Who’s up, who’s down? Who’s in, who’s out? While Westminster spent last week gossiping about which minister’s special adviser said what, in another city, not far away, a very different Britain was unveiled.
On Monday, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, published his damning investigation into the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair. Ever since allegations about an organised Islamist plot to take over Birmingham state schools emerged this year, they have been the subject of furious claims and counter-claims. The original document (a ‘widely accepted forgery’ as the BBC keeps calling it) seems most likely to have been written by a disgruntled Muslim teacher. Nearly every Muslim group and ‘spokes-person’ in the UK has spent recent months crying ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘Islamophobia’. Yet, whatever their origins, the claims now turn out to be mirrored by the facts.
The report found that Islamists had used ‘fear and intimidation’ to infiltrate school governing bodies in order to impose a ‘narrow faith-based ideology’. Children as young as six had been taught that western women are ‘white prostitutes’. Non-Muslim pupils were excluded from certain activities, including a trip to Saudi Arabia. There are accounts of anti-Christian chants being encouraged in morning assemblies. In one primary school, music was banned, along with raffles, tombolas and other ‘un-Islamic’ activities.
Further reports will be published, including one from former Met counter-terrorism chief Peter Clarke, which is expected to be even more damning. For his part, Sir Michael’s report concluded that ‘the active promotion of a narrow set of values and beliefs in some of the schools is making children vulnerable to segregation and emotional dislocation from wider society’. Indeed. A generation is at risk. But it is not just the Islamists, but this country, which is letting it happen.
Since the moment protests erupted over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Britain’s authorities have been caught off guard. It was a Conservative home secretary (Michael Howard) who disastrously encouraged British Muslims to organise as a community rather than as citizens, believing it best if government had a ‘go-to’ group for the Muslims in Britain. The result was to embed community differences and encourage radicals to believe their horizon was closer than it ever should have seemed.
Under the Conservative and then Labour governments, radical preachers toured Britain trying to rally and isolate Muslim youth. They said that to be a Muslim you had to sympathise with your Muslim ‘brothers’ anywhere in the world. What you should not do was to feel any of that gratitude or desire to assimilate which had existed in their parents’ generation.
Everywhere, this madness was allowed to spread. Religiously segregated areas were accepted, separate values were allowed to thrive and, eventually, even separate rules of law tolerated and encouraged. All the time, we pretended to ourselves that this was simply ‘diversity’. I remember one Muslim woman in particular, who I interviewed in Birmingham some years ago. Born and bred in the area, she had been horribly mistreated by her local sharia court. ‘All my life,’ she told me, ‘I have been told what my rights are as a Muslim woman. No one ever told me what my rights are as a British woman.’
Amid this tolerance of anything and everything, the first major attacks on the West — 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, 7/7 — were a jolt. But if government was concerned by the acts of violence themselves, it was confused and reticent over what lay behind it. Clever counter-terrorism strategies like ‘Prevent’ were developed. But they had almost wholesale push-back from the ‘Muslim leadership’ and some funds ended up promoting the very ideologies they were meant to counter. What few people spotted was an opening that many Islamists were themselves perfectly frank about — an ambition to control the minds of the next generation of British Muslims.
Of course, there were examples of what could go wrong. In 2007, a disgruntled Muslim teacher blew the whistle on the privately run King Fahad Academy in Acton, West London, alerting us to the fact that extreme textbooks in Arabic were being used at the school. The materials (from the Saudi ministry of education, incidentally) called Jews and Christians ‘apes and pigs’ and included test questions such as ‘Give examples of worthless religions such as Judaism, Christianity, idol-worship and others’. An Ofsted report a year earlier had declared the school’s teaching of Islam to be ‘mostly good’.
If such views and teachings came as a surprise to politicians and public alike, then they should not have done. Islamist groups had been completely open about their ambition. In a September 2003 piece (‘Education Dilemma’) in their Khilafah magazine, the global Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (which is banned in many countries) railed against UK schools, including Muslim schools, for being too compromising and secular.
They criticised the older generation of British Muslims for doing ‘little to challenge what the indigenous population held as norms and values’ and complained that ‘in a society dominated by capitalist values and ideas, curriculum education will inevitably be used to indoctrinate children with notions such as “freedom” and “democracy” ’. HT said that ‘parents must be careful to filter out any negative influences that children are exposed to from the wider society’ and proposed that ‘Muslims can try to establish Islamic schools that are not deficient’.
