Two reports confirm the worst allegations about a ‘Trojan Horse' plan to impose an intolerant Islamic ethos on British state schools
“Phew, that’s a relief,” exclaimed the female teacher, slipping off her jacket and displaying two bare arms. It was hot and she and a colleague were enjoying a drink. “We daren’t have our arms uncovered at school.”
This was not the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It was Britain’s second city, Birmingham, and the teachers were from one of the secular state schools targeted by religious hardliners in the so-called “Trojan Horse” plot which attempted to convert them into Islamic faith schools in all but name.
At another school, a male governor pointed disapprovingly to a young teacher wearing a short-sleeved dress. Turning to an older teacher, he demanded: “Can you ask her to cover her arms please?” “No,” replied the teacher. “Why not?” asked the governor. “Because she’s 25 and I’m 60.” “Can’t she wear a shawl, then?” “No! She’s wearing standard Western dress.”
How was it possible that female teachers faced criticism merely for baring their arms in school? What explains the intolerance towards such a basic liberty? The right of a woman to be able to uncover her arms is not, admittedly, a right on a par with the right to free speech or a fair trial. But being free in a state-funded institution to dress in clothes which have not been given the seal of approval by highly conservative Muslims is nonetheless a valuable right, and one which most women in this country wish to preserve.
The incubator of that intolerance has been officially identified as the Park View Educational Trust, which runs three state schools and which tried to export its “Islamising blueprint” to several other schools in east Birmingham, where most of the city’s 140,000 citizens of Pakistani heritage live.
In July, as 600 pupils streamed through the gates of Park View School to start their summer break, the acting principal bade them a confident farewell: “See you in September,” said Monzoor “Mozz” Hussain. But he won’t. Hussain is alleged to have been the administrator of a semi-secret group called the “Park View Brotherhood.” He has been suspended and may face a professional misconduct hearing before the National College for Teaching and Leadership, an agency of the Department for Education (DfE).
Children returning this month to some schools affected byTrojan Horse will find they are being taught by a record number of supply teachers. At one secondary it’s approaching 20 per cent. There’s been an exodus of disheartened teachers. “The heart has gone out of the school,” said a former teacher. “Nobody to lead it and nobody to love it.” Yet more suspensions are forecast after the two latest official inquiries into the impact of Trojan Horse.
These two inquiry reports cry out for a national debate for they mark a seminal moment in the challenge that faces this country: how exactly do we create a common life with fellow citizens who have shown a greater reluctance to assimilate than most other ethnic minorities, who already practise Britain’s second largest religion, are projected to form 8 per cent of the population by 2030 and whose observant followers are becoming more socially and religiously conservative?
Unfortunately, the two reports were published as Parliament rose for the summer recess. Partly as a result, they’ve barely had a hearing but the evidence they present is explosive.
The most detailed and hard-hitting of the reports was written by a former head of counter-terrorism, Peter Clarke, assisted by a 14-strong team of senior civil servants and experts. He was appointed by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove. Someone with access to Clarke’s draft sought to limit the damage with a controlled explosion by leaking it to the Guardian days ahead of publication. This worked. Newspapers gave Clarke minimal, inside-page treatment.
The second report was written by a respected former head teacher in Coventry, Ian Kershaw, who now runs an education consultancy. He was appointed by the local education authority, Birmingham City Council. Although Clarke and Kershaw shared some witness evidence, I am told that they did not discuss their conclusions with each other. That fact makes the striking similarity of many of their findings all the more significant.
Between them, Clarke and Kershaw identified 16 state schools as having been the target of takeover tactics, albeit at different stages, by male Muslim governors and teachers mainly of Pakistani heritage. Clarke says that the Park View Brotherhood was at the heart of this “pre-determined plan” deploying “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action” to “introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” into the schools.
We learn that when asked to present the sex and relationship curriculum for the approval of a secondary school’s governors, a senior female teacher was shouted at and told that she was “trying to get our boys to masturbate”. One governor refused to speak to her solely because she is a woman.
Governors and staff at Park View Trust schools were openly homophobic. Nansen Primary staff said they were told to teach that homosexuality is a “sin”. And here’s what the Nansen Primary’s recently suspended deputy head, Razwan Faraz, thinks of gay people: “These animals are going out full force. As teachers we must be aware and counter their satanic ways of influencing young people.” Faraz implores “Allah” to “further expose this and give us the strength to deal and eradicate it”.
