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Muslims, School Prayer, and the Incoherence of British Secularism

Image credit: Sky News

The place of Islam in British society is never far away from the headlines. In the last few weeks, one of the central topics of this debate has been that of religion in schools, and in particular the case of R V Michaela Community Schools Trust. The judgment of this case, which came out on 16 April 2024, upheld Michaela’s decision to ban all ritual prayer in response to the gathering of Muslim students for worship. On the whole, this decision has been met with two responses, neither of which are surprising, and which together form a well-rehearsed binary. One crowd claims that the judgment is a victory for British values, most importantly the secular state and the tolerance that it supposedly brings.[1] The other interprets the decision as yet more proof of the British establishment’s anti-Muslim bias, which in turn betrays the promise of Britain’s secular state.[2] In this blog post I want to argue that such debates misdiagnose the importance of the judgment, which can only be illuminated through an historical perspective. The judgment’s significance lies not in proving the success or failure of British secularism, but instead in making clear that no-one seems to know what this concept means.


The issue arose in March 2023 when up to thirty Muslim students at Michaela began praying in the school’s yard during break times. The school banned such action, declaring that it ‘undermined inclusion’ and encouraged ‘segregation between religious groups’.[3] One impacted student then took Michaela to the High Court in January 2024, arguing that, alongside violating the Equality Act 2010, the ban breached her right to religious freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Mr Justice Linden provided an 83-page written judgment to the case. A vital distinction made is that between the freedom to hold belief, and the freedom to manifest belief in actions such as prayer. The former is absolute, but the latter is subject to conditions. Justice Linden centred these conditions in his decision in favour of Michaela, stating that ‘the claimant at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion’.[4]


There are several points which could be made about this case. Not least, there are many legal implications of Justice Linden’s decision, which have ramifications for every state-funded non-religious school in England.[5] What I want to elaborate here, though, is not the details of the case but the broader implications of the idea that the student could not complain because she had accepted the school’s rules on entry. This logic suggests that all state-funded schools should decide their own policies regarding religion, and students should then allocate themselves to the institutions which best suit their beliefs. Here Justice Linden was drawing on a previous case, where Denbigh High School in Luton banned student Shabina Begum from wearing the jilbab. The Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ultimately upheld the decision, arguing that the school was best placed to decide, and that Begum had the freedom to go elsewhere.[6] This approach has now received further backing from the government, as Education Secretary Gillian Keegan declared in response to the Michaela judgment – ‘I have always been clear that head teachers are best placed to make decisions in their school’.


Curious here is the stark difference between Keegan’s stand-offish approach and the direct intervention of the Department of Education during the Trojan Horse Scandal, which concerned conspiracist allegations of an ‘Islamist plot’ in Birmingham schools.[7] So if the state selectively picks when it is necessary to assert its authority, then what does this mean for how we think about British secularism? Despite many calls for national guidance from a vast array of organisations, both secular and faith-based, the British state does not have coherent guidelines on the role religion should play in schools. In fact, the only consistent message which applies to all state schools (without a formal faith designation) is that they are obliged to provide a daily opportunity for communal worship that should be broadly Christian in nature, a fact which has been raised with concern by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.[8] So the British state all at once claims responsibility for maintaining the secular, mandates Christian worship, and delegates the regulation of religious manifestation in schools to individual institutions. In this confused context, it is not only unsurprising but necessary that schools like Michaela take matters into their own hands and define British secularism in their own terms.


Indeed, the victory statement of the school’s headmistress, Katherine Birbalsingh, mirrors Keegan in declaring the decision a ‘victory for all schools’, because ‘a school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves’.[9] She goes on to proudly explain her own manifesto. The school has decided to create a vision of multi-culturalism which offends all religions equally – no prayer rooms for Muslims, revision sessions for Christians on Sundays, vegetarian food for all to accommodate Hindu students. Birbalsingh has also decided that all students should sing ‘God Save the King’, which even if one claims is not explicitly Protestant certainly does exclude those who worship multiple or no Gods. She justifies this approach by arguing that Michaela is not an empty space, which allows ‘identity politics’, but instead stands for a certain idea of secularism, which she calls ‘the Michaela Way’, presumably defined by Birbalsingh herself. Mr Justice Linden’s judgment not only allows this initiative, but in fact by implication encourages each school to create their own secularism, which will be lawful as long as it is clearly stated and consistent.


