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Islam - is it a food?
First published: 04 May 2004

Anjum Anwar almost blends in with the sea of red around her. She has come to the morning assembly at Garstang community primary school, near Preston in Lancashire, to talk about living life as a Muslim. Anwar, a further education teacher, happens to be wearing red, like the red sweater uniforms of the pupils.
Her hijab and skin tone set her apart in this predominantly white school. "Have you met a Muslim before?" is Anwar's first question. A pupil says yes, they have met someone their father works with. "Where are Muslims from?" A child puts up their hand and answers China. "Absolutely right," says Anwar. "There are Muslims in China, but Muslims live all over the world."1
Anjum is the front line of an schools' initiative by the Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) called 'Understanding Islam' which has attracted interest from Manchester, Blackburn and Blackpool LEAs.
The project grew out of concern about increasing Islamophobia in the UK after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Wayne Marland, the leader of the equality team at Lancashire county council, had already contacted schools to express concern about bad feeling against Muslims, urging them to "counter the excessive language being used in the media", when he was approached by the director of LCM. The council, already a partner organisation of the LCM on other projects, provided £30,000 a year to cover costs and pay a project worker.
"What is Islam - is it something to eat?" ask the children at Garstang. "What colour are Muslims?" The hands fly up. Someone says brown, another black, and another white. "What about blue, green and yellow?" says Anwar. The children giggle.
"So what makes me a Muslim?" A boy says it is because she has brown skin. "So when you go to Barbados and get a suntan does that mean you are then a Muslim?" They all laugh again.
With well-judged material and a clear sense of humour, the children warm to Anjum in the 15 minutes of assembly time. In that time she talks about what Muslims eat - "everything" (she explains the prohibition against pork and some of the older children know that Jews don't eat it either); what football team she supports - Manchester United (followed by equal cheers and boos from the children); and what her small son, also at primary school, enjoys playing.
Chris Barlow, deputy head of Garstang, invited Anjum. He has responsibility for developing the health of the school's pupils, and that includes healthy minds, he says. "Anjum came over as just a normal person saying this is what's going on in my life, and the children liked it and responded to her. The kids may be exposed to negative images of Muslims in the press or through other means and they may call up the experience with Anjum that will help them form balanced opinions based on truth," he says.
Garstang primary is a beacon school, but how has Anjum found more challenging schools? "I have been welcomed by parents, teachers and children alike wherever I have been. Even in BNP Burnley," she says. She admits she has had to deal with walking into schools where children have frozen because they had never seen an Asian before. She has been asked questions like: "Why are you not allowed to work?" and "Why are Muslim women not allowed to speak in front of their husbands?" It's not negativity, it's simply misinformation, she says.
Which is exactly what Understanding Islam is trying to fix. Anwar says it is about celebrating the similarities and differences. "We need to learn about other people as human beings. And we can start to see that there are other communities, who have a different faith and a different way of praying. The problems arise when a community feels their way is the only way."
Anjum has now visited 120 schools in the year and a half that the project has been running. As well as school sessions, she has also been involved in bussing-in or "twinning" a predominantly white school with one that has mostly Muslim pupils - with such good results it will be repeated.
The problem is that there is only one of Anjum and 647 schools in the county to get through. The demand is ever increasing. Marland says he "fully expects it to be funded up to March 2005". But Anjum has an even bigger picture in mind. "I suppose I am being idealistic, but I would like to see Islam or any other faith being taught as a civilisation continuously throughout the curriculum."

This article by Felicity Heywood first appeared in Asian News's sister paper, The Guardian.


First published by the Guardian

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