A Muslim head teacher was sworn at and hissed at by parents and teachers in the playground after being the victim of rumours that she was sexually promiscuous. She was also branded a kaffir (unbeliever). How was such bigotry tolerated in secular state schools when Birmingham City Council had frequently been warned about similar behaviour going back to the early 1990s? It seems the answer is that officials feared they might upset Birmingham’s Muslims if they intervened. The council’s Equalities Division apparently advised action could “destabilise relationships across the city”.
When the first trickle of Trojan Horse stories emerged last spring, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) dismissed them as “idle chatter” and demanded: “End this witch-hunt of British Muslims.” Yet Clarke and Kershaw disclose numerous examples of offensive behaviour — not just of sexism, homophobia, bullying and aggression, but also of discrimination against non-Muslims, financial impropriety and nepotism, with jobs going to friends and relatives of governors.
Some governors and teachers are also said to have used children to humiliate staff who didn’t toe a more fundamentalist line: governors encouraged pupils to criticise head teachers; children were told to tell their non-Muslim teacher that she wore too much make-up; another Muslim teacher was ridiculed by a male Muslim teacher for showing her neck.
After one sex and relationship lesson at Park View School, boys told girls they couldn’t refuse husbands sex. A team of 160 students was also alleged by staff to have been appointed as a kind of religious police to report the names of staff and pupils who behaved in “unacceptable” ways, like boys and girls talking to or touching each other. The school vigorously denies both charges.
Clarke also says children were coerced into praying — even though it wasn’t a faith school. Clarke cites a teacher using a microphone from a high window to shout at children in the playground after the daily tannoyed call to prayer had gone out (it was switched off when government inspectors arrived).
The Park View Brotherhood weren’t motivated just by religious conservatism. Clarke finds there was also a political “Islamist” dimension: anti-Western rhetoric, particularly anti-US and anti-Jewish, “highly offensive comments about British service personnel”, and scepticism about the truth of the terrorist murders of Drummer Lee Rigby and American civilians killed by the Boston nail bombers, with links to conspiracy theorist videos about both outrages.
The Brotherhood was seeking to “impose upon children . . . the segregationist attitudes and practices of a hard-line and politicised strand of Sunni Islam”, says Clarke, which “claims to represent and ultimately seeks to control all Muslims”.
In the face of such a disturbing picture of extreme and intolerant beliefs, one might have expected universal condemnation from public figures who consider themselves to be enlightened and progressive. So what was the reaction from the former heads of Education in Birmingham, the Runnymede Trust and the National Youth Agency? “A biased mix of uncorroborated smear, anecdote, hoax and chatroom gossip,” said Sir Tim Brighouse, Robin Richardson and Tom Wylie in a jointly-signed letter to the Guardian. The evidence adduced was “not forensic” and was “unlikely to bear scrutiny”.
One of the reasons Gove asked Clarke to investigate the Trojan Horse affair was because, as a former policeman, he had a reputation as a patient investigator who understood the difference between hard evidence and hearsay.
Shahid Akmal, a former Revenue and Customs official, was chair of Nansen Primary governors. What is his view of women — especially non-Muslim women? While acknowledging that women can be as intelligent as men, Akmal considers that “emotionally women are much weaker . . . they are not on the same level”. He also thinks they should stay at home to “look after the house, look after the children”. He disapproves of women who become “high-flying” politicians: “She has to sacrifice her family, she has to sacrifice her children, she has to sacrifice her husband, all in the name of equality.”
Recorded by an undercover reporter, Akmal also says: “Our women are much, much better consciously in the heart than any white women . . . White women have the least amount of morals.”
Equally revealing have been the 3,250 postings from the Park View Brotherhood’s discussion group on WhatsApp, a messaging application. Set up and administered by Park View School’s acting principal Mozz Hussain, its core contributors were mainly teachers there or at Nansen Primary, or the Park View Trust’s other school, Golden Hillock secondary.
Here’s a sample of the posts. Commenting on a BBC report about gays in Pakistan, Teacher A says: “If you have just eaten, read after two hours. Caution advised.” To which Teacher B replies: “This stuff is disgusting and must happen but we should try to lift our imam (faith) in these difficult times rather than buy into this type of cheap sensational garbage . . .”
