sending them to state
schools (Mandaville 2007, 230), and, for instance, are happy for their children to learn about other faiths
as part of learning to respect others (Halstead 2009, 195). The vast majority of the European Muslim
students agreed that learning about dierent religions helps them not only to learn about others and
‘to live peacefully with them’ but also in understanding their own religion and history (Jozsa 2009, 155).
In terms of dealing with intra-religious dierences, British, Swedish and Finnish IRE teachers tend
to avoid dierences of religious practices among denominations or teaching a particular school of
thought, preferring to stress commonalities (Niehaus 2009; Berglund 2010; Rissanen 2012c). However,
other studies have shown that some Muslim faith schools in the UK have made some tentative steps
to build common ground between the Sunni and Shia traditions, in particular, by dispelling myths of
the later (Panjwani 2014). While there is evidence of openness among Muslim faith schools towards
dealing with inter-religious dierences, struggles to engage in internal diversity in schools remains,
where many schools are guilty of ‘seeking representation externally’ while at the same time ‘suppressing
it internally’ (Panjwani 2012, 122).
In any case, despite the heated debates concerning the teaching of Islam which seems to be in the
front line in struggles concerning the integration of Muslims (see also Hefner and Zaman 2007), there
remains little research-based knowledge on how integration and social cohesion of European Muslims
are actually promoted in the classrooms of dierent types of schools. This article attempts to draw links
between public Finnish and Irish Muslim schools, forming the rationale behind this case study where
classroom practices of promoting social cohesion in IRE are compared.
IRE in Finland and Ireland
The rationale for comparing Finland and Ireland lies in their notable similarities. They both are relatively
small European countries that have become immigration-receiving countries since the early nineties
(Sakaranaho and Martikainen 2015; Scharbrodt 2015). Their Muslim populations are rapidly growing and
are notably heterogeneous. Finland diers mainly from other European Muslim immigration countries in
that it has had a small Muslim population, Turkish Tatars, over a hundred years, yet post-war immigration
started as late as at the end of 1980s. Nowadays, the Muslim population in Finland remains diverse, with
Somalis, Arabs, Kurds, Kosovo Albanians, Bosnians and Turks as the largest groups (Martikainen 2010).
In Ireland there are reported 70,000 Muslims, making them the fastest growing minority in Ireland.
Muslim immigration to Ireland has been diverse. Most groups come from African and Asian countries
or European countries outside the EU, primarily from Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo (Schardbrodt 2015, 56).
Previous comparative studies concerning Islam and Muslims in Finland and Ireland have shown,
for instance, that given the deeply embedded history of church-state relations in the two countries,
both face similar challenges and issues as they relate to the governance of other religions including
Islam (Sakaranaho and Martikainen 2015). The response of these countries in their accommodation of
Muslims and their educational needs has also been determined by the existing organisational struc-
tures. In Ireland, the State provides for free primary education, schools are established by patron bodies
which dene the ethos of each school and appoint boards of management to run schools on a daily
basis. The vast majority of primary schools (96%) in Ireland are owned by and are under the patronage
of religious denominations mainly the Catholic Church. A school of a specic religious community
can provide religious education according to the traditions, practices and beliefs of that community.
However, it may also provide a wider education about religion and must allow parents or guardians of
other faith traditions to provide for religious education in their belief system[s]. As of 2016, only two
Muslim schools received funding from the Irish Department of Education and Skills, and therefore, are
recognised as state-funded national public schools. Despite the exponential increase in the population,
a Muslim secondary school has yet to be established.
