Are British Muslim Schools Teaching Hatred?

Birmingham
A woman walks past a clothes shop in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham, central England May 12, 2011. Darren Staples/Reuters

On a damp day in Britain in May, with the sky threatening worse, the long residential streets are quiet. It could be almost anywhere: two-story brick terraces, front gardens paved and parked over, glassed-in porches, grey-tiled roofs shiny with rain. A few windows still display Labour Party posters left over from last month’s council elections.

Linger awhile, though, and we start to notice that the streets might be cleaner and the back yards, in so far as we can glimpse them, a little tidier. Out front, there is rubbish that may be parcelled up and waiting for the recycling team, or it may have been there for weeks. There are also moth-eaten, and now sodden, settees – not for collection, but for sitting on.   

From time to time, there is a twitch at the thick net curtains that obscure every window, and the occasional door opens. As people emerge, there is not a single person in European dress. White, female, with uncovered head and holding a red umbrella, I stand out a mile.   

This is Alum Rock, which abuts Bordesley Green, which adjoins Small Heath. But anything bucolic hinted at in the names vanished long ago. These three districts, divided by a railway line posted with warnings to cable thieves, sit at the benighted south-eastern edge of central Birmingham. A look at the map of Britain’s second city shows that the whole area is severed from the busy city centre by a banal no-man’s land of trading estates, self-storage units and depots.

As if on cue, a dozen or more teenage girls come around the corner on their way home from school, tiptoeing around the litter beside the railway line. They are in dark uniforms, with matching headscarves, and they are part of the reason the national spotlight has suddenly fallen on Birmingham.

The Trojan Horse Letter

A leaked anonymous letter, the so-called Trojan Horse letter, claimed there was a conservative Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate and take over as many as two dozen local schools. It caused fluttering in very many interested dovecotes. Then, with the first official reports into the allegations imminent, something akin to civil war was triggered at the highest levels of British politics and threatening to precipitate a debate about Islam in Britain that UK politicians have tried to avoid for decades.

The Trojan Horse letter was an anonymous document sent to Birmingham City Council late last year, which was subsequently leaked to the daily press. The letter named not just Birmingham schools as targets for the imposition of a strict Islamic agenda, but schools in other cities, including Bradford and Birmingham, which have relatively large Muslim populations, and the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London.

The main charges, though, related to specific staff and curriculum changes at schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham. What was alleged was essentially a conspiracy to pack the boards of certain schools with sympathetic governors and force the replacement of head teachers and other senior staff considered too “moderate” or “liberal” – a tactic known as “entry-ism” when used by the extreme Left to infiltrate local organisations of the British Labour party in the 1970s and 80s.

The fact that five non-Muslim head teachers have been replaced in just one part of the city in the past academic year looks to many very much like corroborating evidence. Other specific claims included the demotion of female staff, nepotism in appointments, the non-celebration of Christian holidays in some schools; broadcast calls to prayer; collective observance of Ramadan; pre-exam fasting; segregation of girls and boys, not only for sport, but within the class; failure to provide sex and relationship education, and invitations to visiting speakers of a radical Islamist persuasion.

The extreme sensitivity of such allegations can be judged by the speed with which those in authority rushed to announce inquiries, and by the number of separate investigations that were launched. Also by the omerta observed until a very late stage by anyone remotely connected with those inquiries, or the schools concerned.

An ‘Organized Campaign’

Three, possibly four, inquiries were begun almost at once. The first was undertaken by the government’s education watchdog, Ofsted. Then came the government itself, in the shape of the Department for Education, with an inquiry headed by Peter Clarke, a former head of anti-terrorism at Scotland Yard – and then came one from Birmingham City Council, which has responsibility for some, but not all, of the schools. Finally, there is West Midlands police, which has not ruled out the possibility of its own investigation.