Teacher A goes on: “. . . these filthy crime is happening in the land that our parents belong to . . . the practice of homosexuality is certainly the signs of the end of times. This agenda is also being promoted by our government in the UK, therefore, it’s imperative that we as educators don’t shy away from this . . .”
Besides children being encouraged to disparage Christmas — with celebrations banned at two primary schools, Nansen and Oldknow Academy — Clarke cites allegations of “racist attitudes promoted in assembly”. One example is the teacher reported to have told children that Christians were “all liars”. A teacher is also said to have told children Christians and Jews were ignorant.
The fact that Gove chose a former head of counter-terrorism was widely interpreted as proof that he was Islamophobic. He was accused of conflating ordinary religious conservatism with extremism, and therefore terrorism.
A chorus of disapproval came from the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police (“desperately unfortunate”); Birmingham MPs (Shabana Mahmood: “deeply provocative”, Liam Byrne: “Parents are bloody angry”); former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob (“a disaster for community cohesion”); the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (“Politically motivated”); and Guardian commentator Seumas Milne, who asserted that Gove wanted to “humiliate the Muslim community”, while the paper’s education correspondent concluded: “There’s not much evidence of anything.”
Of course Clarke found no evidence of AK47s being stored in school lockers — but then he never imagined he would. As he repeatedly stressed: “I most definitely was not approaching my role from the perspective of looking for evidence of terrorist activity, radicalisation or violent extremism.”
Nonetheless, the MCB, Salma Yaqoob, Liam Byrne and others endorsed the “straw man” argument that looking for radicalisation was what Gove had tasked Clarke to do. And because Clarke found no such evidence, his critics reached the bogus conclusion that, as Yaqoob put it, the “central allegation . . . remains unproven”.
But the central allegation was emphatically not that schools were directly radicalising children. It was that a group of conservative-minded governors and teachers was using entryist tactics to take over secular state schools — an Islamist version of the 1980s plot by the Militant Tendency to infiltrate the Labour party — that risked making children vulnerable to radicalisation.
These tactics were set out in the now infamous and anonymous “Trojan Horse” letter. That letter purported to be the outline of a five-stage plot to remove those head teachers in state schools with a majority of Muslim pupils who were not prepared to run their schools on strict Islamic principles. The idea was to replace them with heads who would. In recent years ten heads in east Birmingham have resigned or been dismissed, with the ousted female non-Muslim head of Oldknow Academy having been subjected to “relentless” pressure.
The MCB has sought to undermine evidence that there was a plot to take over schools in that way. “The document proved to be a fake,” complained an MCB statement, “but accusations of an extremist plot still exist.”
They do — and for the simple reason that whether the letter is a fake is not the issue, nor ever has been. The issue is whether the substance of the letter was true. Clarke and Kershaw found that it was, with evidence that some, or all, of the five Trojan Horse steps were present in at least 14 primary and secondary secular state schools, and two state faith schools.
Although neither inquiry found evidence of “direct radicalisation or violent extremism”, Clarke did find “clear evidence” of teachers and governors “who espouse, sympathise with or fail to challenge extremist views . . . however intolerant or obnoxious”.
Kershaw did not find evidence of an anti-British agenda. However he did not have access to some evidence available to Clarke, like the Park View Brotherhood’s WhatsApp messages, which Clarke reveals contained a “total lack of challenge” to any views unless critical of other Muslims, including “anti-Western rhetoric” and “explicit antagonism towards the British military”. A class at Golden Hillock secondary was reportedly “shown images of jihad, involving a battlefield and rocket launchers”. Some governors actively stopped the police from teaching children the Prevent strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which explains how to avoid being drawn into terrorism. I’m also told that at one school, two governors appointed by Birmingham council were on the counter-terrorism “sympathisers” watch list.
The fact that children were also learning to be intolerant of difference and diversity falls within the Prevent programme’s official definition of extremism. That definition includes “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, such as “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. There were also numerous links posted to speakers known for their extremist views, some of whom were invited to speak to the children. Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman, for instance, has called on God to “destroy the enemies of Islam . . . to give victory to the Muslims in Afghanistan and Chechnya . . . to give victory to all the Mujahedeen all over the world” and to “prepare us for the jihad”.