The functions of a recognised school include the promotion of the moral, spiritual, social and personal
development of students in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit
of the school. The Irish primary curriculum imposes no specic requirements for RE, but the general
aims serve as guidelines that generically emphasis the personal development of the child as well as
the development of social cohesion; RE should
enable the child to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual; enable the child
to develop as a social being through living and cooperating with others and so contribute to the good of society
and to prepare the child for further education and lifelong learning. (Government of Ireland 1999)
The State gives the Muslim patron the right to decide, devise and supervise IRE for the state funded
The ethos of the schools is Islamic and IRE is taught in the Irish Muslim schools on a daily basis for
approximately 30 min (see Sai 2017b). The subject is divided into three sub-subjects: Qur’an, with a
focus on reading and memorisation (see Sai 2017a); Arabic and Islamic studies, which focuses on the
teaching of rituals, principles and general morals. Most of the time is allocated to the teaching of Qur’an
and Arabic. Islamic studies is taught from a textbook prepared by the patron. The textbook presents
‘generic Islam without any references to neither the DES’s requirements nor the local Irish context, where
Muslims are living. There is no government support for IRE teachers who work on a part-time basis with
a basic salary generated mainly from a small fee charged to the parents and local community donations.
Most of the teachers do not possess any formal academic third level Islamic studies or pedagogical
qualications with some possessing an ijaza, a licence to teach the Qur’an. There are very few religious
schools in Finland, and no Islamic schools. Religious education [RE] is taught, according to pupil‘s own
faith, as a compulsory school subject, and students with non-religious aliation can choose to par-
ticipate in the learning of ethics. RE should not include the practice of religion in the classroom, and
dialogue between dierent religions and worldviews are encouraged. Students from minority religions
have a right to their own RE, if at least three students reside in the same area and their parents request
it. In 2010, despite the increasing plurality of Finnish society, 93% of comprehensive school pupils still
participated in Evangelical Lutheran teaching, only 3% in ethics, 1% in Orthodox teaching and 2% in
teaching according to other religions (Statistics Finland 2011). However, the situation is dierent in
urban areas of southern Finland, where the relative number of students participating in the study of
ethics and minority religions is considerably more. The National Board of Education plans the curricula
for religions and the National core curricula stress both the acquisition of knowledge about religion
and the personal development of pupils.
The framework for Finnish IRE is very dierent from its Irish counterpart. There is a national frame-
work curriculum for religions including Islam, which has not been made in close cooperation with the
Muslim communities, although some Muslim teachers were consulted (Sakaranaho 2006, 359). The
Finnish curriculum emphasises the development of Islamic identity and the contents mainly focus on
the Islamic tradition, but teaching should also cover other religions (Finnish National Board of Education
2006a, 2006b). Furthermore, students are to be aided in understanding the signicance of Islam for the
wider society, and aims of tolerance and respect for dierence are emphasised. However, the willingness
to encounter dierence is pursued in the IRE curriculum by the promotion of values such as mutual
understanding, tolerance and respectful attitudes, where teaching should also cover the plurality inside
the Islamic tradition.
Despite the plurality of the Muslim population in Ireland and Finland, due to practical limitations, in
both countries ‘general Islam is taught (Sakaranaho 2006, 364). In Finland, this approach has brought
challenges and created suspicions among the parents, nonetheless teachers of Islamic education still
give preference to the current model. In principle, RE teachers in Finland do not have to be members of
the tradition they teach. At the moment, unlike in Ireland, IRE in some schools is taught by non-Muslim
teachers, which has caused tensions and resulted in some parents requesting their children to not
participate in the IRE lessons. The concerns from parents often arise due to the fact that most of the
Muslim teachers of Islamic education do not possess formal qualications to teach the subject. The
implications of which are discussed towards the end of this article.
Data and methods
This article draws from two case studies conducted in Finland in 2010–2014 and Ireland in 2014–2016.
Both case studies used ethnographic methodologies and concentrated on three IRE teachers in each
country, six in total. Data in both contexts were recorded via classroom observations and recorded by
means of extensive eld notes. In the two Irish primary schools, referred to here as school A and school
B, 22 parents and 6 teachers were interviewed. In two Finnish comprehensive schools and one upper
secondary school, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 3 teachers and 16 students (aged
between 13 and 19). The Finnish teachers were familiar and committed to the RE curriculum and Finnish
educational values, but only one of them had a formal qualication. All the Irish and Finnish teachers
were experienced teachers and considered themselves to be practicing Muslims.