Everyone insisted they were working closely with everyone else, but the impression remains of deep institutional concern and cards being kept very close to chests. The Ofsted inspections were a case in point. From the date it announced snap inspections of 21 named schools, it said nothing. There was no reference to the inspections on its website, and no mention of “Trojan Horse” – something Ofsted said was normal, but seemed extraordinary, given the level of public and media interest.

Then the silence was broken as individual schools received their reports confidentially and selectively released the findings in the hope of calming worried parents (and, of course, justifying themselves). When the reports, and Ofsted’s conclusions, finally saw the light of day – a week later than planned – the conclusions of the chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, were devastating. He said evidence had been found of “an organised campaign to target certain schools” with a view to changing their “character or ethos”. Some of the findings, he said were “deeply worrying and in some ways quite shocking”. In some schools, he said, “a culture of fear and intimidation has taken grip”.

Just three of the schools received a clean bill of health; 12 were told to improve, and five were classified as failing schools - placed in “special measures” - and stand to have some or all of their governors replaced. Most concerning for parents, several of these schools had formerly been assessed as “good” or “outstanding” by the very same schools inspectorate.

Drawing attention to such contradictions, representatives of Birmingham City Council and some of the schools accused Ofsted of inconsistency and conducting their inspections according to an agenda. Sir Michael, for his part, insisted the deterioration had taken place since previous inspections.

The ‘Trojan Hoax’

At this point it is only fair to say that there have been doubts, from the beginning, about the authenticity of the “Trojan Horse” letter. Rumors of vendettas, personal and institutional, have abounded. Many have dismissed the document, quite simply, as a fake, dubbing it the “Trojan hoax” letter.

While it is clearly desirable to establish its origins, however, the actual status of the letter is now secondary. Once its contents had become public, a steady stream of people emerged from the educational and local government woodwork to say they had been aware of such machinations for a while. Some had even tried to bring their misgivings to the attention of the local authority, but felt their concerns, for whatever reason, had fallen on deaf ears.

The qualms of teachers and others about what some called the “Islamification” of certain Birmingham schools went back, it would seem, at least to 2010. Some claimed the first representations went back as far as 20 years. Yet it was only when the “Trojan Horse” letter hit the national press – in the run-up to local elections - that the big guns of the council and national government were mobilised.

Again, the impression is of allegations, and a subject that the authorities at every level considered too difficult to tackle. The fear was that anyone who took too critical a view of state schools catering to predominantly Muslim pupils would be accused of “Islamophobia.” The district is in many ways a test-bed for the capacity of British schools to forge one nation out of many.  

And this is where the politicians came in. As Ofsted prepared to publish its report, tensions rose, with ministers apparently concerned about who would be expected to take responsibility and what should be done. Pitted against each other were the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. They are both leading Conservatives in the Coalition government with possible leadership ambitions for the future, but the disagreement was at least as philosophical as it was practical or aspirational.

Gove, it appears, felt that May was too relaxed about the security implications of fundamentalist Islam extending its reach in Britain, and said as much to the London Times. Learning of this, May – or advisers on her behalf - launched a pre-emptive attack in the form of a letter published on her departmental website, asking when he had become aware of concerns about Islam in schools in Birmingham and why he had apparently done nothing about it.

This was a messy spat that led to direct intervention by the Prime Minister,  David Cameron, some bashing of heads together, an apology from Gove to May, and the resignation of May’s special adviser. And there was, of course, a considerable degree of pre-emptive back-covering on the part of both ministers. But there was more to it than this.

Security v. Indoctrination

May seems to take the view that even quite radical strains of Islam need to be tackled head-on only if they threaten to precipitate violence. Gove’s position is that radical Islam, potentially violent or not, must be kept at bay. The weakness in his position is that the Department for Education, which he has headed for four years, acted only after the Trojan Horse allegations hit the national headlines in March.

In part their two stances exemplify the priorities of their two departments: for May, the emphasis must be on security; for Gove, the emphasis is on what he would doubtless call indoctrination. But they also neatly represent the divergent views about how best to integrate people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds into British life.