The sheikh was invited to talk to 15- and 16-year-olds at Park View school but the acting principal, Mozz Hussain, said he merely focused on the importance of exam revision. Staff, however, told Clarke that some students were so shocked by what he had said that they talked about it for days, saying things like: “Oh my God I can’t believe what he has just said — there are people dying in Afghanistan.”
The man named in the Trojan Horse letter as the prime mover behind the plan was the chairman of the Park View Educational Trust, Tahir Alam, a former BT engineer turned educational activist and governor of six schools, well known for his energetic promotion of Islamic education. He was also an Ofsted inspector.
In a mostly unpublished interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Report, Alam said the school had checked out Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman before he was invited to speak but no evidence of extremism had been found. This is strange because evidence of his extremist views is available on the internet at the click of a mouse.
The police were told that at school assemblies children were sometimes reminded of military conquests by the Prophet, and that non-Muslims were referred to as kaffirs. IT technicians are also said to have been asked to record what appeared to be al-Qaeda terrorist videos on a DVD, and one teacher recommended staff and children listen to lectures by the al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, considered so dangerous by the Americans that he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Alam says these claims are nothing but “a work of fiction”. He also asserts that “none of the facts” in the Trojan Horse letter “are true”. He insists that none his three schools practised segregation by gender, save for PE, as most schools do. To the extent that there was segregation in other subjects like Religious Education and PSHE (personal, social and health education), this was “purely for timetabling reasons” simply because RE and PSHE were timetabled against PE. I am told, however, that a 2008 design for the refurbishment of Park View School included separate gender entrances to the school hall. In one of the “Park View Brotherhood” message discussions, a teacher also said he wanted to increase classroom segregation.
Asked what he thought of the Brotherhood’s messages, Alam said the “first time I came across them” was in Clarke’s report. Can that be right? Alam reportedly made regular visits to Park View School for prayers and lunch, and to the other schools under his control — Nansen Primary and Golden Hillock. Present and former staff told Clarke that Alam dominated all decisions.
Alam insists that he was not “doing anything that a faith school would do. ” Why then were Friday prayers introduced at his schools?
The MCB suggests Clarke has ascribed guilt to Alam by “conflating conservative Muslim practices to a supposed ideology and agenda to Islamise secular schools”. Why then was the word “Islamising” used by the Park View Brotherhood to describe the purpose behind its step-by-step approach to take control of schools?
For example, referring to the new head of a large secondary school in the Brotherhood’s sights, Razwan Faraz messaged: “Don’t pressurise her to start the Islamising agenda first. That will be a lot easier when she is respected as a leader.”
Furthermore, many of the changes in schools introduced by Alam and the Brotherhood replicate those in a 2007 MCB pamphlet which set out the purported needs of 400,000 pupils from different Asian ethnicities, but whom the MCB defined only as a single homogenous group, identified solely by their faith as “Muslims.” That pamphlet promotes the Islamist view that faith commitments encompass all aspects of life for British Muslim children. The word “should” is used over 90 times, mostly in demands for concessions.
Alam co-authored the pamphlet with the MCB secretary-general because Alam chaired the MCB’s education committee. Why does the MCB have an education committee and not, say, a transport committee? Because for Islamists education is the key to promoting Islamism.
One of the pamphlet’s appendixes lists seven items, six of which are in-house productions of organisations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Gove chose Clarke not, as the MCB implies, because he is “hostile to the British Muslim community”, but because, as a former head of counter-terrorism, he understands the complex spectrum of Islam, ranging from its political variants to its purely spiritual ones. He knows that radicalisation does not inevitably follow from social and religious conservative Islam.
But he also knows that if children are being educated in a more politicised environment that signals hostility to Western society and to the mores and attitudes of non-Muslims, one result can be that it makes it easier for Muslims — and especially impressionable young Muslims — to adopt a grievance-mongering “them and us” mindset, which portrays Muslims as one homogenous community under attack. That attitude can be the first step on a journey which can end with a desire to engage in terrorism.
Tahir Alam has dismissed evidence from anonymous teachers who spoke to Clarke and Kershaw and suggests they were disgruntled “because they did not get a promotion”. Clarke counters that they sought anonymity because the “levels of anxiety and indeed evident distress shown by some witnesses cannot be overstated”.
