One of the hardest consequences of immigration, whether planned or
forced by circumstances, is that all the values and behaviours you
thought normal are shaken up. What’s more, the locals believe that
their ways are the best. Just as you think yours are. The clashes
and conflicts between these two begin right away even when there
appears to be little to divide the immigrants and the populations
of the receiving countries.
It happened strikingly with the immigrants from the Caribbean when
they sailed over in their Sunday best in ships in the summer of
1948 and after. They were more English than the English in many
ways, as Trevor Macdonald always points out, many immersed in
Shakespeare and the history of their Motherland, which is how they
thought of this country.
They were also Christian. Yet, by the early 1960s when
child-centred education was all the rage, parents from the
Caribbean found themselves unable to relate to the lack of
discipline in schools, the decreasing use of corporal punishment,
the apparent collusion of teachers against the ways of the parents.
There are stories of teachers giving children telephone numbers of
social workers to complain about alleged maltreatment by their
parents. It was a tricky time but eventually black parents came to
accept that teachers beating children was unacceptable. Today few
of them would take it if such treatment was meted out even to the
most disruptive children. They still fight, as then, for better
education and expectations for their children, but corporal
punishment has disappeared into history.
This is a reminder that the emerging questions about Muslim
children being sent to religious schools or other institutions
(important for them to learn Arabic and the Koran) where physical
punishment by teachers and Imams is both permitted and expected,
even when the children are very young. Similar concerns are being
raised about some black churches and strict white Christian sects.
First it is important to understand why this is going on. For the
parents strict discipline is an expression of care. They want the
children to follow the right path and can only reproduce what they
went through without questioning any of it. It is also true that in
two-thirds of the world, including in the UK, millions of people
believe it is their right to chastise children with slaps, sticks,
canes, slippers and other weapons of assault. They believe that
children are spoilt and losing their way because parents have
stopped being authoritarian. This might even be true, in part.
But beating and terrifying children is still wrong and especially
if it happens in places where children are being guided into a
faith. It is horrifying to discover priests have been abusing
children. And there is no doubt at all that Muslim children and
others are being punished and driven in ways that our laws no
longer allow. But how does the state regulate places of worship or
religious training without appearing to be fundamentalist
secularist or totalitarian? How do you carry out inspections and
assessments of mosques, temples and churches of non-Church of
England followers without making them feel prejudice is really
behind the concern? Not easy at all – cries of racism are sure to
be raised. After centuries of exploitation, black and Asian Britons
can be forgiven if they always suspect white-dominated
But those who claim immunity from such regulations on grounds of
cultural and religious integrity cannot be allowed to get away with
ignoring standards that should apply to all children in the UK.
That itself is another kind of racism – allowing Muslim children no
protection from corporal punishment is discriminating against them.
The solutions are not insurmountable. After all, social workers or
GPs or policemen who are Muslim, Sikh or from the Caribbean apply
the same standard assessments to people from their backgrounds. The
Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998 make it clear that
there are some children’s rights that take priority over all
considerations. And there are many Muslims themselves who would be
grateful for a little less indulgence of orthodox leaders and
traditionalists on the part of the state. They, we, see ourselves
as both Muslim and part of Europe and we have come to understand
that this means changing some of the ways we used to think and
But that vital process of change cannot happen if the authorities
are too scared to assert basic, non-negotiable rights that we as a
society are trying to provide for children.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and