A mere week after the Trojan Horse Ofsted reports, following weeks of speculation still enduring and now spreading to other areas, with Peter Clarke’s investigation into the plot ongoing and his report still to come, it is not easy to gain perspective on the current moment, to rise above it, to strive for and be guided by a broader long term vision, and to define rather than be defined by events and circumstances of the hour.
As the very public spat between two of our most senior cabinet ministers broke out, each one seeking to outbid the other in the accusation of who was most placing the country at risk of Islamist extremism, a newscaster on a flagship programme led with the comment that this was about more than just the egos of two politicians, it was about nothing less than what is happening in our classrooms, and the very future of Britain. Whether there was ever a plot at all, whether any school failures under investigation were most appropriately to be seen as educational failures or through the lens of conspiracy and radicalisation, let alone national security, creeping Islamisation and a looming existential threat to the very future of Britain, not politics and politicians, not local realities and warped lens and agendas, framed the news report, as it has framed the entire story.
Leaving aside the devastation and disruption to lives, careers, and aspirations on the ground in Birmingham, the people of Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim, have been badly let down by our media and by our politicians. With few exceptions, in news item after news item, in programme after programme, the sound bite and the rumour, the circumstantial and the sensationalised have dominated headlines and stories trumping evidence and critical scrutiny; uninformed and tendentious voices have hallowed out the space of debate to the exclusion of saner, more informed, and critical voices, and cast whole communities under suspicion.
Our journalists have failed us because they have failed to report responsibly, to question critically, to probe the evidence and critically inform readers and viewers, rather than merely repeat and amplify sinister imputations, rumour, distortion and suspicion. Our politicians, local and national, have failed us because they have failed to provide real leadership: the kind of leadership that proactively challenges scaremongering and suspicion, fosters trust and strengthens resilience in communities besieged by outside media and political wrangling; the kind of leadership that the school children of Birmingham and their parents had a right to expect from their elected representatives.
In the words of David Hughes, the vice chair of Park View Academy Trust: “The problem here is not extremism or segregation or religious indoctrination […] The problem here is the knee-jerk actions of some politicians that have undermined the great work that we do here and undermined community cohesion across Birmingham and across many of our cities. They have put Muslim children from these communities at substantial risk of not being accepted as equal, legitimate and valued members of British society, and they have allowed suspicion to be cast on the aspiration of their parents and anyone else who believes that these children deserve the same rights and excellent standard of education as any other child.”
Not for the first time these past weeks, this year, this decade, this generation, Muslims have been made to feel that when it comes to civic life some citizens are less equal than others; that where it concerns Muslims, the rational critical faculties on which healthy public debate depends are put on hold and a willing suspension of disbelief sets in.
The fact is, Muslims are disproportionately the object of news coverage, and inversely proportionally able to inform and shape the public conversation. We are the most talked about, and least heard.
We are, arguably, disproportionately the object of public policy, of academic research, and of surveillance, overwhelmingly framed in securitarian terms; yet the least positioned to influence, determine, contribute, and implement the policy cycle.
The figure of the Muslim is everywhere from fact to fiction, from page, to screen, from cartoon to viral screed; yet we are least able to shape the collective creative imagination.
Whatever else comes of this affair, we are, yet again, left with serious questions about our capacity to be the narrators of our own stories. Questions about our ability, in the absence of think tanks, spin doctors, PR companies, and professional media experts, not merely to speak, but to be heard, are more urgent than ever. The media is an industry, the public sphere is structured; our ability to engage and influence it needs to be invested in and addressed accordingly. But we do have a Vision.
We know what we want.
We want More equality, not exceptionalism or special treatment;
We want More democracy in our institutions and public life, not less;
We want More critical citizenship, transparency and accountability, not less;
We want More active civic involvement and participation, not disengagement;
We want More social inclusion, not seclusion;
We want More diverse and plural recognition and representation, not a token voice.
We want to be a part of the common conversation about the common good, not apart from it.
We want to be stakeholders in the decisions which affect our lives in our neighbourhoods, in our communities, in our NHS, in our Trade Unions, in our Schools, in our constituencies, in our government, in Britain, in Europe.