A graphic illustration of the sort of distress that can be caused is provided by the sheer ruthlessness by which the Sikh head teacher of Saltley School was pushed out last year by hardline Muslim governors just 16 months after taking office.
Balwant Bains says he experienced the classic Trojan Horse treatment to wear down and ultimately remove a head teacher resistant to Islamising the school. Within three months a campaign of “harassment, bullying and intimidation” began. Bains says he had to write a 300-page document for every governor because the chair of governors demanded that he justify every decision he had made so far. As one teacher told me: “There’s no way you can run a school in the inner city and keep your eye on the ball when you’ve got such a lot of invasion of your time.” During an Ofsted inspection, the governors complained that under Bains academic standards had declined. In fact, the GCSE results were the best in the school’s history.
Appealing to Birmingham City Council for help, Bains said the governors were making “decisions not in the best interest of the school and the pupils but in the interest of relatives and friends of the school”. He urged the council to dissolve the governing body “so that I can get some sort of grip on my school which is now being influenced internally and externally”. But Birmingham didn’t.
In June 2013, a Muslim boy brandishing a knife demanded money from six other children. A non-Muslim boy had hidden the knife although he took no part in the threats. Bains decided to exclude the Muslim boy permanently and the non-Muslim boy for a term.
The governors considered this to be evidence of racism and “Islamophobia” by Bains, and ordered him to reinstate the Muslim boy and to read out to staff a letter suggesting his decision had been motivated by prejudice. In effect Bains was required to humiliate himself in front of his own staff. When he refused, the letter appeared on the school noticeboard. Staff divided between supporters of Bains and opponents who thought he was “racist basically. He’s Islamophobic.” Prior to a demonstration which Bains says was organised by governors, a Facebook post texted to children read: “Saltley School’s Head teacher is racist. He suspended a Muslim pupil and does not suspend non-Muslims.” A Twitter war erupted, with the all-white senior leadership team also being accused of racism because they supported Bains.
Worn down, and with Birmingham Council seemingly unwilling to confront the governors, Bains decided that continuing as head was impossible. To the apparent relief of the council he resigned. Paying off the victims of Trojan Horse tactics rather than confronting their perpetrators was the council’s preferred option, said Clarke. “They’re frightened of being called Islamophobic,” one ex-senior teacher told me. “They’re frightened of their own shadows.”
Was the council’s close relationship with Alam also a factor? It had employed him to train governors and also urged other schools to partner with him. The schools refused, but after the head teacher of Golden Hillock secondary school resigned, having suffered similar treatment to Bains at the hands of the Park View Brotherhood, the council seized its chance, and pushed Golden Hillock into the arms of Alam’s Park View Educational Trust. “Tahir and the authority had a love fest going on,” says a former Golden Hillock governor.
Soon after Bains left Saltley, the chair of governors used school funds to launch “Operation Saltley”, paying a private investigator to access Bains’s emails. This was only stopped when a senior teacher who discovered what was going on pointed out that the governors and their gumshoe were about to commit a criminal offence, because Bains’s emails contained highly sensitive and personal information about parents and pupils covered by the Data Protection Act.
Why did the governors want to spy on Bains? They said it was to “protect the senior leadership team from accusations of racism” following the Twitter war. Bains believes they were fishing for evidence of racism so they could avoid paying him off.
For his part, Tahir Alam says his sole motivation has been to improve education for Muslims, having been moved to tears by a 1993 BBC Panorama programme called Underclass in Purdah which featured Park View, where he had been a pupil. “Park View was a poor, struggling school then,” says a teacher familiar with the school at that time. “The atmosphere was just dreadful. Unsafe, unloved, shabby — kids out of control. There was definitely a job to be done. I remember Tahir ranting at staff — it was a tirade. Actually he was horrible to them.”
Still, thanks largely to Alam’s drive, over time Park View had an impressive improvement in GCSE results, albeit at the cost of a much-narrowed curriculum with its emphasis on maths and English, and also — according to Ofsted — at the cost of not preparing the children for life in modern multicultural Britain. Alam says he has merely responded to “the aspirations of parents and children . . . it’s just a very basic courtesy that one must extend”.
