The failure of an OFSTED investigation to find anything approaching a ‘smoking gun’ into an alleged plot by hardline Muslims to take over some Birmingham schools does not come as any surprise in a row dominated by prejudices rather than principles.
The decision to place some schools under special measures, the investigations and the manner in which they were conducted represents an orchestrated political attack on the whole community, its religious freedoms and their place in British society as equal citizens.
From the very outset the response of the authorities to the receipt of an anonymously written letter alleging an Islamic plot to take over 25 Muslim majority schools in Birmingham has been Islamophobic in nature, ideological in aim and disproportionate in scale.
It is hard to imagine any other circumstances in which a letter directed against a certain community, undated, unsigned, described as “almost certainly spurious” by Mark Rogers, the chief executive of Birmingham City Council, would merit any serious interest. However so febrile is the prevailing climate of hostility to Muslims in the UK that the document has elicited four separate investigations by the Council, Dept for Education (DfE) and OFSTED.
In the main the decision to investigate the schools appears to be driven by education secretary Michael Gove’s ideological hostility to Islam and the efforts of Muslim parents to educate their children in line with their shared values. Gove is the founder member of Policy Exchange, a right wing think tank which has claimed that British Islam is being hijacked by extremists as well as the Henry Jackson Society, another right wing think tank which has little sympathy for Muslims, foreigners and non-whites. Gove’s 2007 book ‘Celsius 7/7’ was a plea for Europe to do more to confront what he calls ‘Islamism’.
The investigations themselves betray the same Islamophobic tropes that gave rise to them. Pupils have been subjected to aggressive questioning about whether they are forced to wear the hijab or to sit separately from members of the opposite sex, and teachers asked if they were homophobic. The DfE’s appointment of former National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism Peter Clarke to head its investigation sent the message that the government is dealing with its Muslim citizens primarily as a ‘security’ problem.
IHRC believes that the investigations have been prompted by official indignation over the fact that the religious profile of the boards of governors at the schools mirrors that of their majority Muslim pupils. A preponderance of Muslim governors running the schools in line with the expectations of Muslim parents is being treated as a threat to the secular British education system, with Islamophobic tropes of misogyny and extremism trotted out as a pretext to attack the Muslim management of the schools.
Practices such as playing the call to prayer over loudspeakers and posters asking pupils to begin lessons with a prayer have been blown up into examples of Islamic extremism, ignoring the fact that many majority Christian schools in the UK require their pupils to conform to similar Christian rituals and values. There is no doubt that the aggressive inquisition against these schools will be seen in the Muslim community as ‘one rule for us and another for everyone else’.
IHRC is also worried about the consequences of the investigations and negative media attention on the schools and their pupils. In their ideological zeal to remove the schools from Muslim governor control the authorities seem to have lost sight of the fact that most of the schools are performing extraordinarily well, having seen their governors turn them around from failing to model schools. In 2012 Park View school was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted whose Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw commended “remarkable improvements in outcomes for some of the city’s most deprived young people.”
Leaks to the media about the progress of the investigations have confirmed Muslim suspicions that a coordinated campaign is afoot to nip the perceived problem of majority-Muslim governing boards in the bud. Placing some of the schools under ‘special measures’ is a stratagem employed solely to allow the government to remove governors from their posts.
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IHRC is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
Telephone (+44) 20 8904 4222