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(In)tolerance and recognition of difference in Swedish schools.: The case of Islamic denominational schools and practices of veiling
Stockholm University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (Forskning om organisation, ledarskap och policyfrågor)
2011 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The aim of this report is to describe and analyze the embodiment of acceptance and recognition in discourses and practices which address cultural diversity in the Swedish educational system. In order to fulfil this general aim, we study how different categories of practitioners in the Swedish school system, such as teachers, headmasters and union representatives, and other stakeholders, such as civil servants, and representatives of political parties and the civil society, discuss and relate to the claims of recognition put forth by Muslim practitioners and/or policy measures designed to reach the fulfilment of those claims. Two cases are studied: the establishment of Muslim independent schools and the claims to dress veiled in public schools, out forth by Muslim youth.

The cases are selected with consideration to a number of circumstances. First, the faith and belief practices of Muslim migrants have been debated on a large scale in Swedish media during the last decade, as in many other West European and North American countries. It is quite common that these practices has been put under scrutiny, and subjected to extensive critique. The attention paid to Muslim belief practices and institutions has also reached Muslim denominational schools and the practice of Burqa and Niqab. The establishment of denominational schools during the last two decades, whether Islamic or not, has also received a lot of attention, in mainstream media as well as in debates on education policy. For instance, a number of political parties have voiced demands to keep down the number of Islamic denominational schools.

Second, Muslim migrants has, according to a number of studies, been subjected to direct and indirect discrimination. Whether this discrimination primarily is religious to its nature, or ethnic, and hence targeting their ethnic identity, is not always concluded, but the extensive negative attention mentioned above suggests that the scope of religiously motivated discrimination is either predominant or on the rise. The enactment of Muslim belief practices is not infrequently obstructed. For example, the construction of Mosques does seldom take place in silence; frequent and high-pitched voices of rejection and disapproval are common, and when the buildings once are completed, the congregations receive numerous threats and insults. The opposition is evident, and two mosques have been burned down. Moreover, women wearing burqa or niqab report being harassed in public. Apart from the lack of recognition and acceptance in religious matters, the prevalence of discriminatory mechanisms might also obstruct the access to welfare services and the entry to the labour market.

This report consists of two cases studies, which relies solely on qualitative data. The main part of the empirical material consists of interviews with 13 persons – three teachers, three headmasters, two union representatives, two civil servants, one jurist, one imam and one representative of a political party. The interviews are used as a source for both cases. As additions to interviews, we have collected newspaper articles, memos from public authorities, bills introduced to the parliament, debates on commentary fields in web-edition of newspapers, et cetera. Being a minor study, it is necessary to make some reservations concerning the reliability of our material. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether or not it is possible to make generalizations from our material, thus asserting that the viewpoints found in our material are overlapping with or similar to the attitudes of other teachers, headmasters et cetera.

In sum, a number of disadvantages with the establishment of Islamic denominational schools are expressed. They are allegedly divisive, both culturally and socially, and the quality of their instructions is supposed to be inadequate, in relation to the standards explicated in the national curriculum and syllabi. If the attitudes found in this study is spread all over Sweden, it could reasonable be said that Muslim schools are met by suspicion. Still, few calls for shutting down of these schools are voiced. It seems that the Muslim denominational schools are tolerated in a literal sense: it is accepted, sometimes pragmatically, but not liked. On the other hand, it could be said that the provision of a juridical and institutional space for religious minorities to establish denominational

schools is part of politics of recognition; i.e. an educational policy which, under auspicious circumstances might provide the means for religious minorities to receive respect as equal and gain admission as normal.

It must also be noted that the some of the objections to the existence of denominational schools implicitly and explicitly related to some central notions in Swedish educational policy. The notion of

equivalence is a keyword in this context, and signifies on the one hand a demand for abidance by the national curriculum and syllabi, and on the other a priority of equalizing measures over freedom of choice. The equalizing and integrative objectives of the compulsory school project seem to be vital, but the quest for recognition of minority beliefs systems is circumscribed. Thus, the reproduction of "demos" is given priority over the recognition of "ethnos". As such, the notion of "equivalence" [likvärdighet] has been a keyword in Swedish educational policy since the 1980’s, denoting equalizing ambitions as well as educational uniformity and compliance to steering documents.

A number of objections to the practice of wearing Burqa or Niqab are put forth by our interviewees. In contrast to the media debate, the argument of gender equality was relatively downgraded. Rather, the interviewees focused on assumed problems with identification and communication. It was said that the abovementioned veiling practices obstructed the possibility of identifying the students at school, and also rendered the communication – and hence the instructions – at school more difficult. In comparison with the question of Islamic denominational schools, the non-tolerant stance was more manifest, although few explicit calls for a prohibition were made. Moreover, a specific discursive framing of the veiling practices could be discerned. The wearing of Burqa or Niqab was associated with phenomena such as mischief and the hidden, thus casting suspicion over the practice in question.