Clarke and Kershaw don’t accept this explanation. Both conclude that most parents have not demanded a conservative religious ethos at school. As Clarke says, it would be “absurd and deeply offensive” to argue that Muslims in east Birmingham share the Brotherhood’s intolerant views. Why then were only a few parental voices publicly raised in protest?
Fear of the consequences is one possible answer. Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr, dared to risk the highly personalised invective that challenging the Islamist narrative so often generates by saying that he believed the allegation of an Islamising plot was true. A Brotherhood-friendly blogger and retweet favourite of some of the accused governors hit back by calling Mahmood a “House Negro” — the pejorative description by the black American activist Malcolm X of a slave who worked in the master’s house. “I swear that the speaker was talking about your good-self,” sniped the anonymous blogger, who also posted: “Khalid Mahmood: The Brown Neocon Driver of the ‘Trojan Horse’ Plot.”
Yet Alam’s claims of parental support is consistent with the fact that the school was oversubscribed and with the trend so visible today on the streets of east Birmingham and elsewhere: that Britain’s more observant Muslims are becoming more socially and religiously conservative.
There are more burqas, jilbabs and hijabs, less alcohol at restaurants. Even some lifelong Muslim friends of non-Muslims have become conditional friends who insist that when their non-Muslim friends visit, husbands and wives who used to socialise in jolly foursomes now socialise separately: wife with wife in the kitchen, husband with husband in the lounge.
Girls in Alum Rock oscillate giddily from demure and devoted Muslims to feisty young women in figure-hugging jeans and lipstick, taking in their traditional salwar kameez skin-tight.
But it is also these girls whom the brothers, fathers and uncles have in their sights: they want them educated but ultimately, as Tahir Alam’s fellow Park View governor Shahid Akmal let slip, they also want them at home. Not for nothing has one school built in enclosed spaces so that boys and girls of different heritages can mix and study in freedom, just as teenagers do in every other part of Britain.
The government may hope to wind up the Park View Brotherhood with the removal of key teachers and governors. But if the authorities are to stop deeply committed Islamists from building more Trojan Horses, whether in Birmingham or elsewhere, there will need to be much better policing of the state school system. That system is increasingly fragmented by new academies and free schools no longer under local authority control.
What Clarke and Kershaw found was that although Birmingham City Council, the DfE and Ofsted had each been separately warned that hardline Muslim governors were targeting schools, none of them were talking to each other or to the Education Funding Agency, whose job is to ensure that the new academies like Park View and free schools comply with funding rules. “There was absolutely no sharing of intelligence,” said one official.
To Labour, this is evidence of the failure of Gove’s education policy. The Trojan Horse breached the state’s secular walls because of the speed with which he established new schools to disperse what he calls “The Blob”: the bloated mass of vested interests stifling all efforts to reform education so as to ensure that children emerge from school better qualified to face the challenges of the modern world. In Gove’s haste to establish the schools, he failed to protect them from unscrupulous elements.
Yet the roots of the Trojan Horse agenda predate Gove by at least a generation. They go back to the creation of the main umbrella for Muslim schools, the Association of Muslim Schools UK (AMS UK), the International Board of Educational Research and Resources (IBERR), and the MCB. Tahir Alam and some of the Park View Brothers have been associated with or held positions in these bodies, which have been inspired by a broad global Islamist movement that has morphed from the original Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood. That movement sees no distinction between Islam as a spiritual faith, a way of life and a political ideology. Some say that following the collapse of Communism, Islamism is history’s next big idea.
Certainly it doesn’t lack ambition: “Think global, act local” is a favourite Brotherhood slogan. Perhaps that explains why Akram Khan Cheema, founder of AMS UK and a member of its shura council, has also been chief executive of the IBERR, which has espoused the global Islamification of the school curriculum. He is also an Ofsted inspector and trains inspectors.
Yet Akram Khan Cheema says he wants to “bring Islam to the classroom”. Why? This is not an Islamic country.
At the AMS UK 2013 conference, he conducted a conference workshop titled “Islamification of the whole school curriculum.”
However effective more robust policing might be in thwarting Islamist attempts from building future Trojan Horses, what it won’t do is suppress the growing demand from socially conservative parents for greater recognition of their faith and culture in schools — and for more state-funded faith schools.