May might tend towards what has been known as “multiculturalism,” which leaves Muslims and others to get on with their lives, so long as they observe the law of the land and do not cause trouble, while Gove might favor more active attempts to forge one consensual nation. Both, it should be stressed, are good, sound, Conservative points of view, and they were able to coexist in the good old British spirit of muddling through.  

The publicity accorded to the Trojan Horse claims, however, made that more difficult. As did the public mood, exemplified in the 25 percent of the vote that went to the UK Independence Party (Ukip) in last month’s local and European Parliament elections.

For all that Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, insists he is anti-Europe, not anti-immigration and not racist, his party also makes great play of the need to preserve what it would call the British way of life. And it has to be said that this British way of life is not very apparent in districts of Birmingham, such as Alum Rock, or Ofsted found, in many of its schools.

Park View Academy in Alum Rock is one school that featured prominently in the Trojan Horse allegations. Its chairman of governors, Tahir Alam, has also been named as the leader of the suspected plot. Alam made some forthright statements at the outset in his, and the school’s defence.

And he was right in at least one respect. Park View had consistently received positive ratings from Ofsted. The local MP, Khalid Mahmood, who represents the constituency of Birmingham Perry Bar, is just one of those asking, not without reason, what Ofsted’s earlier assessments were based on and what has changed.  

As the schools inspectors were mulling over their findings, I join a small clutch of Park View parents gathering in the afternoon rain for 3.15, when the city’s schools break up for the late May holiday. In so far as I can judge from the outside – requests for interviews, here and at several other Trojan Horse schools, were ignored or refused – this seemed a happy school, with the pupils and staff enjoying relaxed, but not too relaxed, banter as they left, and staff members approaching parents by name. Most of the pupils, it seemed, were well aware of the allegations about their school, and roundly dismissed them as “rubbish."

No Faces to be Seen

Still, I left with two overriding, albeit external, impressions. The first is the messy accretion of buildings, which was noticeable at several of the other schools, too. Improved facilities might be the end purpose of all the bricks, bulldozers and mud; another, though – and it was hard to escape this thought - might well be empire-building. Park View is not just Park View Academy, but it is fast growing into a group of schools.

The second impression is that, as with all the schools I passed on my walk, there were no black or white faces to be seen. Most of the girls, though not all, had their heads covered – at Park View, with bright white headscarves, which gave them the appearance, perversely, of Christian nuns. Girls consorted with girls, boys with boys – but girls and boys of that age tend to congregate separately, don’t they?

Ethnic uniformity, though, seemed total, although the school has a smattering of arrivals from Eastern Europe. Yet what can realistically be done to change this? If this is a school segregated by ethnicity and religion, so, essentially, is the area. If parental choice and proximity play a decisive role and if – as most of its Ofsted reports testify, it is an excellent school, then Park View Academy is not going to be mixed, either ethnically, or in religion. To make it so would require measures of social engineering, such as bussing, that are considered unacceptable in the UK and have now generally been abandoned even in the United States.  

Yet here is a bizarre footnote. On that Friday, most of the pupils emerged from Park View clutching information sheets. Many were dropped. They contained a report of “Enterprise Day – RE Department”, which had held an International Faith Day, when year 9 pupils had listened to short talks from guests representing Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

There had been question and answer sessions, and then debates on ethical issues – inter-faith marriages, animal testing, and euthanasia. Was this – the question posed itself – something that happened routinely from time to time, an admirable effort to broaden horizons, or was it an effort to parry, even disprove, the allegations swirling around in the wake of Trojan Horse?

Whatever the significance of International Faith Day, the contrast between this and the actual composition of the school only served to highlight the dilemma facing such schools and the education authorities in a catchment area such as Alum Rock. The difference between a conspiracy to impose what many might see as a non-British, non-liberal, mono-cultural world view on impressionable pupils, and a desire to meet parents’ expectations, as expressed through their representatives on the school’s governing body, may not be very great.