As an instance of the everyday life, rather than an institutional arrangement, veiling practices could arguably be considered to be of less concern for educational policy than the establishment and maintenance of Islamic denominational schools. Still, the question of prohibition has gained a lot media attention during the last years, and brought the regulating dimension to the fore. And though our material contains few explicit calls for prohibition, several interviewees claimed that a teacher must see the face of the student in order to instruct and educate. And although the goal of equivalence was less relevant in this matter, the practice of veiling was questioned with reference to universal human rights, as the rights of the child. The right of the parent to exert influence in religious matter was questioned, since it could be regarded as a limitation of the freedom to choose direction to the walk of life. Thus, it seems like that the right to wear Burqa and Niqab in public schools are among the non-tolerable, although few explicit calls for prohibition can be discerned. So far, the material in our report, consisting of relatively limited set of qualitative data resonates with the broader tendency discerned by Orlando Mella, Irving Palm and Kristin Bromark (2011): the resistance in Sweden against the Burqa and the Niqab is compact; almost nine Swedes out of ten find it (totally or partly) unacceptable to wear Burqa and Niqab, respectively, at school or at work (Mella

et al 2011:30), whereas seven out of ten find it (totally or partly) unacceptable to wear Burqa and Niqab at other public places.

As noted above, the stress on equivalence consists of two distinct although related arguments. On the one hand, there is a demand for abidance by the law (here: steering documents such as national curriculum and syllabi), which among other things are paid attention to because Islamic schools are suspected not to follow these steering documents accordingly. This interpretation of "equivalence" is related to an understanding of the term which has become more and more frequent since the introduction of freedom of choice and independent schools in Swedish educational policy, and the decentralized system of governance of education in Sweden (Lindensjö & Lundgren 2002). In this context, where regulation is obtained through management by objective and evaluation, and responsibilities are spread between numerous responsible organizations, the goal of equivalence is equivalent (!) to abiding by the law.

On the other hand, there is wish to maintain socially integrated educational environments, in which students from different ethnicities, classes and gender meets and interacts. Thus, it seems like the equalizing and integrative objectives which were central to the compulsory school project implemented during the heyday of the Scandinavian welfare regime (Esping-Andersen 1990) seem to be "alive and kicking". But the quest for recognition of minority beliefs systems, central to the policy of multiculturalism, is circumscribed. In so far, the arguments employed here gives priority to the reproduction of "demos" over the reproduction of "ethnos". It must also be noted that the freedom of choice, an important feature in the neoliberal turn of educational policy, does not seems to be so important for the interviewees in this particular matter.

If we focus on the most elaborated objections in the report, we find arguments which 1) was presented as a response to the presumably universalist claims of freedom of religion, thus setting the professional considerations which are presented above in a more general, ethical context, and 2) focused on an ethical value of overriding importance, viz. the rights of the child. Emphasis is laid on the right of the child to "choose his own path", a wording which is used by several interviewees, which most of all seems to refer to the first paragraph in article 14 in the United Nations convention on the Rights of the Child, which aims at protecting "the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion". In the arguments of the teachers, the headmasters and the union representatives, this ethical principle makes it to possible to assert that children possess the freedom

from the religion (as well as from other loyalties, or sets of ideas and beliefs) of their parents. Although not explicitly questioning the parents rights’ to raise and guide their own children, they distinctly emphasize the autonomy of the child, and it’s potential to choose something else than that which is given within the family.

The emphasis on the rights of the child is regularly explicated in a specific discursive context. The right to "choose one’s own path" is contrasted to the restrictions inherent in the religiosity of the parents. Religion is regularly depicted as the repressive force, and the secular mind-set as the entity in need of protection. The possibility of secular parents putting down religious inclinations among their children is never represented. Evidently, a discursive coupling of religion with repression and secularism with liberation may be discerned in the claims for freedom from religion. It may also be noted, that the impact from parental (Islamic) faith is the only aspect of upbringing which is questioned in this context. The arguments against tolerance or recognition of Islamic belief practices in this report are not primarily based on islamophobic or orientalistic discourses, but with reference to notions of equality. The interviewees stress the

professional aspect of their opposition against veiling practices. They dissociate themselves from standpoints put forth in media, above all those who solely focus on the gender aspect of complete veiling practices. Instead, their emphasis on the professional educator dimension entails a focus on communication and identification. These acts of discursive positioning might be seen as an effort to "maximize the intertextual gap" between their own argument and the discourse in media, which to a fair-sized extent was articulated by radical right-wing populists. This dilemma is solved by the rhetoric of equivalence, which offers a way to reject claims of recognition in tandem with the defence of values as diverse and important as social justice, the rule of law and the freedom of the individual (child). Thus, the non-tolerance of religiously motivated veiling practices could be motivated with values which is central to diverse but culturally dominant ideological universes, such as socialism and (neo-)liberalism.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
, Accept Pluralism, 2011/16
Keyword [en]
toleration, recognition, schools, veiling, Islam, Sweden, equivalence
National Category
Educational Sciences
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-72560OAI: diva2:502196
Accept Pluralism
Available from: 2012-04-16 Created: 2012-02-14 Last updated: 2012-04-16Bibliographically approved

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