How can Muslims and non-Muslims live peacefully together as citizens of this rapidly changing global village?

What role can teachers and schools play in supporting this?

Here in the UK, this question is routinely highlighted by the media. Tensions in northern English towns with sizeable Muslim populations, the perceived threat posed by the 'flood' of asylum seekers [many hailing from Muslim countries], and the almost daily warnings about terrorism and Islamic extremism, have demonised Muslims in the minds of many.

And in seeking to understand the UK context, international events such as the oil crisis of the 70s, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Kashmir and Chechnya, the attack on the US in September 2001 and the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been significant. Such events have polarised opinion for many about the faith of Islam, Muslims, and the global role they have to play in the 21st century.

How then successfully to integrate a diverse Muslim population into mainstream British society, against a backdrop of growing Islamaphobia, remains a critical issue for many at the coal-face of social issues. Teachers are, of course, at the forefront of this challenge.

We at Islamic Relief have felt compelled to contribute to the debate. As a Birmingham-based aid agency, motivated by the humanitarian values in Islam, we implement programmes in some of the world's poorest countries. We therefore feel well positioned to act as a bridge between 'East and West'. Hopefully, an improved understanding between British Muslims and the wider society will have a positive ripple-through effect on Britain's interaction with the wider Muslim world.

Views from teachers involved in the project

Working with schools was the obvious place to start, given that they are in the midst of grappling with the issues of the day: citizenship, pluralism and social cohesion. In an attempt to help inform the debate, Islamic Relief and Tide~ entered into a partnership to enable teachers to explore Muslim perspectives on these contemporary themes. Across a number of meetings, teachers' opinions were engaged and the diversity of Muslim voices was examined, with the project culminating in a report: 'Citizenship and Muslim perspectives - teachers sharing ideas'.

For me, the debates prompted by this project were powerful. I increasingly feel that ignorance of both Muslim culture and the faith of Islam is in danger of radicalising many sections of society. Ignorance is reinforced by a general lack of interaction between mono-ethnic communities that often results in many children growing up in parallel societies. Prejudice, rather than informed understanding, is then shaping many attitudes.

Issues affecting many young Muslims were also identified through the project. These included; confusion over identity, academic underachievement and perceived discrimination, often leading to low self esteem and a growing sense of exclusion and frustration. Ironically, it is also the ignorance of some Muslims of the inherent moderate message of their faith that is adding to their social polarisation.

But the greatest irony for me is the commonality that actually exists between people from both 'East and West'. When Muslim aspirations are listened to, and the Islamic view on today's pressing issues [eg the environment, social justice, human and animal rights etc] is compared to that of the 'West', the convergence and overlap of opinion gives me much reassurance and optimism. The tragedy is that more are not aware of the preponderance of 'shared values'.

The way forward now seems much clearer. Opportunities for teachers to raise awareness and to share and explore ideas are much needed, as well as educational resources which highlight the positive historic and modern contribution to society of Islam and of Muslims. Above all, positive and structured interaction between young people of all backgrounds must be urgently arranged, eg twinning schools with very different ethnic and religious compositions.

In short, the conclusion is unsurprisingly simple: for prejudice to be overcome, and for commonality to be recognised, other people's perspectives must be explored. Above all, only through increased interaction will familiarity and trust arise, which may in turn lead to friendship and partnership, which is the only lasting foundation for a shared citizenship.

Muhammad Imran played a co-ordinating role in the project which led to Citizenship and Muslim Perspectives.

He and his team offer support to teachers.
See www.islamic-relief.com for further details.