All interviews in both studies were recorded and transcribed. Data were analysed by means of
inductive qualitative content analysis. The Finnish data has previously been analysed from the perspec-
tive of students’ identity and value negotiations and how teachers supported these in the classroom
(Rissanen 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2014). In this article, our comparative study discusses how social cohe-
sion is promoted in Finnish and Irish IRE classrooms, with a focus on three main aspects. These include
intra-religious cohesion, inter-religious cohesion and commitment to society.
Promoting intra-religious cohesion
In a broad sense, teaching IRE in both countries in what might be referred to as general Islam seemed
to be the result of a desire on the part of the IRE teachers to increase unity and commonality among
Muslims. However, this may have been at the risk of ignoring the fact that Muslim pupils, who belonged
to dierent Islamic sub-groups, had a diversity of cultural backgrounds. This approach is likely to cause
tensions outside school if the general values taught were not necessarily armed by pupils’ parents.
In both countries, there were students from both Shia and Sunni denominations. Considering that
both denominations share many fundamental tenets, there appears to a valid justication for teach-
ing general Islam. While the Finnish curriculum for IRE requires the teaching of ‘general Islam, the Irish
teachers were not subject to such restrictions. However, in both countries, when the ner details of
Islam emerged in the classroom, the dominance of a Sunni interpretation of Islam was evident in the
observed lessons. This is how a Finnish Shia-student experienced the teaching:
Every now and then … like the last time, with this teacher, we were in another school, he told us about a prayer
or one part of that prayer. It’s a bit dierent for us, and when I told him that, he started, like, yelling at me. And I
was like … and he was like, ‘No, it is not dierent’, and I was like, ‘Yes it is, believe it or not’. Every now and then this
happens. (Interview with Finnish 16-year old girl)
This student was very frank and did not fear confronting the teacher during the lessons. She candidly
spoke of having quarrels with the teacher and that her parents did not see much value in the IRE taught.
She thought the lessons concentrated too much on the ‘basics’; a criticism shared by many of the stu-
dents, both Shias and Sunnis. She had a perception that this was because the Finnish law prohibited
teachers from discussing dierences between dierent denominations in Islam:
Researcher: Have you asked about the dierences?
Student: I have, but they won’t … they’re like, this is general teaching. I mean, of course they say that yes, there are
dierences, but we learn general Islam. You know, because according to Finnish law, they should bring
the dierences forward, so that there would not be any troubles or something like that, I don’t know.
Teaching children common values shared by both Sunni and Shia students provided a means of
stressing group identication and distinctiveness in an attempt to strengthen religious unity among
the pupils, despite the obvious variations that existed in their beliefs, backgrounds and cultures. There
were remarkable similarities in Finnish and Irish teachers’ ways of handling the heterogeneity in their
classrooms. Despite the regular questions on and derogatory remarks about Shia Muslims by some
Sunni pupils, they felt that it was not appropriate to teach about the various schisms. In both countries
the students’ eagerness demonstrated a natural inquisitiveness towards understanding the dierences
between Muslims and their practices, yet teachers often glossed over them without getting into any
detailed discussion. An example, from Irish school A, is outlined below.
Teacher Ali says to the pupils ‘The companions used to pray in the mosque … and this is a sign of faith … some
people used to go to the mosque just to be seen but they weren’t really Muslims. A student responds ‘Like Shia’.
Another says in Arabic ‘Munaqeen’ [hypocrites]. Ali arms munaqeen and ignores the comment previous to it. A
student says ‘My dad always prays in the masjid [mosque] he never prays at home’. (Field notes from Irish school A)
The teacher chose not to challenge the derogatory comment made by the pupil that put Shia Muslims
in a negative light and explained in the interview that:
The children are too young to go into these matters and it’s not a topic we can talk about in ve minutes or 10
minutes. It needs to be done thoroughly number one and it depends on the child who is asking the question.