It is only logical to assume, then, that many more legal cases about the boundaries of religious freedom in schools will follow that of Michaela. I do not want to make a normative judgment on this state of affairs in this blog post, but merely to point out that it at the very least implies that British secularism is an at best unstable and at worst non-existent concept. This is a problem for which the current public debates do not allow sufficient space. In order to make sense of this problem we need to look at how academic work has challenged popular assumptions about the secular as an impartial judge which manages religions in order to preserve peace and tolerance. Decades ago now, Talal Asad provided the influential intervention that the secular does not mean separation of the church and state, to speak in Christian terms, but instead the management of the church by the state.[10] This sparked a wide array of investigation into the ways in which the secular, far from a neutral arbiter, has supported particular religious traditions whilst devaluing others.


Scholars have explored how the secular has been mobilised as an ideology of power, with results that were far from emancipatory. Unsurprisingly, the most fertile breeding ground for such manifestations were European and later American imperial exploits across the world from at least the nineteenth century. And unsurprisingly again, the most common victims of such manifestations were Muslims. Scholars such as Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd have illustrated how ideas of religious freedom led and continue to lead to characterisations of Muslims and their states as pathologically fanatic and ultimately legitimate targets of western intervention and violence.[11] Such a historical perspective makes the Michaela judgment far from surprising, revealing it as a consequence of an imperial past that in many ways has never left. Evidence of similar dynamics can be seen across Europe and the United States, as seen in Belgium banning halal meat, Switzerland banning minarets, and most infamously France banning the veil.[12]


So influential has this critical scholarship been that some have come to question whether the secular can ever in fact be manifested in an egalitarian manner, or if it is inevitably prejudicial.[13] This suggests that we need to go beyond thinking about secularism’s relationship with Islam to interrogating its very nature. Justice Linden’s implication that each school should decide for themselves illustrates that contemporary Britain does not have a coherent answer. Here Winnifred Sullivan’s classic work is useful. Her simple but powerful intervention, focused on the United States, was that religious freedom was impossible because every person has a different idea of what religion is.[14] The Michaela case provides an archetypal example of this problem. As Birbalsingh willingly admits, the ban on prayer does not have equal significance for all students. Islam is the only religion which mandates prayer at certain times of the day, meaning Muslims will be disproportionately affected. In short, different ideas over what constitutes a religion mean that creating egalitarian rules governing the manifestation of belief is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as Sullivan would claim.


All of this is to say that the problem of the Michaela judgment is much more serious than a debate between British secularism and Muslim religion. As scholars have shown time and time again, ideas of the secular are always contextually constructed, and they are inevitably constructed in ways which prioritise certain ideas of religion over others. The Michaela judgment not only illustrates this constructed nature of the secular, but also the fact that the British nation has no single construct, instead deciding to devolve responsibility to individual schools. This is of concern not just to Muslim students of Michaela, but anyone concerned with the way in which religion functions in British schools and British society more broadly. For debates to move forward in a productive manner, we need greater understanding of the history of the secular, and in particular the way it has been frequently mobilised in the name of tolerance to regulate non-Christian religion.


[1] For example, see Finn McRedmond, ‘Katherine Birbalsingh’s Prayer Ban is a Victory for Tolerance’, The New Statesman (16 April 2024), at

[2] For example, see ‘A Verdict on Michaela’s Prayer Ban: A Violation of Human Rights and Discrimination against Muslims’, Muslim Engagment and Development (16 April 2024), at

[3] For an overview of the facts, see ‘Michaela School: Muslim Student Loses Prayer Ban Challenge’, (§6 April 2024), at

[4] See paragraph 176 of the judgment, Courts and Tribunal Judiciary, R-v-Michaela Community Schools, (16 April 2024), at

[5] For analysis of the significance for Article 9 in the UK, see Frank Cranmer, ‘Say a Prayer for Article 9? R (on the Application of TTT) v Michaela School and the Question of Interference’, Law & Religion UK, (19 April 2024), at

[6] See House of Lords, R v Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School, (22 March 2006), at

[7] For a brief summary of the scandal, see ‘ “The Trojan Horse Affair” Reignites a Row over Radicalisation in Schools’, The Economist, (5 March 2022), at

[8] See Committee on the Rights of the Child, ‘Concluding Observations on the Fifth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, CRC/C/GBR/CO/5, 2016; on calls for abolition of this practice, see ‘National Governors Association Calls for Abolition of Collective Worship, Accord, (29 June 2014), at .

[9] Katharine Birbalsingh, ‘The Michaela Court rulings is a Victory for All Schools’, The Spectator, (16 April 2024), 

[10] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, (Stanford University Press, 2003).

[11] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, (Princeton University Press, 2015).

[12] On the veil in particular, see Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil, (Princeton University Press, 2007).

[13] Udi Greenberg, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Introduction: What Comes after the Critique of Secularism?: A Roundtable”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 881,1 (2020), 74-91.

[14] Winnifred Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, (Princeton University Press, 2005).


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