Religion or an Education? How British Muslims are forced to decide

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Jeddah – Yasmine El Tohamy – LONDON: A member of the UK’s House of Lords has challenged the government over its “shameful” disregard for British Muslims, who he said are being systematically deprived of a university education because of a refusal to introduce a student loan system that Muslims can access. 

In a debate this week, Lord Sharkey highlighted a seven-year-old promise made by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “Never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a student loan — simply because of their religion,” which he told a World Economic Forum conference in Davos in 2013.

But Lord Sharkey said this promise has gone unfulfilled, and the government’s failure to act is excluding British Muslims.

“Lords will know that Islam forbids interest-bearing loans. This prohibition can be and is a barrier to Muslim students going on to attend our universities,” Lord Sharkey said.

The UK provides interest-bearing loans to help students pay for university. In 2014, the government committed to providing an alternative that would allow Muslims to take loans that do not compromise their religion. Specifically, they pledged “the introduction of a Sharia-compliant Takaful Alternative Finance product” available to everyone.

“That was six years ago … there is still no Sharia compliant student product available,” Lord Sharkey said.

“It is shameful that the government have allowed so much time to elapse and that they display such a casual neglect of and disregard for our Muslim community.” 

A senior British politician with direct knowledge of the issue told Arab News that the government’s failure to introduce an alternative financing system was, in his view, inexplicable. 

“I genuinely do not understand why the government has taken seven years to do something about this. Six years ago the government not only recognized a problem, but recognized a solution: Takaful,” they said.

Takaful is a common Islamic finance mechanism that allows lenders to provide credit in a Sharia-compliant manner. 

The government, the politician told Arab News, has already introduced a Takaful system to assist with buying houses — and that was rolled out in under a year. 

“I have no idea how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place — it’s obviously discrimination. I remain very unhappy, but also completely bewildered as to why they would choose to treat the Muslim communtiy in this way.”

Estelle Clarke, a student finance campaigner, told Arab News that she attributes the government’s failure to it being “indifferent” to the plight of students.

“Further, and unfortunately, their inaction does suggest a systemic discrimination against certain students on the grounds of their religion, and that the government is indifferent to this discrimination,” she added.

As it stands, Clarke explained, the astronomical price of university education in the UK means that British Muslims have no good options when it comes to deciding their future after finishing school. 

“When you look at the cost of a university education, as a rough figure, every year costs you around £20,000 ($27,800) — which student can afford to come up with £60,000 upfront to pay for their degree without taking loans?  

“On the assumption that you will not compromise your religion — and nobody should be forced to — a Muslim student has the choice between paying for the entirety of their education up front, or not going to university.” 

She added: “That’s no choice at all.”

This is the predicament that thousands of young and ambitious Muslims have suddenly been confronted with, with teenagers across the UK preparing their university applications,.

Four years ago Ayesha Dar was one of those students. She told Arab News: “I knew I had to fund university in some way, and that the standard method is to take a loan.

“For our non-Muslim peers there’s no other implications of taking those loans for them,” Dar said. “That was a big eye-opener as to how stark the difference might be for me growing up in the UK, as opposed to a Muslim country. That was a turning point for me.

“I knew that in order to succeed in this country I needed a degree — but the loan presented a huge obstacle to my progress if I didn’t go for it.” 

In the end Dar decided to take the loan, but explained that she is now committed to paying it off in full as soon as possible.

“For myself and most of my Muslim friends, getting rid of that debt is the number one priority — we want to get rid of it as quickly as we can,” she said. “We’re very focused on getting rid of that debt, put simply: We find it sinful. It’s horrible, to be honest.”

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