Maybe if the child is asking the question is rough and straightforward so if he [sic] comes in contact with someone
who has these thoughts he will be very strict with him[sic]. So it depends child by child. So the Sunni-Shia thing
the kids don’t need to know about it.
This view seemed to echo the views of Finnish IRE teachers who seemed more comfortable dis-
cussing the diversity of Muslims with the older students only. However, there were instances in which
it seemed that the teachers attempted to model openness and positive attitudes. These included, for
example, mentioning their ‘good friends at the Shia mosque’ or the fact that they had visited a Shia
mosque previously.
Due to the extreme sensitivities related to the issues between Shias and Sunnis, teachers endeav-
oured to promote cohesion by concentrating on commonalities. However, this attempt to promote
peaceful coexistence of Finnish/Irish Muslims, by providing a monolithic view of Islam that ignored the
dierences within, implies that teachers’ use power as agents of governance and identity politics. This
approach, perhaps to some extent in the short-term, may appear eective in harmonising relationships
between the two denominations, however, as the populations of Muslims continue to grow and politi-
cal tensions intensify, glossing over ‘dierence, particularly for older children appears to be ineective.
Cases of bullying among pupils, name-calling, parents’ opting to take their children out of the schools
and, in some cases, even refusing them to take part in IRE lessons highlights undeniably the kind of
sensitive issues that need to be addressed if intra-religious cohesion is to be nurtured.
Promoting inter-religious cohesion
Instruction in one specic religion,emphasisingonly the pupils’ own religious beliefs is often viewed
negatively by those who object to faith-based schools or confessional religious education. Maybe the
most signicant dierence between Finnish and Irish forms of IRE is that, in the former, teaching about
other religions is included in the IRE curriculum. However, respectfor people of otherfaithswasoften
referred to in both classroom contexts. Promotion of inter-religious cohesion is not only about teaching
about other religions, but teaching about how to encounter them, as Muslims. Questions like ‘Can I
wish my friend a merry christmas even though it is their holiday’?; ‘If you are at work or at school, you
can’t pray there, right?; ‘Why Islam and Christianity are separate religions even though they have so
much in common’?;‘What happens to people who change their religion’? and ‘What does the Qur’an say
about people who believe in God, but not in any religion’? were commonly asked by Finnish students
during the class observations. All the teachers ironically promoted an open way of dealing with other
religions – much more open than in the case of intra-religious dierences (see also Rissanen 2012c). In
the views of some Irish parents and teachers, learning about Shia perspectives on Islam was considered
more of a threat to their children’s religious identity than learning about other religions.
Some Irish Muslim parents were open to the idea of teaching about other beliefs, and that it
couldenable their children to interact positivelywith others and understand their beliefs in later life.
One parent explained why this wasimportantfor his son.
Because to learn about other religionsyou can understand if they do something wrong. If someone asks‘Why you
are a Muslim’?, you can explainbecauseyou know his[sic]religion already. Like in our country, we are not allowed
to learn about other religions. I nd it is a bad idea because how can you discuss views with other people and you
don’t know his [sic] religion. It will be dicult. (Parent 1, Irish school A)
However, those parents who agreed with their children learning about other religions, they did stipulate
that it ought to be conducted inaway comparativeapproach with Islam. This view was expressed by
a parent from school A.
Teach them the basics of Islam, like in Educate Together[schools],theyteach that [Muslims]fast Ramadan,Jesus
is a Prophet, and those kinds of things. The Christian believes this,eats this butyou don’t have to condemn them.
You have to sayitin a good way. (Parent 5, Irish school A)
Mostof theIrish Muslimparentsdisagreed withthe ideaof learning about other beliefs at primary
level as it mightcause confusion among children and negatively aect their identitiesas Muslims.
However, most parents had no objection with their children being taught comparative RE at secondary
level. All the IRE teachers unequivocally asserted that given the limited time allocated to IRE that a focus
solely on learning Islam was a priority.
