By: Andrew Brown writing for the Guardian
The Swedish government has announced plans to clamp down hard on religious education. It will soon become illegal even for private faith schools to teach religious doctrines as if they were true. In an interesting twist on the American experience, prayer will remain legal in schools - after all, it has no truth value. But everything that takes place on the curriculum's time will have to be secular. "Pupils must be protected from every sort of fundamentalism," said the minister for schools, Jan Björklund.
Creationism and ID are explicitly banned but so is proselytising even in religious education classes. The Qur'an may not be taught as if it is true even in Muslim independent schools, nor may the Bible in Christian schools. The decision looks like a really startling attack on the right of parents to have their children taught what they would like. Of course it does not go so far as the Dawkins policy of prohibiting parents from trying to pass on their doctrines even in their own families - and, if it did, it would certainly run foul of the European convention on human rights. It does not even go as far as Nyamko Sabuni, the minister for integration - herself born in Burundi - would like: she wanted to ban all religious schools altogether. But it is still a pretty drastic measure from an English perspective.
The law is being presented in Sweden as if it mostly concerned fundamentalist Christian sects in the backwoods; but the Christian Democratic party, which represents such people if anyone does, is perfectly happy with the new regulation. There is little doubt that combating Islamic fundamentalism is the underlying aim, especially in conjunction with another new requirement that all independent schools declare all their funding sources. This would allow the inspectors - whose budget is being doubled - to concentrate their efforts on those schools most likely to be paid to break the rules.
In the background to these announcements comes the release of a frightening documentary film on Swedish jihadis, which follows young men over a period of two years on their slow conversion to homicidal lunacy.
The question is whether we in Britain will come to see this as a necessary move in the struggle to contain Islamist ideologies. Can a defence of freedom convincingly be mounted by a state that takes such a firm view of what is or is not true? Or can freedom not be preserved without such measures? The dilemma makes no sense from a completely liberal position, where it is assumed that the truth will always win out in fair competition, and that the state is almost always to be distrusted. But Swedes have never really been liberal in that sense, notwithstanding the fact that the two ministers involved here are members of the Liberal party.
Superficially, the British position could not be more different. The British government's strategy with Islam or protestant extremism in Ulster has been - so far as we have had one - flattery and corruption, or what Microsoft, in another context, calls "embracing and extending". Find the leaders, flatter them, and draw them into the ruling class in the hope that they will then cooperate and see that their followers do too. The gamble that the government is taking on faith schools is that if religious groups are given their own schools to run, they will do so in ways that will turn out for the benefit of society as a whole, as well as of their pupils. Certainly this works quite well with the Church of England. Anglican schools are happy, by and large, to teach religion as if it were not true; to put it in a more flattering light, they concentrate more on the fruits of the spirit than on dogma. However, no one supposes that society is threatened by a terrorist movement nurtured in C of E primary schools.
Demanding that Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic schools stop teaching their own religions as if they were true, which is essentially the Swedish position, looks an impossible task for a British government. But I think it might also be a necessary one. It is certainly the only way to discover whether the parents of such schools really want the "ethos" or the pseudo-factual beliefs and what exactly it is that the people who fund them think they are buying with their money.