For all the setting of standards and the requirements of the national curriculum - even as it is tightened up by Gove’s Education Department – there is only so much that can be done. England has a highly dispersed school system, and it is becoming more so. A by-product of this diversity in schools is the possibility of segregation by ethnicity and religion that creates local subdivisions and may foster feuds, especially when not inconsiderable sums of public money are in play.  

The Ofsted report may have been published, but the other two inquiries will not report until later in the summer, and until they do, the jury will be out on whether there was or was not a conspiracy to “Islamify” Birmingham schools. From the authenticity of the letter, to the hackneyed nature of the allegations, to the multiplicity of official inquiries, doubts abound - not only among those, such as Park View’s Tahir Alam, who have found themselves in the frame. For many Muslims, the whole affair is just the latest in a long line of efforts mounted by the non-Muslim establishment to discredit Islam and all its works.

That there is, at the very least, engrained suspicion of Islam among many non-Muslims in Britain cannot be denied. Nor is this exclusively, or even primarily, a consequence of the various attacks perpetrated against westerners by radicalised followers of Islam. After 9/11, again after the 2005 London bombings, and more recently after the particularly gruesome murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, hacked to death on a Woolwich street last year, Britons have by and large shown a laudable propensity not to judge all Muslims by a very few extremists.

Outright Hostility

Timely statements from leading British Muslims, condemning such atrocities, helped, as did conciliatory pronouncements from political leaders about not tarring all Muslims with the terrorist brush. But mostly it was the common sense of ordinary Britons that prevented a potentially violent backlash.

That ability to distinguish the mass of peaceable Muslims from criminals with a martyr-complex, however, does not mean all is blissful tolerance between mainstream Britain and its growing Muslim minority. Islam, or to be more precise, some of the mores that attend its more conservative strains, are widely viewed with suspicion bordering on outright hostility.

When non-Muslims voice misgivings, they are more often taking issue with everyday aspects of Islam as they see them, or learn about them, while they go about their lives. There is a sense that too much has been, or may be, given, away.

Also noteworthy is that apprehension extends right up the social and educational scale, and it has been expressed by individuals who would not be regarded as intolerant in any way. Among those who have spoken out are the Labour MP and former minister, Jack Straw, and the ecumenically-minded former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Jack Straw made headlines in 2006 when he wrote in an article for his local newspaper that he found it disconcerting to talk to women who came to his MP’s surgery wearing full face veils, and asked them – politely – to remove them. He said subsequently that he favoured abolishing the veil, because he regarded it as a statement of separateness. For all that, he found it politic to apologise before the 2010 election.

Almost a decade on, the full-face veil, the niqab, remains contentious. Many hospitals and schools have quietly introduced bans on staff wearing full face-veils, while a judge in a London court had to rule earlier this year on whether a woman could stand trial with her face covered.

The proliferation of Sharia courts was the issue on which Dr Williams chose to intervene, hazarding in a 2008 speech that the use of Sharia principles in certain areas of British law seemed  “unavoidable.” Whatever he meant precisely – and it does not appear that he set out to take sides - what he said suggested an almost willing helplessness, verging on complicity, in the face of advancing Islam, and it provoked fury among liberals as well as on the political right. Dr Williams subsequently said that he had unwittingly implied a more equal partnership between Sharia and British law than he had actually intended.

But concerns about Sharia law coexisting – or conflicting – with British law have not gone away. The Law Society has become a particular focus for campaigners, including liberal Muslim campaigners, who claim it has been too accommodating, largely on the basis of guidelines, “Islam and English Law”, it published last year.

Arrival of Sharia Courts

Defenders of Sharia courts maintain that it allows Muslims to settle civil disputes, including divorce, child custody and inheritance, in accordance with their own cultural precepts. They insist it relies on consent by both sides and that with divorce, for instance, a decree must still be obtained under British law.