Although no parents were interviewed in the Finnish study, the teachers shared this view that the
legitimacy of introducing students' to other faiths depended on whether the students had a sucient
understanding of their own tradition. This view was expressed by one student who described the
reaction of one of his parents:
Student: In the sixth grade … we were studying about all these … Buddhists and … well, my father takes a look
at the religious education study book and is like … oh, I thought this was an Islamic education study
book (laughs and demonstrates her dad being a bit surprised), but suddenly there were things about
Judaism and Buddhism.
Researcher: Ok, so what did your dad think about that?
Student: He was like … are you studying Buddhism? No, this is the course about world religions … ok, I got a
little startled.
Researcher: So did he think this was a bad thing?
Student: No, he was like … it is a good thing to learn these things but … he said that it is better to study Islam
rst, then move on to other religions (Interview with Finnish 14-year old girl).
These reactions highlight the Muslim parents’ worries related to challenges of religious upbringing
and transfer of family tradition in western contexts, complicated further by their minority position. The
idea, rst of all, of gaining sucient understanding of one’s own tradition to assist pupils in developing
understanding of others, skills for dialogue and social cohesion – all of which have been considered
hallmarks of RE (see Schweitzer 2007). However, this ideal has, for the most part, been ignored from
current discussions and debate. Finnish RE has also been inuenced by these trends. While RE still is
organised in denominationally separated groups, the new 2014 core curriculum introduced the teaching
about other religions for lower levels.
Recently, Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has recently proposed
to the DES the introduction of a curriculum in world religions and ethics for primary to be taught
at primary level, including Muslim schools, as a separate subject. However, the Catholic Church has
resisted such eorts by the State to introduce this on the basis on that this would breach the rights of
demoninational schools to uphold their own religious ethos (Donnelly 2016).
Promoting commitment to society
The Finnish IRE teachers’ position as agents of identity politics was also seen in their active promotion
of ‘Finnish Muslim identity’ in the classroom. They endeavoured to promote citizenship ‘through’ reli-
gion by pairing the conceptions of ‘good’ Muslim and ‘good citizen’ while emphasising the compati-
bility between Finnish and Islamic norms and values (Rissanen 2012b). The teachers educated about
liberal educational values such as autonomy and tolerance by representing these as Islamic virtues.
Furthermore, they seemed to actively promote the students’ loyalty to their country by emphasising
the right to IRE as an act of recognition by the state, in addition to informing them that their Muslim
identities were legitimate and supported by the state (Rissanen 2014). For the students, the value of
IRE often lied in how it supported their capability to live as Muslims in Finland:
Researcher: What does IRE mean to you and why is it important?
Student: It ’s very important. You learn about these things in Finnish, so if a Finn asks you an important question,
you are able to explain to her in Finnish … a person who does not know anything about Islam, you can
explain and he/she understands what you are talking about (Interview with 18-year old girl).
In contrast, given the heterogeneity of Muslim students in the Irish classrooms, some of whom
were not born in Ireland, the teachers did not emphasise the importance of an Irish Muslim identity.
However, one of the expectations of the DES concerning RE is that it should instil values that promoted
a willingness to contribute to the general good of society, and this was done in a similar manner to
Finnish IRE. Furthermore, the concepts of contributing to the good of society and tolerance were not
interpreted as liberal values but as Islamic ones in and of themselves.
The narratives in both the Irish and Finnish contexts stressed the general importance of contributing
positively to society through the embodiment of Islamic values and beliefs. In the former, most of the
parents and teachers interviewed supported the idea of integration with non-Muslims on condition
that doing so did not contravene their own Islamic values. Some parents even called for more specic
content and teaching on the best ways young Muslims could integrate eectively in their community.