Currently there are just 12 state-funded Muslim faith schools. The Church of England and the Catholic Church run more than 6,500. If Muslims were as well served as Christians, they’d be entitled to another 500. Most would be concentrated in cities with large Muslim populations like Birmingham and Bradford.
In principle, no fair-minded person could object to Muslims having their fair share of faith schools. On the other hand, most state-funded church schools are an historical hangover from when churches educated poor children before the state stepped in. They tend to be faith “lite” with religious instruction rarely the main focus of the curriculum. Indeed, the schools are often more culturally diverse than community schools.
How, then, to respond to the anticipated demand from Muslim parents for equal treatment without a culture war breaking out?
The government will need to send a clear signal: that Muslims are every bit as entitled to state-funded faith schools as any other faith provided the core values that underpin Western civilisation are promoted — genuine tolerance of other faiths, equality of gender and sexual orientation, an appreciation that the secularisation of knowledge is the foundation of modern education, with no concessions to the ideology of Islamism, in which religion and politics are fused as one.
The Department of Education has tried to send that signal with its response to a recent Channel 4 investigation into Britain’s newest state-funded Muslim faith school in Blackburn. Channel 4 showed primary school children being discouraged from clapping because it’s a form of entertainment which distracts from the worship of God.
The school was also said to provide limited music and to have paid its respects to an extremist preacher banned from Britain who has said gays are “worse than animals”. Hardly the model of “progressive, mainstream and positive Muslim free schools” the Tauheedul Trust, which runs the school, claims it to be.
An emergency Ofsted inspection followed. How Ofsted satisfied itself that “British values” were being “promoted well” is, to say the least, curious. The school is aligned with Deobandism, the dominant branch of Islam in Britain, whose most pious members can make the Park View Brotherhood seem almost enlightened by comparison.
Still, I understand the DfE is prepared to give the Tauheedul Trust the benefit of the doubt because officials are satisfied its religious conservatism lacks the Islamising political ingredient which Clarke says was present in the Park View Brotherhood. Unlike the Brotherhood, the Trust has also “bent over backwards” to find out what the DfE wants for the school to be thought acceptable. Yet Islam does not fall into neat hermetically sealed spiritual and political compartments. Park View tells us that the membrane between them can be quite porous.
If we’re really serious about helping British Muslim children prepare for multi-ethnic, multi-faith, democratic life in Britain, radical changes will be needed to the inspection regime of state-funded Muslim faith schools.
Currently, the Brotherhood-linked AMS UK is licensed to inspect the Islamic life of a school, its collective worship and its religious education. I understand the DfE is minded to replace AMS UK for this function with a non-Islamist body, yet to be chosen, but one considered to be more representative of mainstream Islam. The MCB asserts that it is “not for the state to define the theological boundaries of the Islamic faith”. But when the state is funding a school, ensuring that public money does not bankroll an intolerant and bigoted doctrine is surely a legitimate state role.
I understand the DfE also wants to wind up the Bridge Schools Inspectorate, established by Labour in 2008, which in effect has allowed private Muslim and Christian faith schools to be self-policing.
Will these measures be sufficient to prevent British Muslims from drifting into deeper cultural separation? We must hope so. And “hope” is the word. The Park View Brotherhood may not have been typical of schools in East Birmingham where governing bodies with moderate Muslim members have operated appropriately. But those of us who are not particularly religious also underestimate just how seriously very religious people can take their faith, and just how divisive this can become when commitment to a political ideology incompatible with secular democracy is held to be an essential part of faith.
The law requires that daily collective worship in school should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. In practice, in multi-faith Britain most head teachers hold assemblies that promote broad-based values with no emphasis on any particular faith. “I never wanted to see Christians going this way, Muslims that way, Sikhs another way, and Hindus yet another,” said a former head of a majority-Muslim school.
But for the Park View Brotherhood and their supporters, Islam is the alpha and omega of their existence. The triumphal WhatsApp message of a narrow 8-7 governor vote in favour of Islamic collective worship for yet another school in their sights speaks volumes: “A battle was fought and won tonight . . . overturning five years of ‘children pray in their own way and language’!” exclaimed a governor overcome with joy. “The GB [governing body] is now polarised on faith grounds.”
Some victory. Some hope.
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