Opponents maintain that social pressure undermines the argument that resort to Sharia law is voluntary, and say that it is precisely in the domestic arena that Sharia law places women at a particular disadvantage. Child custody, for instance, commonly reverts to the man, while the cost of a Sharia divorce for a woman is also higher than for a man, a disparity explained by the “greater complexity” of preparing the woman’s case. To critics, the very existence of Sharia courts in the UK – which operate largely out of the public eye - erodes the principles of equal rights and one law for all.

Another row that erupted over the past year stemmed from reports of segregated audiences for special lectures in some universities. Universities UK (UUK), the body representing leading universities, said that there were times when it was acceptable for visiting speakers to insist that audiences were segregated by gender.

The outcry that followed, not just from many female students, but from a much wider constituency, prompted UUK to back down. But damage had been done. A false choice seemed to have been made between gender equality and free speech. The impression was created that establishments of higher education were prepared to pander to what were seen as archaic, and very un-British, ideas about the position of women.   

As this – limited and selective – catalogue shows, many of the points at which Islam and the British mainstream come into conflict cluster around attitudes towards women. Those cited here may seem relatively harmless to some compared with issues such as enforced marriage or “honour” killings or female genital mutilation that are so obviously incompatible with life in modern Britain. But it is the everyday, rather than the exceptional, that seeps into the consciousness and generates suspicion of Islam in general.

A classic example was a recent spat about halal meat. It emerged that an increasing number of fast-food companies, including Subway and Pizza Express, were using halal meat as a matter of course. The revelations - which were not really revelations as there had been reports along similar lines several years before – prompted an outcry in the social media. Many contributors demanded stricter labelling, furious that all meat sold in Britain could soon be halal, without anyone knowing.   

Much of the hostility focused on the method of killing, although it transpired that only a small proportion of halal meat came from animals that had not been stunned first. The only way halal meat differed from other meat, companies said, was the blessing that was pronounced at the moment of death – which led some to dismiss the whole furor as just a new pretext for Islamophobia.

Halal Meat and Animal Suffering

It was, though, more than this. Among those joining the debate was John Blackwell, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, who said that the religious slaughter of poultry, sheep and cattle caused unnecessary suffering to animals. He suggested that Britain might follow Denmark in outlawing slaughter without stunning entirely.

Beyond the argument about stunning, the more widely shared fear,  as that a requirement of Islam was becoming the default position for meat sold in a country that is not, by any manner of means, Islamic. On a small scale, it was seen, rather like “Trojan Horse” in schools, as an example of cultural and religious infiltration. The discussion died down after David Cameron, wisely for a prime minister, declined to take a position on labelling, which would necessarily have alienated one side or other.

Now it can be argued that many, even all, the issues on which mainstream Britain and Islam differ – from the veil, through Sharia law, to gender segregation and even Halal food - concern cultural traditions and practices that are not required of observant Muslims. There is no need, so this argument runs, for them to be stumbling blocks to social harmony.

But this disregards the fact that such practices are part of life in many Muslim communities in Britain, which have remained in many ways both separate and strikingly homogeneous after two, three and even four generations. The districts of Birmingham that were the subject of the Trojan Horse/Trojan hoax letter provide a graphic illustration.

For those in Britain troubled by the number of Muslims living what were described by Professor Ted Cantle in his 2001 report on a spate of race riots as “parallel lives”, France sometimes seems to offer a preferable route. There, headscarves in schools were banned, after a long struggle, in the 1990s. Since 2011, women can be fined for wearing full face veils in public places, and schoolchildren undergo routine medical checks that expose, and discourage, female genital mutilation (FGM).

The official British line has been that enforced conformity is both undesirable and counterproductive, with tolerance the better course. Reluctance until recently even to condemn FGM, let alone take the perpetrators to court, for fear of offending cultural sensitivities, is one result. As with enforced marriage and “honor” killings, it has often taken Muslim campaigners to make the running.