One parent said:
There are no cases [in the textbook] of how to deal with non-Muslims and this is a weakness in the curriculum. It
lacks real cases or stories, anything that can help the kids in how to deal with non-Muslims and how they shouldn’t
be judgmental. Because when non-Muslims see Muslims being very judgmental they don’t like this religion because
they think it is all about the appearance or what people see, for example like hijab. It is about the inside before the
outside. (Parent 6, Irish School A)
During the observations in both contexts, it was noted that the children were often encouraged to
be decent citizens and to lead others by example through their Islamic values and beliefs. Teachers’
regarded a secure Muslim identity as a prerequisite and necessary step in equipping students with the
ability to participate in the common culture of the country in a balanced manner.
In this comparative case study between IRE as a subject in Finland and Ireland, notable dierences
emerged in the content and its administration, particularly the extent of state involvement. This further
dismisses the notion of dening IRE in homogenous terms. However, despite these dierences, issues
related to intra-religious and inter-religious cohesion as well as commitment to society were negotiated
in relatively similar ways. Yet, these aims were explicitly stated in the Finnish IRE curriculum only, hence
why they were more explicitly pursued in the classroom. Some Irish Muslim parents did request more
contextual IRE that incorporated citizenship education and addressed societal issues that aected
their children. Amidst the disparate voices within Islam there exists an internal [emphasis in original]
struggle for space’ (Berglund 2010, 208) between the various interpretations and expressions and this
was, perhaps, nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the views of the participants in this com-
parative study. The various ways in which teachers are found to deliver and negotiate the content of
IRE indicates that it remains a space of internal governance, whereby the role of the teacher becomes
even more salient (see Sakaranaho forthcoming).
According to the ‘traditional’ view in the scholarly eld of religious education (individual and col-
lective) identity development is a necessary prerequisite for peaceful coexistence, a conviction shared
also by the teachers and parents in this study. It can be stated that the potential ‘power’ of both Irish
and Finnish IRE in promoting social cohesion, in some respect, relies on the fact that they can oer a
space for this kind of identity negotiation process, interpreted here as a form of internal governance
of religion. However, in Finland, as this case study shows, the development of IRE as this kind of space
remains compromised. The current legislation makes it possible for non-Muslims to teach IRE, and in
many large Finnish cities there are currently non-Muslim IRE teachers. In these situations, the IRE class-
room has become more a setting for external rather than internal governance, in terms of the context
of the curriculum and its delivery. In theory, there is a clear logic that religious aliation of a teacher
who teaches a knowledge-based subject in public schooling is not required. However, drawing from an
Islamic traditional viewpoint on education where teachers have played an important role as ‘models for
imitation’ (Renaerts 1999, 291) and are perceived as a ‘committed embodiment of the message being
taught’ (Hewer 2001, 521), the eectiveness and credibility of a non-Muslim teaching IRE as an subject
that has the ability to promote social cohesion through religion remains questionable.
In Ireland, the agency of a Muslim patron in administering, supervising and determining IRE perhaps
gives less scope for conict than in some other countries. However, at the same time, the hands-o
approach of the Irish DES matched with its outdated RE guidelines that predate the 9/11 era, implies
that IRE does not easily provide an opportunity to become a space, whereby religious education at
grass-root level can practically assist Muslims to live in a multicultural society and contribute to the
development towards societal cohesion. Given the various challenges young Muslims face living as
minorities in secular communities and some as minorities within a minority, new life is needed into the
content and pedagogy of IRE insofar as it is relevant and practical to their lives and reects the diversity
of their communities. Without any regular independent accountability over how IRE is designed and
implemented, the extent of how the subject eectively serves those needs living in the twenty-rst
century remains uncertain.
The new role of RE as a setting for the governance of religious minorities, creates a need to pay
attention to the role of IRE teachers as agents of governance, whose religious identication is denitely
not irrelevant when the legitimacy of religious education is evaluated from a minority perspective.
Furthermore, the power of religious education to promote social cohesion relies partly in its ways of
supporting the students' value and identity negotiations and their eorts to balance between their
loyalties to their religious tradition and to society as a whole. This article indicates that while what is
taught to young Muslims has often been at the forefront of the debate, recognising the inuential role
of IRE teachers in the delivery of Islam, and their potential impact in the promotion of social cohesion
at various levels to younger generations of Muslims, is equally if not more important. Further research
on the views and approaches of IRE teachers teaching Islam in western contexts is a desirable step in
the right direction.
