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‘Islamic primary schools have been important for Muslim emancipation’

The opening of Islamic primary schools has made an important contribution to the emancipation and integration of Muslims in the Netherlands. This is the conclusion of PhD candidate Bahaeddin Budak in his research into 25 years (1988-2013) of Islamic primary schools in the Netherlands. PhD defence on 9 June.

‘Islamic primary schools have shown that they are typically Dutch. Just like Catholic and Protestant schools they have had to claim their place in the Dutch education landscape,’ says Budak. For his research this theologist and educationalist held a series of interviews with 16 governors and headteachers of Islamic primary schools. They had all worked for more than 10 years at their school and had seen the identity of Islamic primary schools in the Netherlands change. This was often due to political and societal mistrust and pressure from outside, he concludes.

School organisation and attacks

‘I identified five turning points in total that were crucial to the identity development of Islamic primary schools in the Netherlands,’ he says. The first turning point was setting up the Islamic school organisation, ISBO. Before that, new Islamic primary schools had joined Catholic, Protestant or public school organisations. ‘But they were a bit of a third wheel there. Once the ISBO came about, this created the opportunity to share information with one another and to support applications for new schools. The schools also put their heads together to think about how to give practical shape to their identity.’

First schools

The first Arabic primary school in the Netherlands opened in 1971: Bouschrãschool in Amsterdam. Two Islamic primary schools followed in 1988: Tarieq ibnoe Ziyad in Eindhoven and Al Ghazali in Rotterdam. Forty-three Islamic primary schools now belong to the ISBO.

A second turning point in the identity development of Islamic primary schooling was 9/11, when hijacked planes rammed into the Twin Towers or World Trade Center in New York.

‘If there was a suspicion of extremist influences at a school, then all Islamic primary schools were checked’

‘The Dutch government’s view of Islamic primary schools changed completely after this. New legislation was introduced to make it more difficult to set up new Islamic primary schools, for instance. But the schools as a group also came under the scrutiny of the Inspectorate of Education, the media and even the Dutch security service [now the AIVD]. If there was a suspicion of extremist influences at one school, then all Islamic primary schools were checked.’

As a result, says Budak, the Islamic identity of the primary schools changed. Some schools decided to teach religious studies in Dutch rather than in Turkish or Arabic, and the rule that non-Muslim female teachers at the schools had to wear the hijab was soon scrapped. Budak: ‘They waived rules that are not necessarily Islamic, and the dynamic process of identity came of age: that’s how I see it. The school boards also had to show who they are. They had to justify themselves and this made them more combative.’

For his research Budak spoke to various school governors and headteachers. In the video below he shares an anecdote from one of these interviews:

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The growth of Islamic education has resulted in the emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands, says Budak. ‘They took on responsibility for becoming a school governor or doing managerial tasks. Muslims have since done teacher training so that they can teach and have also taken on responsibility for starting a dialogue with politicians at the administrative level. I would venture to suggest that without Islamic primary schools Muslims would never have reached this level of emancipation.’

‘Don’t be afraid’

With the results of his research Budak not only wants to give an impression of how the identity of Dutch Islamic primary schools has developed, but would also like to motivate policymakers to start a dialogue with the governors of Islamic primary schools, and to do so sooner and without preconceptions. ‘And if there still are governors who tend to be inward-looking, my advice is: don’t be afraid to talk to your local community because that’s also where your pupils come from.’

Bahaeddin is chair of the board of Islamic theology faculty of Amsterdam. He has written several textbooks for Islamic primary schools and also served on the board of the Muslims and Government Contact Organ.

Main photo: maths lesson at an Islamic primary school in Leiden.

Text: Tim Senden

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