The response to the Trojan horse – or “hoax” – letter suggests that British tolerance of difference may be reaching its limit. At least, with the open disagreement between two senior British ministers, May at Home and Gove at Education, a wider debate has been opened. It remains to be seen where it will lead.

One partial remedy might be to remove any one religion as far as possible from schools, whether they are state schools or academies. But this would be difficult in a country with an established Church that expressly permits faith schools. The government’s enthusiasm for parental choice in education is a further complicating factor. It is hard to see how schools in the east of Birmingham will become less “Islamic” without assertive, and probably divisive, government intervention.

Not all, though, is as bleak as it might seem, however damning the Ofsted reports on some of the “Trojan Horse” schools turn out to be. For a more hopeful perspective, it is worth listening to Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, a London constituency with a large Muslim population.

Death Attempt Because of Iraq War Support

Timms, a Treasury minister in the Labour government, has represented East Ham for 20 years and enjoys the biggest majority of any MP in the country. He is a genial character, well known and well liked. As he walks down East Ham High Street, people of all colors rush to shake his hand and exchange gossip. This is local British politics as many people think it used to be and no longer is.

Timms warrants being listened to for another reason, too. On 14 May, 2010, he was stabbed and seriously injured by a constituent at his regular MP’s surgery. His would-be assassin was a 21-year old Muslim woman, Roshonara Choudhry, who had recently dropped out of her university course. The prosecution said that Choudhry had been radicalised after watching online sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Muslim cleric who came originally from Yemen.

At her trial, she said she had attacked Timms because he had voted for the war in Iraq. She was sentenced to life in prison, with a recommendation that she serve at least 15 years. Described as a highly intelligent student who excelled at her English course at University College London, one of the country’s top universities, she expressed no remorse. She appeared to be a “lone wolf”, the stuff of all intelligence services’ nightmares.

Timms, now recovered from his injuries, regards the attack as the rarest of exceptions. He notes that many of his leading Muslim constituents were among the first to denounce the attack, condemnation that was echoed by the Muslim Council of Britain.

Timms is a practising Christian who came to national politics through Christian voluntary work and local government. Muslim leaders were among the first to nominate him to stand as East Ham’s MP. In Timms’s view, “being a believer” in a constituency with a large Muslim contingent “is seen as positive not negative”.

He does not regard the many mosques, big and small, in his constituency as a problem, “so long as the mosque sees itself as part of wider community...  and everyone feels they belong”. He regards Islam as “a positive for building cohesion” and has more concern about arrivals from Eastern Europe, who, he says, seem reluctant to engage. His general view is that “people of different faiths have a lot in common, including many values and a commitment to good citizenship.”

Still, there is a big difference between East Ham High Street and Alum Rock Road or the streets in and around Small Heath. East Ham is not prosperous. The shopping district has the usual hallmarks of low incomes – pound stores, money shops, cut-price cellphone agencies, and legal offices offering criminal defence and visa services. But the whole positively exudes diversity and purpose. There is no monopoly on the street scene.

Timms acknowledges that the Iraq war angered many of his Muslim constituents. In the 2005 general election, his majority plummeted (though it is now even bigger than it was before), and he was the target of protests. Something of the bitterness about a war fought by Britain against a Muslim country, he says, still persists. Relaxed about the veil and Sharia, he is a model exponent of live and let live, while recognising that things could change.

What is impossible to gauge is whether East Ham offers a glimpse of the past or the future of Britain. And something similar might be said of the Birmingham districts that have been thrust reluctantly in the limelight after the Trojan Horse claims.

Each presents a portrait of Islam – as it fits in or fails to fit in – to today’s Britain. The choices that the British government and the communities themselves make next will help determine the complexion of Britain for future generations, because the 2.7 million British Muslims -- 4.8 percent of the total population --  are not going away.

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