Professional development and training programmes where ideas and experiences can be exchanged
including on ways to improve pedagogy and enrich the classroom by providing tools to engage with
theological and moral ‘dierences’ would be of immense benet to IRE teachers and school leaders.
While being a relatively sensitive and challenging issue for some, an exploration into ways of engaging
with intra-religious diversity among Muslims cannot be ignored.
If the importance of promoting social cohesion is to be taken serious, Islamic education needs to
become a research-based interdisciplinary academic eld within Irish and Finnish university struc-
tures, as it is in other European countries such as Germany and Austria, whereby state academic posts
concerned specically with Islamic studies and pedagogy as well as theology operates within existing
university structures. Recognising the diversity that exists in the classroom is only the rst stage. The
next step requires some form of pedagogical, philosophical and theological orientation in order to
improve educational experiences of young Muslims as they navigate their identities within evolving
pluralist societies.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
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The population of Muslims living in the Republic of Ireland has increased significantly in recent years. Despite Muslims being one of the fastest growing minorities in the country, there is a paucity of research on the educational choices of Muslim parents. This study draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2013 and 2014. Based on semi-structured interviews, this article focuses on the views of Muslim parents and teachers from two Muslim state-funded primary schools in Ireland. The interviews revealed that, for most parents, the schools’ Islamic ethos was an underlying motivation for enrolling their children at Muslim schools. The findings also demonstrate the negative reasons of their choices, such as the lack of accommodation and the feelings of isolation they and their children experienced in non-Muslim schools, which further heightens the perception that Muslim schools in Ireland act as safe environments that protect the cultural and religious identities of Muslim children. The article concludes with some considerations for future research.
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This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork that took place in 2014 in two primary Muslim schools based in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. Based on observations and semistructured interviews, three teachers were observed and interviewed on how the Qur’an was taught to fourth and fifth class pupils. The research findings explore the following: the content of the Qur’an lessons; the pedagogical approaches adopted; views of the teachers as well as a description of some of the common features of the Qur’an class. The author concludes with some implications and offers some direction for future research in the field of Qur’an education in western contexts.
Faith schools in England are associated with particular interpretive traditions within a religion. There are Catholic schools and Anglican Schools, for example. Similarly, what are called the Islamic schools are actually along the lines of madhabs or maslaks such as Deobandi, Barelvi, Ithna ashari Shia schools. Further, there are no inter-faith schools; no schools that are run by different faiths together. The above observations raise a question. How do faith schools teach about the religious other - both about other denominations within their own religious tradition and about the other religious traditions? The question was also raised in the context of a recent Ofsted report on independent faith schools which concluded that “although most schools taught a general understanding of other faiths…many of the schools visited were reluctant to teach about other faiths in great detail” (Ofsted 2009, Independent faith schools, p. 4). This chapter provides the results of exploratory research based on the above question with a focus on Muslim faith schools in England. The findings, based on the interviews of teachers, interfaith educators, classroom observations and the analysis of educational materials, are situated within the context of the wide range of attitudes towards religious diversity found in Muslim societies, past and present. Pedagogical and theological implications of teaching the religious other in faith schools are also examined. The findings show that at least some Muslim faith schools are giving serious attention to this area but their efforts are limited by certain factors such as lack of sound educational materials and limited engagement with philosophical and theological issues around the question of religious diversity.
The aim of developing students’ willingness to encounter difference has increasingly affected the designs of religious education in modern pluralistic societies. However, opinions concerning the best possible way to pursue this goal abound: hence, there is a strong need for empirical research. In this study, the possibilities of single-faith education for developing the willingness to encounter difference will be considered by presenting the results from a case study examining teachers’ practices in Islamic education in Finnish schools. The particular challenges posed by religious difference will be elicited alongside discussion of the intersection of traditional religious and liberal educational values in religious education.