All eyes are on Birmingham and as time passes the controversy caused by the Trojan Horse letter seems to be generating more heat than light, certainly from a policy point of view. Now Nick Clegg has felt compelled to enter the debate in Whitehall, pointing to the predictable rise in islamophobia that this will lead to.
The affected schools in Birmingham and the wider community are victims of lazy, even dangerous thinking that has grossly over simplified, mis-understood and exaggerated the evidence, leading to the belief that there is a threat of “Islamic extremism” of the quasi-violent kind found among jihadists in the Middle East and elsewhere. We are in serious danger of crudely conflating legitimate free expression of socially conservative religious minorities with “extremism”. With many British Muslims asking, are we all extremists now?
The international news reported from the Muslim world is depressingly negative and about violence perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam, often against other Muslims. This constant barrage of negative news about Muslims produces a psychological danger to all here in the UK, sadly manifested in the actions of a few seriously misguided young (mainly men) going to fight their jihad on foreign soils. That fear (of Muslims and Islam) should as a result creep in, is a perfectly rational response, leaving the silent majority of Muslims in Britain wondering what exactly do we do to counter this powerful evolving narrative.
Poor leadership from the top of Government is in danger of steering the public to become less tolerant of (religious) differences and Muslims specifically. Creating a toxic atmosphere of prejudice and Islamophobia; which in turn feeds extra ordinary demands, particularly of Muslims in Britain, not just in public but in the private sphere of their lives too.
I have never been persuaded that looking at the world through the lens of a Muslim provided sufficient explanation of failures of public policy; certainly not in Britain. The disturbances in the North of England in the summer 2001 for example, put the grievances of British Muslims as a community before the nation in the most dramatic way. This forced us to recognise that community relations were no longer just about race relations but that faith and religion too had become a crucial element of identity and impacted on ‘social cohesion’.
A more thoughtful analysis will eventually expose some stubborn, complex and inter-related socio-economic factors that go further in explaining the limitations of race or religion as explanatory factors. They are playing out in what has unfolded as a perfect storm in Birmingham, but in the heat of a sweep to eradicate extremists from our midst inconvenient facts are being overlooked. Policy makers are conflating so much behind the word “extremism” to render it almost meaningless. In doing so policy makers will miss what has gone on and find the wrong solutions to the wrong set of problems in Birmingham (and elsewhere).
How do we move on from this? Perhaps by accepting that there are in Britain socially and religiously conservative parents who are free to choose a way of life that is different from others. Indeed they have been encouraged to become active in their communities by the state. Given freedoms to design and organise new schools to help raise standards of attainment, in which some will nurture an ethos that is shared within their ‘local’ culture. In the process some may stray in important respects away from more broadly accepted (but as yet poorly defined) British values, norms and conventions. Indeed others may go further and define an ethos where cultural and religious/non-religious preferences predominate or are even used to inculcate others. They will do all this under the aegis of a free/academy school framework in most cases (but not exclusively) allowing some palpably bad behaviour to creep in, including examples of bullying and intimidation by some governors. All of which is carried out under the watchful lens of weak local accountability by the LEA. That poor governance and leadership should result in unacceptable behaviour in this context is compounded by apparently little training on offer to newly recruited governors, and evidently weak management in schools. Surely that such a multiplicity of factors should give rise to evidence in some schools of very poor practice in citizenship education and social inclusion should not be surprising. If this is the set of circumstances that defines “extremism” then our school system has problems far greater than even Ofsted can manage to expose.
Ofsted reported within the limits of its authority and remit, but one should fear the investigatory remit handed to Peter Clarke, the former head of anti-terrorism at the Met Police. What message is his presence in and around these schools going to send to a largely peaceful law abiding community? It will make for a long hot British summer Mr. Gove and you should seriously rethink your entire approach to this.
This is the time for politicians of all hues to work with and not against the local and (new) national leadership in the Muslim communities. It may be weak and poorly organised, led largely by volunteers. But who is out there to engage with the Muslim community and bring a semblance of understanding and balance as well as practical support to the challenges they face to get things right? It is a very lonely place at the moment and a sense of siege mentality prevails. This is the moment to suspend generalisations, naked prejudice and discrimination. Instead to act calmly and in a manner that doesn’t fuel a climate of fear and intolerance towards Muslims. Otherwise Muslim bashing will continue like it is a national sport in our country.
We should all welcome the debate opened up by the Prime Minister about British values. Like many other Muslims too live daily lives with worries shared with many other Brits; work pressures, for those of us who are parents the education and welfare of our children, safety in our communities, time to fit in the extra-curricular, worrying about the fate of our national football team in Brazil (decided sadly) and then the practice of our faith; with our own individual piety and good deeds tested against aspirations to live a worthy life. All of which is so far removed from the politics of the world and its affairs which is where this schools controversy has been caught up. So much so that it has become impossible to be a truly private British Muslim citizen; enjoying the World Cup, living in peace with my neighbours and having a concern, perhaps doing something positive to show a concern for the welfare of others in our community.
How much more British can one be than that Mr. Cameron?