Just two years later, in their April 2005 manifesto, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain boasted of helping existing Islamic schools to develop ‘appropriate’ curricula, and said they were supporting new schools being established across the country, adding, ‘We have set up bodies to aid Muslim governors of state schools, to be aware of their rights and to cater for Muslim children.’
After the London Tube and bus bombs were detonated, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to ban HT. But not only was the group not banned, its members were allowed to set up schools in Slough and Haringey. Again the inspections failed. A 2005 Ofsted report for the Slough school said, ‘the school’s provision for the pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is very good’. Two years later, the schools were receiving over £130,000 in government grants.
Challenged on this another two years later, the then education secretary Ed Balls furiously deflected attention from the reality. In November 2009, Balls told Newsnight, ‘The question is, were the schools promoting terrorism or extremism? We’ve sent in the Ofsted advisers, who said no. I have looked at the curriculum, the answer was no.’
Perhaps, like Ofsted, he didn’t know what to look for. The HT constitution and the curricula for the Slough and Haringey schools are identical. Pupils were to be taught ‘Sovereignty to Allah’ and ‘Authority to the Ummah’. Lessons for nine and ten-year-olds included lessons on the need to establish an Islamic state and ‘Jihad fi sabeelillah [fighting in the path of Allah] as a form of worship’. As the author of the school’s history curriculum had previously written in HT’s magazine that ‘the world will, insha’Allah, witness the death of the criminal capitalist nation of America and all other (infidel) states when the army of jihad is unleashed against them’, it seems safe to suggest we are not talking about ‘inner personal struggle’ here.
In 2007, one of Michael Howard’s creations, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) published a 72-page blueprint on how to Islamicise secular state schools. It called for schools to avoid teaching any art involving ‘three-dimensional imagery of humans’, and discourage any play ‘associated with celebrating aspects of other religions’. There was no particular complaint. One of the two authors of the MCB report, Tahir Alam, is now a central figure being investigated in the Trojan Horse plot.
Yet still the Birmingham case has shocked everyone. Perhaps it is because the schools in question are not private schools or Gove’s academies. These are state schools being subjected to clear Islamist takeover. Perhaps that is why Monday’s debate in the House of Commons was striking for its relative lack of partisan point-scoring. There can hardly be a person in Westminster who thinks Michael Gove either incompetent or especially soft on Islamic extremism. Perhaps politicians of both parties now realise what one Labour frontbencher admitted in private this week, that we are now ‘running up against the limits of multiculturalism in the state education system’.
That is an unpopular thing to say. The follow-on point is more unpopular still. Which is that the numbers matter. The 2011 census showed that almost a quarter of Birmingham’s population identified as Muslim. Several Birmingham constituencies, like other parts of England, either currently have, or soon will have, majority Muslim populations. The repercussions are obvious. What happens when a minority request becomes a majority request?
This is going to be a problem for children born into Muslim families first. They risk having the worst possible start in a life — being born in a country where they should have access to any and every opportunity, where instead their ‘own’ community will seek to cut them off from wider society. But it is a problem for all of us down the line.
Of course, there are technical solutions: improved inspections, no-notice inspections and more. But this is not just about ‘policing’, it is about a battle for hearts and minds. This week, Michael Gove stressed the importance of teaching ‘British values’ in schools. Many people will shudder at that. What does it mean? Until recently, we were a Protestant Christian country — now, Britishness is meant to be about being ‘tolerant’ and ‘diverse’. Do such vague and abstract ideas stand a chance against a determined and fixed ideology?
We must be willing to confront the challenge. In recent days, some pointless secularists have aimed the discussion in the wrong direction. They have tried to distract everyone by pretending that all faith schools are Trojan Horse schools in waiting — as though the way to deal with Islamic radicals is to close Church of England schools. It is a bad sign. If we are to present an appealing counter-narrative to that of the Islamists we will have to do better than this. We will have to delve into deeper and more serious terrain about what we, and this country, uniquely offer.
Many Muslims came to this country precisely to leave their religion’s medievalists behind. It would be a tragedy if we stood by while their children — British children to whom we have a duty of care — were indoctrinated by a reconstituted version of that medievalism here.