Once again, we find ourselves the object of targeted intervention from on highest to do more to integrate and to adopt British Values. So let us be clear:
We don’t just accept integration; we don’t just want Integration, we demand it. But integration as socio-economic inclusion and the effective capabilities to flourish and contribute to wider society which require concerted action and political will across society, not an onus on Muslims; integration as the real, material enabling of the conditions of possibility for meaningful welfare and dignity for all.
We are diverse as a community and in our needs, but not because we are defined by ethnicity and country of origin; but because our community of communities straddles citizens, and migrants, and refugees, and asylum seekers; successful professionals and the underclass; rich and poor with gaping disparities – with all the challenges that come with such differences of need and opportunity. Pockets in our communities experience disproportionate educational underachievement, youth unemployment, ill health among the elderly, overcrowded family housing. Integration through civic participation is about real empowerment and cultural literacy, not about cultural assimilation and language. Integration through economic participation is about opportunity and structured, targeted support where it is most needed.
Real integration is about educational opportunities and the practical life skills to successfully navigate bureaucracy, work, and public life; to know one’s rights and entitlements as much as one’s duties and commitments. In a word, real integration is about real enfranchisement.
This is what the Schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse investigation were achieving. This is what a narrow securitarian culture of suspicion and political paranoia is wreaking.
In this sense, I do believe we are at a defining moment where the future of this country is being decided, but it is not in our classrooms and our streets; it is in our Cabinet, in our Parliament, in our Department for Education and in our Home Office.
Whether a generation of parent governors and parental aspirations and involvement in their schools and communities is to be undone; whether a generation of inspirational teachers and school children will be judged not by their outstanding educational effort and achievements but by their Prevent certification, this is what is at stake.
To the Prime Minister and to Mr Gove, we say this: we have no objection to British Values, on the contrary. When he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization Gandhi reputedly quipped that it would be a very good idea; we might say much the same about British Values.
British history, abroad and at home, has not lived up to these values, any more than that of any other nation has. If we live in a more tolerant, more just, freer, more equal society in Britain today, it is in part because of the hardships, the mobilisations, and the struggles of ethnic and religious minorities, including within working class, youth and women’s movements, to overcome racism, xenophobia, injustice and discrimination, and make the standards our law upholds today, our common standards and ideals as a plural, diverse society.
I do share worries about curricula and schools that are not doing enough to educate children and the citizens of tomorrow in the dangers of extremism; I do worry about the conveyor belt of radicalisation – the radicalisation and extremisms that are nurtured, licensed and emboldened by the teaching of narrow, parochial and whitewashed versions of history and of British values.
The point is, British Values are aspirational values. Muslims are happy to sign up to common values of justice, fairness, equality and democracy, but understood as values that all of us need to strive to live up to and make a reality, not as the already achieved preserve of some primordial British population that the not-quite-British-enough must be civilized into.
As individuals and communities, we are and have long been part of the fabric of this country, we have given much and have much to give, but as a community we face many challenges in overcoming marginalisation, prejudice, discrimination, demonization, disadvantage, ignorance and suspicion. It is these obstacles, not Islam, or Muslims, that stand in the way of our fuller participation in society.
Mobilizations under the name and identification of Muslim are multiple and diverse, even politically contradictory. We all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, governments and civil society organisations, activists and armchair critics and commentators, must stop bemoaning the lack of a single voice, or of a single structure of representation, and accept that this presents a challenge, but not a problem. Least of all, does it justify narrowing the spectrum of publicly acceptable expression of Muslim views to compliant voices, the criminalisation and casting out of religious conservatism as beyond the pale, or the politicised exclusion of representative bodies that give voice to grassroots opposition to government policies, domestic or foreign.
Some Muslims strive for accommodation and invisibility, others to open the world to difference; some want the Islam of the Mosque, others a society which embodies an Islamic ethos. This neither stops us striving for unity, nor for the representation of our passionately different visions of the common good.
In these difficult economic times for all, when the safety nets of welfare and solidarity are being stripped bare, