When an East End primary head teacher tried to ban the hijab for small girls, a vicious campaign against her was unleashed by activists
As the former leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui was uncompromising over the Iranian fatwa imposing the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet. When Iran relaxed it in 1998, Dr Siddiqui complained they had no authority to do so. Then came 9/11, and a resurgent, politicised Islam emboldened in its quest to expand its influence in the West.
(Cover illustration by Michael Daley)
By 2005, Dr Siddiqui’s entire outlook had changed: he reflected gloomily that Islam in Britain was on a collision course with the rest of the country. It was, he mused, as if the protection afforded to Muslims to practise and proselytise every aspect of their faith — short of physical jihad — counted for little. Islam seemed to have become all about “rights and no obligations. I think, by and large, this is the direction the Muslim community is taking, leading to victimhood, a grievance culture. We don’t seem to be grasping what makes a people respectable, lovable, likeable. You know, if you are a problem person, who wants to know you?”
How prescient he was. Judging by the reaction to the latest collision between Islam and the values of British society, critical self-reflection still eludes this country’s most politically active Islamic organisations.
Last autumn a survey suggested that thousands of state primary schools had adopted the hijab as part of their official school uniform. Another survey showed that for 42 per cent of Islamic faith schools, including some that are state-run, the hijab was compulsory.
For many Muslim women, the hijab is a modesty garment historically connoting the idea that women are sexual objects for men otherwise incapable of controlling themselves. Responding to these polls, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, wondered if little girls were being conditioned to become sexually modest before puberty to ensure they remained modest for the rest of their lives instead of allowing them an unfettered choice when old enough to make an informed decision. Were schools, especially those funded by the state, colluding in this conditioning? Was community peer pressure to conform perhaps contributing to the rise? In which case, said Ms Spielman, Ofsted could give headteachers “the confidence and strength to act”.
Individual freedom is a core British value, and the Chief Inspector is the ultimate custodian of child welfare in schools, so to most people these would seem to be perfectly reasonable questions to explore.
The polls came on the back of Dame Louise Casey’s review into integration, which found that women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage especially face “a double onslaught of gender inequality, combined with religious, cultural and social barriers preventing them from accessing even their basic rights as British residents”. In conversation Dame Louise characteristically puts it more bluntly: “The level of misogyny within some of that community was jaw-dropping.” Or as Churchill might have put it, the influence of Islam “paralyses the social development of those who follow it” because “in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property.”
The response to Spielman’s comments that she would like to inquire into the rapid expansion of the hijab for small girls was a spasm of venomous hate mail, including a “we-know-where-you live” and “can-get-you-any-time” threats mainly, she says, from “Islamic extremists and the hard Left”.
Worse was dished out to Neena Lall, the head teacher of St Stephen’s primary school in East London, when she dared to ban the hijab for 4-7-year-olds — again, out of concern for the welfare of the children under her care. The youngest girls tended to fiddle with their hijabs which affected their concentration in class. Lall was also concerned their scarves were working loose and might get caught around their necks while using playground equipment. She also worried about the impact on the children of fasting during Ramadan. Up to 19 hours without food had left some feeling faint and unable to concentrate. So parents were asked to feed their children before sending them to school.
Here’s a flavour of the response to Lall’s decision: “Having been exposed as an Islamophobe culturally ignorant, prejuidiced [sic] against Muslims, can you please confirm when you will resign from your post.”
Here’s another: “You are disgusting Islamophobic Nazi-like thinker (though a slave to racism doesn’t think) . . . the demand is simple, REMOVE THE BAN FROM THE GIRLS YOU PAEDOPHILLIAC PERSON . . . may you never be happy . . . how many shoes did you lick to be where you are today?”
And this: “Have you got as problem with Muslims? I think you are in the wrong job you coward. Stupid cow!”. This email was headlined “You Horrible VILE rat.”
British Muslims have now had almost a generation of being told by a myriad of activist organisations claiming to represent them that almost any restriction or even implied criticism of Islam is motivated by an irrational fear and even hatred of Islam, otherwise known as Islamophobia.
Hatred of Islam is indeed irrational, but apprehension about the long-term impact of a large and expanding politicised faith that seems intent on integrating on its own terms seems entirely logical. A culture war is far more dangerous to the cohesive health of this country than occasional attempts at mass murder, although not of course for those killed or injured. And the problem is that it is becoming almost impossible to reconcile our differences in civilised public debate.
Typical of the reaction to those like me who have scrutinised the more regressive versions of Islam since 9/11 is to play the man and not the ball. The latest bout (“rabid Islamophobe”, “piece of Islamophobic shit”, “sinister”, “white supremacist”, “racist”, “witchfinder general”, etc) followed my recent investigation for Channel 4 into the organisation claiming much of the credit for leading the campaigns against Neena Lall and Amanda Spielman.
That organisation is called Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development), which claims to be Britain’s most active and successful grassroots Muslim organisation.
Mend proclaims an exemplary ambition to “enhance civic engagement” by Muslims and to “foster social cohesion and community resilience to all forms of extremism”. There is no suggestion that Mend orchestrated the flood of poison against the Chief Inspector of Schools or Neena Lall, head teacher of St Stephen’s primary school. However, Mend activists were busy on the ground and their boss Sufyan Ismail has boasted privately that Lall “felt the wrath of the local Mend group and the parents”. I have yet to see Mend publicly condemn the cruder manifestations of this wrath, inflamed by unwarranted claims from them and fellow activists that Islamophobia had motivated Lall’s decision to ban the hijab for 4-7-year olds.
Ismail is a wealthy 42-year-old entrepreneur from Blackburn who travels in a chauffeur-driven Bentley. Common to all his companies is the letter E, which he says stands for “ethical” because “at the heart of our operations” is a “core value . . . integrity.” One subsidiary was OneE Tax Ltd, which was involved in what he describes as “tax planning” rather than “tax avoidance”, which went into voluntary liquidation shortly after launching Mend.
Since 2010, Ismail has been trying to persuade politicians to engage with organisations like Mend because, he says, its values are representative of his fellow British Muslims. In November that year he briefly succeeded after an organisation he created called “iEngage” was appointed secretariat to the newly-launched All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia (APPG). However, reports emerged of iEngage defending Islamists regarded by the government as extremists. According to the Community Security Trust, which protects British Jews from anti-Semitism, iEngage displayed a “troubling attitude to anti-Semitism”. In July 2011, MPs voted 60-2 to remove iEngage from the APPG.
Three years later Ismail rebranded iEngage as Mend. Again its main focus was tackling Islamophobia. While Islamophobic incidents recorded by the police have been growing, Mend’s claims are alarmist. A 2014 Mend prayer urged British Muslims to “make sure that the threat of Islamophobia doesn’t reach a state where neighbours start murdering one another, such as what we saw in Bosnia, or even in the Central African Republic today”. In January this year Mend’s Head of Policy, Isobel Ingham-Barrow, said she was “sorry to say” that when it came to Islamophobia, “we may already be close” to creating the same “conditions” that led to the extermination of more than six million Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany.
The notion that Islamophobia here is inching towards genocide on the scale of Bosnia, let alone the Holocaust, is patently absurd. Mend presents statistics for anti-Muslim hate crime by adding religiously-inspired attacks against Muslims to racially-inspired attacks, whether or not the perpetrator knew the victim was a Muslim — despite the Metropolitan Police warning that “the two figures should not be summed”. Anecdotally, the actual instances of Islamophobic hate crime — as distinct from those reported to the police — would appear to be growing. However, the police do not consider the reality is anything like as bleak as Mend suggests. “Sometimes the outside world internationally can look in and think, ‘Goodness me; there is all that hate crime’,” says the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. “‘Have they got gangs of armed thugs going around with shaved heads attacking people?’ No, we haven’t. We have a base level of two or three crimes per borough per day online and off, the vast majority of which are at the less serious end of the spectrum, and I do not believe the problem is getting worse. But I am not complacent about that.”
This is not to minimise the trauma to individual Muslims from vile baiting, being spat at, called names or having a garment ripped off. But the danger of talking up Islamophobia in such an alarmist way is that it risks creating a siege mentality among Muslims. Day in, day out, Mend feeds Muslims a relentless diet of news and dramatised videos of Islamophobic attacks (not always accurate) as if to emphasise: “You do know your fellow non-Muslim citizens hate you, don’t you?” Its leader Sufyan Ismail has himself told Muslims that “society hates us.”
Still, Mend seems to have persuaded several MPs from all parties and some police forces that it is an appropriate organisation to advise on how to tackle Islamophobia. In Manchester, it has partnered with the police and the council on a joint “Ending Islamophobia Action Plan” which includes advising schools on how to “identify the difference between free speech and cyber-hate”; it has provided research to Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, about policing Muslim communities; in Cardiff it has trained the British Transport Police on Islamophobia; in Leeds they’ve trained NHS staff on Islamophobia; in London Mend says it is an official partner of the Electoral Commission; it claims to be the only Muslim group to have given oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and practices of the press; and across the country it has held events with police and crime commissioners. Mend representatives even sit on the odd local authority committee advising them how to implement the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent programme, aimed at preventing vulnerable individuals from being drawn into Islamist and far-right extremism. This, despite Mend campaigning for Prevent’s abolition as part of “state-sponsored Islamophobia”.
These well-intentioned politicians and public servants have been less than curious about the rebranding of iEngage to Mend. Some Mend staff and volunteers have promoted ideas that meet the government’s definition of extremism contained in its Counter-Extremism Strategy: support for organisations proscribed as terrorist, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and visceral attacks on fellow Muslims who have dared to suggest that Mend has not always practised the anti-hate principles it preaches. Some of the organisations Mend lists as its “strategic partners” are regarded by the Home Office Extremism Analysis Unit as being “extremist”. For example, Cage, the Islamist group that has campaigned to free convicted terrorists, famously described Jihadi John as a “beautiful young man”, and defended the right of a British jihadi to carry out a suicide bombing on a jail in Syria in which many are said to have been killed in order to free prisoners. Indeed, Sufyan Ismail says he has “personally donated to Cage over the years, and I continue to do so. Let’s get that on the record, and I don’t know how many people have donated as much as I have, but it’s not a small amount.” Like Cage, Mend wants “counter-terrorism legislation which is unnecessary abolished”.
In the immediate future Ismail says he wants Mend to focus on schools by hiring “schools content officers”, presumably to try to persuade schools to present Islam the way he views his faith. And if Ofsted does indeed launch an inquiry into the rise of the hijab among primary school girls, we can expect hostilities to resume. Mosques in Manchester, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale and Bolton have advised parents not to allow their daughters to be questioned by school inspectors.
We are often told that wearing the hijab is a matter of personal choice for women. However, when Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman suggested that parents who expect their children to wear the hijab before puberty might be sexualising them, the Greater Manchester mosques condemned her comments as “abhorrent”. Why?
If the hijab really is a matter of personal choice — and not widely regarded by Muslims as a sexual modesty garment — what explains the 2017 slut-shaming and terrorising of a 17-year-old hijab-wearing girl in Birmingham filmed twerking in the street? After the film was uploaded (receiving a million views), one Muslim wrote: “That’s so disrespectful is you [sic] are wearing hijab you are representing Islam dignity so how to act like a fool is a big disrespect.” Another: “She should be shot!!!!!!!!”. Another wrote: “Killing her oughta teach her!”. Two self-appointed male modesty guardians are reported to have been contacted by the girl’s family. So intimidated was the girl by the “community” opprobrium heaped on her for being immodest (“This is the work of the devil”) that she was recorded sobbing and begging forgiveness. “To all the girls that wear the hijab and wear abaya (Islamic cloak) I’m sorry for disrespecting it,” she wailed.
Others, like Dr Siema Iqbal, a GP who was until recently Mend’s Manchester co-ordinator, say many young Muslim girls simply wish to imitate their mother, or a relative. Perhaps. It’s also true that some mothers in highly-segregated areas worry what their neighbours might say “about their daughter being immodest or slutty” as one Muslim friend raised in such an environment told me.
To suggest that the hijab has not been adopted primarily as a religious symbol of sexual modesty ignores its evolution. While there are no specific references to the term hijab in the Koran, verse 24:31 does refer to the Prophet telling “believing women” to “lower their gaze and be modest”, to “wrap (a portion) of their headcovers” over their bosoms and not to “display their beauty” except to close male relatives.
By the 1950s, however, the hijab had become something of a museum piece in parts of the Arab world. A video of Egypt’s President Nasser at a mass rally in 1958 shows him mocking the hijab after the Muslim Brotherhood demanded he make it compulsory:
Nasser: And I met the head of the Muslim Brotherhood and he sat with me and made his requests. What were his requests? The first thing he asked for was to make the wearing of a hijab mandatory in Egypt. And demand that every woman walking in the street wear a large scarf.
Nasser: Every woman walking —
Crowd: (More laughter.)
Man: Let him wear it! (Loud laughter and applause.)
Nasser: And I told him if I make that a law, they will say that we have returned to the days of Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah who forbade people from walking at day and only allowed walking at night.
Nasser: And my opinion is that every person in his own house decides for himself the rules. And he replied: “No, as the leader, you are responsible.” I told him “Sir, you have a daughter at the school of medicine. She is not wearing a tarha [hijab].”
Crowd: (Loud laughter.)
Nasser: Why didn’t you make her wear a tarha?
Crowd: (Rapturous applause — whistling.)
Nasser: If you are unable to make one girl who is your daughter wear the tarha, you want me to put a tarha on 10 million woman — myself!
Crowd and Nasser: (Both collapse with laughter amid more thunderous applause.)
That all changed with the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Resurgent Shi’ism forced Iran’s Sunni rival Saudi Arabia to regress into one the most rigid, and illiberal regimes since the Kingdom was founded and much of the Islamic world followed. Today, though, a more progressive breeze is wafting through Saudi Arabia, with clerics ruling that the abaya — a long-fitting robe for women — should no longer be compulsory.
In Iran reform is also in the air. True, women are still being arrested by hardliners for refusing to wear the compulsory hijab, but they have taken comfort from the words of President Rouhani: “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations.” As for the Gulf, parts of Dubai now look like Marbella with skimpily-clad women.
Britain seems to be moving in the opposite direction with some pockets of our major cities and towns resembling — in appearance at least — a sort of caliphate.
Mend demands to know what evidence there is for the hijab sexualising young girls. How about the words of Nazma Khan, the Bangladeshi-American owner of a New York headscarf company who inspired World Hijab Day, run annually since 2013? Khan says she wanted to “foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting women (non-hijabi Muslims and non-Muslims) to experience the hijab for one day.” And what exactly is it that she invites them to understand about the hijab? The “recognition,” she says, that “millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab . . . live a life of modesty.”
A Canadian Shia TV station, Ahlulbayt, that promotes World Hijab Day runs a similar project called “Global Hijab Awareness”. “Why does Islam encourage hijab?” asks its homepage Q&A. Answer: “It not only makes a woman feel confident and liberated but encourages society to not see women as objects of desire.” Women who haven’t yet worn the hijab should “get on the train of repentance, my sister, before it passes by your station”.
Our well-intentioned Foreign Office celebrated World Hijab Day in February, and is reported to have offered free headscarves to women, inviting them to its Walk-In event — just to feel the power of its “liberation, respect and security”. Muslim women are often quoted as saying the hijab does indeed “empower” them. But how, exactly? By providing a deterrent to ogling men because they’re left with less to look at? How exactly does that represent empowerment of women? It seems to me that by encouraging women in the West to wear the hijab, the Foreign Office is disempowering those of their sisters in the East who have been arrested, threatened and even killed for not wearing it. “Kill her and throw her corpse to the dogs,” was one outraged response in 2016 to a young Saudi woman who posted a picture of herself on social media in public without wearing a hijab.
Of course, British Muslims are not alone in worrying about where a liberal permissive society might take their children. Equally, there is concern about how the hijab is being used by Islamist organisations to position conservative Islam in the mainstream.
Quite why a branch of the British government should be willing to help them do this in a country increasingly segregated by faith and culture is puzzling. Not to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon though: “Women should be able to observe their faith — and wear what they choose,” she says on the World Hijab Day website. Sure, they should. Is there some suggestion that they cannot? The case made by Amanda Spielman and Neena Lall is not about the right of British Muslim girls who have reached puberty to wear the hijab: it is whether it is right for the state to collude in its imposition on 4-7-year olds, long before they reach puberty, instead of giving them the freedom to choose at puberty.
Some British Muslim leaders seem to want to reduce that choice. The Greater Council of Mosques in Greater Manchester insist that the hijab becomes a “religious obligation” at puberty and parents who put it on their pre-pubescent daughters “do so to accustom them to wear it in later life”. Mend boss Sufyan Ismail gives the game away when he says: “Our view was that if a girl does not wear the hijab before puberty then she won’t wear it afterwards.” So much for Mend’s claim that the right to wear the hijab in schools is about religious freedom. It also suggests scant parental regard for the famously quoted Koranic verse that there should be no compulsion in religion.
To Asra Nomani, co-founder of the US-based Muslim Reform Movement, the likes of Sturgeon and the Foreign Office “stand on the wrong side of a lethal war of ideas that sexually objectifies women as vessels for honour and temptation, absolving men of personal responsibility. This purity culture covers, segregates, subordinates, silences, jails, and kills women and girls around the world.”
Likewise the American author Yasmine Mohammed, who says she was beaten as a child for not memorising the Koran and was forced to wear a niqab: “The absurdity of #feminists in the West embracing modesty culture while their disempowered sisters in the #Muslim world risk arrest, imprisonment, and worse to free themselves from the #hijab would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.”
The way that Mend wreaths its hijab campaign in the language of inalienable civil and religious rights isn’t a joke either — but it may fool many ordinary Muslims.
Arguing that a ban on the hijab at primary school would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010, Mend says: “One must ask whether Jewish boys wearing a kippah, or Sikh boys wearing a topknot or a turban, could be considered sexualised too, and whether they will be asked similar questions?” Must one? There is no equivalence. How could a kippah, a topknot or a turban be considered remotely sexualising for boys? None are intended to guard male modesty.
Mend flatly asserts that the right to wear religious clothes “is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees freedom of thought, belief and religion.” A school can, however, stop a pupil from wearing an article of religious clothing if it considers this necessary to the health and safety of the child — as the Chief Inspector of Schools thinks it may be and which in the case of St Stephen’s primary school, the head teacher adjudged it was.
Mend also cites the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities” because signatories are required to ensure “minorities can fully exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law’.”
What Mend doesn’t seem to have grasped is that none of these rights are unqualified, as the Department of Education’s guidance on school uniforms for governors, teachers and local authorities makes clear: “Pupils have the right to manifest a religion or belief but not necessarily at all times, places or in a particular manner.”
There are now some 511 schools across 43 local authority areas with 50 per cent or more pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds. The Chief Inspector is concerned that some of these schools are in areas beset by community tensions. The DfE guidance says that “where a school has good reason for restricting an individual’s freedoms, for example, the promotion of cohesion and good order in the school, or genuine health and safety or security considerations, the restriction of an individual’s rights to manifest their religion or belief may be justified”.
In other words, the school must balance the rights of individual pupils against the best interests of the wider community — a consideration that was absent from the campaign directed by Mend and some of its “strategic partners” at the head teacher of Britain’s best performing primary school.
Neena Lall is a public servant who has devoted her professional life to enhancing the life chances of some of the most marginalised children in Britain: 70 per cent of her 800 children at St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, east London, are Muslim, some from very underprivileged backgrounds, many born to parents whose education and grasp of English is limited. What turned this Muslim community against the school that had done so much for its disadvantaged children is partly a consequence of years of being conditioned to believe the British state is intrinsically Islamophobic.
In January the Sunday Times reported that Lall had banned the hijab and fasting to help her Muslim pupils integrate into modern British society. It quoted her saying that when asked to raise their hands if they thought they were British “very few children” did. The report said St Stephen’s had “called on the government to take a firm stand on hijabs and fasting”.
Lall insists — and those present confirm — that she commented on integration quite separately from her ban on hijab and fasting. However, the way a video of her interview was edited linked them seamlessly. “They are not my words,” she says.
An online volcano erupted. There was fury at the implication that the hijab was incompatible with being British. The embers were still smouldering from comments two months earlier by the Chief Inspector of Schools that the hijab might sexualise young children. Hafsah Dabiri, a presenter with the Islam Channel, popular with British Muslims, weighed in with an intemperate and near hysterical petition #Leaveourhijab: “We cannot and will not stand for this . . . to Neena Lall, we say Leave our Hijab! . . . It’s not a request or a plea, it’s demand.” With its half-hourly mantra “voice for the voiceless”, the channel has done much to embed a victim mentality into British Muslims.
Dabiri was joined by Mend, which issued this statement: “Mend is extremely concerned with these developments and has been in touch with both the school and Muslim parents.” It signed off with all the portentousness of a 10 Downing Street bulletin during a national crisis: “We will be issuing an update on the situation shortly.”
Mend resurrected Spielman’s previous concerns about the hijab, now accusing her of having caused “grave distress throughout British Muslim communities” with “potentially . . . severe repercussions impacting the rights and wellbeing of Muslim children and parents”. Meetings were held in the nearby Plashet Grove mosque with the young imam, Abdul Wahab. Meanwhile, Mend volunteers were on the ground “working with the parents” angry at the ban. Why so much anger with a school prized as a community crown jewel and the ban introduced just fourth months earlier with barely a peep?
A statement was signed by ten Newham councillors led by two pro-Mend brothers, one of whom was a trustee of the mosque. It accused Lall of having “unilaterally intervene(d) in matters of faith without the full consultation of parents”. Really?
School sources say reception class parents whose children were due to start in September 2017 were informed the previous June, three months before the ban was due to come into force. Formal notices were also sent to Key Stage 1 parents with parent governors instructed to deal with any questions. The father of one six-year-old girl was the only one to object. He met with the school, accompanied by Mend’s “Group Coordinator” for Newham, Tahir Talati. It was explained the ban was being introduced not on religious grounds but for the health, safety and welfare of the youngest children.
As for the fasting ban because some children had been observed close to fainting, the Muslim chair of governors, Arif Qawi, says he consulted with a total of six imams over three separate meetings. Aside from a handful of objecting parents, some parents were conflicted between their obligations as Muslims and the welfare of the children. Qawi says a few told him they were grateful for having the decision taken out of their hands.
When the school returned in September 2017, every class was reminded of the hijab ban at parents’ meetings. Lall also introduced an “open house” Q&A session for each year group with an invitation to come to the school to talk about anything they wanted. Few parents are said to have taken up the offer. As Ofsted reported: “The decision to remove the hijab from the Key Stage 1 uniform was . . . implemented with little fuss in September 2017 following careful consideration by the governors.”
So far, so passive. Four months on and parents were said to be up in arms. The Newham councillors said the hijab and fasting bans had “understandably aroused great anger and concern amongst parents and the community” and “clearly divided” the school “from the very community they look to serve”.
What led to this “community” volte-face? The proximate cause was the Sunday Times report eliding the bans with British values. But for some, there was also fat to pour onto the fire.
On December 7, Imam Abdul Wahab wrote a high-handed letter to parents. Wahab ran a two-hour after-school madrassa attended by many of the children five days a week. This clashed with a school trip to an outdoor educational centre in Essex which included the kind of activities that kids love. Wahab warned parents that if their children went on the trip they would “most likely lose their position in the madrassa” because it was “absolutely crucial to provide one’s child/children with an Islamic education” which was “an obligation”. Fearful of expulsion from the madrassa, staff reported some children as “visibly upset and distraught” when told by their parents they couldn’t go.
Both Lall and her chair of governors, Arif Qawi, were furious at what they saw as Wahab’s attempt to interfere with the school curriculum broadening the children’s horizons. In her response to Wahab, Lall explained that these school trips helped to produce “marked improvement in academic results” and “significant improvement in confidence and independent skills”. She reminded the imam that “primary school education in this country is required by law, whereas the religious classes are a matter of choice.”
She copied in Qawi. Thinking it was only a draft, he replied to Lall, not realising his reply was being copied to Wahab too: “Not strong enough . . . crucify the unholy bastard . . . I know neither of the authorities (DfE or Newham Council) have the balls to do the right thing. However . . . I will put an end to this disgusting Mullah menace permanently . . . the children must be protected against these religious imposters at all costs. If the community is too scared and weak, I’ll take the flak.”
An angry Wahab called in Mend, who complained to Newham Council, who contacted the school. Qawi’s own life has been a rich tapestry: he is well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence from his time at Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia, followed by Harrow, and Sandhurst as a military cadet sent by the Pakistan army. He was a Tank Commander in the first Gulf War, and then had a successful career in business. He is also a fluent Arab speaker.
During one of his discussions with imams on the fasting ban, Qawi says an imam “pulled out his latest fancy Apple iPhone” and quoted from a religious text in an attempt to show that fasting was compulsory. Qawi recognised the quote as coming from a Hadith (the reported words of the Prophet) rather than the Koran. “I said, ‘Sorry, that is NOT the Koran. It’s 238 years after the Prophet’s death.’ I said, ‘Son, I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know’.”
While Neena Lall sometimes tired of Qawi’s aversion to political correctness, she found him to be a singularly selfless chair of governors despite it being an unpaid role. Of all his predecessors, she regarded Qawi as being by far the most committed. Qawi’s apology to Wahab three days before Christmas was also contrite: “Dear Wahab, I am extremely sorry for using the language I used . . . I should not have insulted you in the manner I did.” He signed off saying he hoped this would “draw a line under the matter”.
It did not. When the hijab row erupted three weeks later, Newham Council dispatched Shaykh Yunus Dudhwala, Head of Chaplaincy and Bereavement Services at St Barts NHS Trust, to try to broker a peace.
There was talk of Qawi’s email calling Wahab an “unholy bastard” being released to the “community” with the potential to inflame relations with the school beyond repair. Dudhwala suggested one way of averting this might be for Qawi to resign and the hijab ban lifted. I am told that he presented this idea thus: “These things will help if I can go back to the community and say these things are on the table.”
Never in her entire professional life had Neena Lall experienced anything like the inferno of tension, anger and hatred now being unleashed. So fearful was her senior leadership team of the damage the email might cause that they suggested Qawi should be sacrificed. Shaykh Dudhwala was about to attend another meeting at Imam Wahab’s mosque along with Mend and some 150 parents.
School sources say Lall told Dudhwala that before making any final decisions, she needed to hear directly from parents. Because she had called a parents’ meeting she asked Dudhwala to see if he could buy her more time. He apparently has no recollection of this.
At the mosque the parents were said to be “very, very angry”. By now a petition started by the Islam Channel presenter/activist Hafsah Dabiri had got almost 20,000 signatures. Any hopes Lall may have entertained of a 92-hour breathing space were dashed that evening. At 07:59 the following morning Mend tweeted victory:
Announcement: The Chair of Governors at St Stephen’s Primary School has resigned. This follows meetings between the school and parents acting on Mend’s advice. This is an important step towards resolving concerns about structural #Islamophobia Further updates to come. #HijabBan
The ban has been lifted and Arif Qawi has resigned!! Guyssssssss! We did it!!! Your support, shares and signatures had a HUGE impact combined with the work of the parents, community leaders and Mend!!! Tell EVERYONE, that today, we protected religious expression!
This was news to Qawi, who had neither resigned nor yet been asked to. But Lall had been boxed into a corner. And so she submitted. A school statement followed the Mend victory tweet: “Having spoken to our school community, we now have a deeper understanding of the matter and have decided to reverse our position with immediate effect.” In fact, Lall had yet to speak to the “school community.”
Not that submission bought Lall much relief. No sooner had the school announced its capitulation than word reached them that Qawi’s offending email to Imam Wahab was going to be released anyway. Which is what happened, despite Shaykh Dudhwala having argued against this. So much for Dudhwala’s hope that capitulation by the school on all fronts might avert this escalation.
Lall now felt she had no choice but to ask Qawi for his resignation — and with immediate effect, before the email was published so as not to be forced into reacting to it. She feared this final humiliation over the email might cost her job — as well it might have. “Limited” and “ineffective . . . emotional care and public support for school staff” had come from Newham Council, says Ofsted.
Qawi immediately acceded to Lall’s request with customary grace: “I wish the school continued success and am truly sorry that my actions have caused any harm to the reputation of the fantastic school.”
“Tell EVERYONE, that today, we protected religious expression!” trumpeted Hafsah Dabiri. “We represent what British values mean . . .”
Do they? They think they do because they helped galvanise the public, got a petition signed by 20,000 people, and acted within the law. But using the trappings of British values to impose a religious diktat on a state secular school concerning 4-7-year-old children while others bombarded the school leadership with hate mail and likened them to Nazis, was distinctly un-British. That’s not tolerance or pluralism. That’s mob rule.
A spoof video even parodied Lall, her staff and Arif Qawi as the twin abominations of the last century — her as a raging psychotic Adolf Hitler in his bunker with her leadership team as his Nazi admirers, and Qawi as Joseph Stalin.
Huge damage has been inflicted on the relationship between the school and the “community” — partly by the “community’s” self-appointed representatives Mend. They may not have sent nasty emails to the school, leaked the Qawi email or been responsible for the offensive video. Rather, what Mend do is help to keep Muslims angry. That seems to be just fine with Mend’s boss Sufyan Ismail, who has boasted that the “wrath” Mend helped generate over the hijab ban “turned it around . . . the sheer pressure on the ground was so significant”. And for what? Now that the hijab ban has been lifted, just one Muslim girl out of some 150 4-7-year olds has put her hijab back on — the same child whose father complained about the ban the previous July.
As Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman says: “It is a matter of deep regret that this outstanding school has been subject to a campaign of abuse by some elements within the community.”
Mend thinks Spielman’s words will come back to haunt her because a recording of the meeting Lall held with the parents shows her conceding the hijab ban was “a huge error in judgment” and apologising for not having “communicated with you more”. That simply underscores how devastating a religiously inspired campaign can become. The truth is Lall felt she had to say that. Mend also complains that Ofsted should have consulted the Muslim Council of Britain and its affiliate — the Association of Muslims Schools UK before deciding to inquire into why the hijab is increasingly being worn by small children.
But why should these organisations have been consulted? Both still refuse to accept the findings of two independent inquiries into the 2014 attempt to Islamise the curriculum and the ethos of secular state schools in the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham. Ofsted put five schools with 4,000 children into special measures following these inquiries. The MCB has demanded multiple concessions for Muslim pupils in state schools. In a 2007 MCB publication, “Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools”, the word “should” was used over more than 90 times. Its demands included the following:
• permitting girls to wear full-length loose school skirts or loose trousers, long sleeved shirts, and headscarves to cover the hair.
• permitting girls to wear tracksuits and headscarves for sport.
• permitting boys to grow beards.
• providing single-gender swimming classes.
• providing halal food.
• providing time and space for obligatory ablutions and prayer.
• adapting school life to the obligatory fast of Ramadan
• avoiding sex and relationship education (SRE) during Ramadan.
• making SRE consistent with Islamic teaching which considers girlfriend/boyfriend as well as homosexual relationships to be unacceptable.
• marking Eid holidays as authorised absences.
• allowing parental withdrawal of children from dance lessons on grounds of religious conscience.
• accepting the Muslim refusal to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
• offering Arabic as an option in primary and secondary schools.
• buying relevant and authentic books on Islamic heritage and civilisation for the school library and for class use.
• ensuring that pupils in schools where there are no Muslims nonetheless learn about Islam.
• not encouraging Muslim pupils to produce three-dimensional imagery of humans.
• not serving alcohol at social events and avoiding other activities that might make Muslims feel excluded.
British schools have gone out of their way to accommodate the religious demands of Muslim parents. Trousers and jogging bottoms have replaced skirts and gym shorts; baggy trousers and long shirts in the form of a shalwar kameez now come in school colours, and so on.
The Pakistani-born journalist and commentator Khadija Khan says that appeasing Islamists “is a bottomless pit”, a point the late Professor Zaki Badawi, head of the Muslim College, London, made to me shortly before he died in 2006: “You have to understand, a proselytising religion cannot stand still. It can either expand or contract. Islam endeavours to expand in Britain.”
And it’s true that for Islamists, religious identity trumps all other identities. This presents a significant challenge for any kind of meaningful integration because the non-Muslim majority of Britain is becoming more secular while the Muslim population — especially young Muslims — is becoming much more religious. The 2011 census foretells the religious realignment under way in Britain since 2001: while the proportion of Christians fell from 70 per cent to 59 per cent, and those holding no religion grew from 17 per cent to 26 per cent, those identifying themselves as Muslim leapt by 1.2 million, a 72 per cent increase, far higher than for any other faith group. That divide will be even deeper now — and Islamists know it. As Cage tweeted recently, “ultimately the demographic changes cannot be reversed. This will have a significant impact on govt. policies both foreign and domestic.”
Where communities live separately, with less interaction between people from different backgrounds, mistrust, anxiety and prejudice grow, whereas the opposite is true with meaningful mixing. And it’s here where British values do have an impact, however much Islamists and the pro-Islamist Left, with their shared disdain for the West, try to deride them. Resilience, meaningful social integration and shared common values — respect for the rule of law, democracy, equality and tolerance — are inhibitors of division, hate and extremism.
To what end, then, do some politicians seem to prefer to engage with illiberal Islamist organisations like Mend than with progressive Muslims such as the newly-appointed Commissioner for Counter-Extremism, Sara Khan, who has run a charity that both challenges extremism and promotes gender equality?
When the government announced Khan’s appointment in January, Mend, Cage, MCB and other Islamist organisations launched a blogging tirade against her (Mend four in one week); the sour nihilism of her political detractors was on full display, chief among them Labour MPs Naz Shah and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, the former Conservative Communities Minister Baroness Warsi, and the Liberal Democrat equalities spokeswoman Baroness Hussein-Ece — all effectively branding Khan a “government stooge”. They variously condemned her appointment as “very ill-advised”, “alarming”, “damaging to relations between Muslims and government”, “McCarthyite”.
Surely what is “ill-advised” is to lend support to organisations like Mend because it provides them with the validation its boss Sufyan Ismail has sought for Mend from politicians and civic society as the authentic representatives of British Muslims and what they broadly define as “normative Islam”.
One of Mend’s “strategic partners”, an organisation called 5 Pillars, has set out what for them “Normative Islam” actually represents. In so doing they have targeted those they regard as the biggest obstacle to achieving this: not the government but their fellow Muslims whom they disparage as “reformers”, most especially Muslims like Sara Khan. A slick 5 Pillars video opens by saying that in “the last 16 years ‘Muslim Reformers’ have been supported by Western governments”. That would include their own government by the way — the British government.
With a picture of Khan next to the Prime Minister, she and other “reformers” are accused of:
• Delegitimising the concept of a caliphate (over a map shading in southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa).
• Erasing the concept of physical jihad (over pictures of a Saladin-like figure urging his army onwards — and into battle).
• Invalidating the Islamic penal code (like the death penalty for adultery).
• Downplaying the Ummah (the global Muslim community) in favour of national identity (over a Union flag).
What this suggests is that to 5 Pillars the Ummah should be more important to British Muslims than their own nation state.
To pro-Mend clerics like Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a close friend of Sufyan Ismail from their days at Manchester University, liberal-minded Muslims like Khan are “the biggest danger within our community . . . closer to kufr (unbelievers) than Iman” (belief) because they want to “hijack Islam” to “dilute Islamic religious practice” in order to create a “new Western Islam” that will be in line with those “who want Islam to be washed away”.
While mainstream Britain sees Muslims like Sara Khan as “progressive”, Niamatullah sees them as “regressive . . . if this is progression then we need the Stone Age, definitely. The Stone Age is definitely better for our deen [creed] and our dunya [world] . . . we are more opposed to these people than ever.” Niamatullah calls them “brown sahibs . . . the equivalent of what Malcolm X called ‘house negroes’” who served in their master’s house during slavery.
Mend’s south-west regional organiser, Sahar Al Faifi, a geneticist, tweets: “I decided to be politically correct and instead of calling Sara Khan a coconut I will call her an Oreo (i.e. a dark biscuit with a white filling).” So much for an organisation that so proudly proclaims its anti-hate credentials. Indeed, it is Muslims like Al Faifi and Niamatullah who are the real Islamophobes.
We have reached a crossroads over religious fundamentalism, hardliners, extremism, whichever word you prefer. Mend and some of their supporters in Parliament and on the Left seem to delight in pointing out that because the government has failed to come up with a legal definition for “extremism” it doesn’t really exist and therefore doesn’t need to be countered by promoting something equally vague as “British values”. Those invoking David Cameron’s call for “muscular liberalism” as an antidote to extremism are greeted with eye-rolling despair at the rampant “structural Islamophobia” which they have convinced themselves grips this country.
Typical is Mend’s recent Manchester group co-ordinator, Dr Siema Iqbal. When she is not treating patients or being a “mum” (her phrase) to her two boys, she blogs, tweets and expostulates almost daily. “Currently,” she writes “we have a commission to counter something we haven’t defined and don’t even know needs countering yet. Yes, it really is that bizarre.”
Actually it isn’t. Most people recognise intolerance and fundamentalism when they see it and it’s been on display in the reaction to Amanda Spielman and Neena Lall. Was it acceptable for them to be so viscerally trolled after Mend, the mosques around Manchester, the imam in Newham, Newham councillors, and others raised the temperature? The answer is clearly no. Is it acceptable that the state should always adapt to the demands of a vocal politicised religious lobby, rather than the other way around, with no consideration of the offence that might be caused to others if they’re browbeaten into complying with their demands? Again no.
After many years of hand-wringing by those fearful of causing offence lest they be labelled “Islamophobe”, a “neocon”, a “Zionist”, “house Muslim”, “native informant”, or any other epithet signifying “bad” people, the government seems to have concluded that enough really is enough. Step by step, the counter-extremism strategy is constructing a tangible, values-driven infrastructure: counter-extremism co-ordinators, including Muslims who understand the dangers to the stability and cohesion of this country, are being appointed to local authorities; the Home Office programme called “Building a Stronger Britain Together” now has a network of 124 organisations across the country — again, many run by Muslims — delivering small-scale community projects to build resilience into communities vulnerable to radicalisation from Islamist extremists and the far Right.
This programme is being rolled out quietly, sometimes too quietly for fear of provoking activist sensibilities. But rolling out it is, whether Mend and its “strategic partners” like Cage, the MCB, 5 Pillars and the rest of them like it or not.
Amanda Spielman is right to emphasise that schools shouldn’t assume that the “most conservative voices” of a particular faith group speak for everyone; nor should they be afraid to “call out” practices they believe could negatively affect young people.
The Chief Inspector of Schools has shown she is unafraid. Neena Lall was knocked down but she has picked herself up. An Ofsted inspection found her leadership of St Stephen’s school is “effective” and that she and her team “continue to run an outstanding school.” Inspectors report that the “bullying and harassment . . . has been co-ordinated by some people outside the school community”. Ofsted has put a muscular arm around Lall with a clear message to any faith group hoping to browbeat a school into submission: “Hands off our headteachers.”
She is not alone. At only 38, Sara Khan is already battled-hardened from years of vicious trolling and has the confidence and conviction to expose the contradictions in anger-stoking, name-calling, Islamophobia-accusing campaigns. Khan has been massively let down by Labour: Diane Abbott criticised her appointment with no explanation beyond parroting the “widespread” (largely Islamist) “perception” that she is not trusted because she supports the government’s Prevent programme. Others will see a feisty, focused, principled woman prepared to confront those determined to force their narrow, intolerant and fundamentalist view on this country.
Other Muslim women have also been speaking out. Indeed, the challenge to religious fundamentalism is being led mainly by Muslim women. More are less concerned now with being trolled as “bad Muslims”, “house servants”, “coconuts” and all the other racist barbs hurled at them by organisations that claim piety and nobility and to be representative of British Islam but are not.
All of these women — Spielman and Khan included — have lost their fear. And this is the game-changer in the ceaseless battle for the soul of British Islam. “You don’t scare us any more,” they are saying. It’s time more politicians and others in public life manned up — and followed their example.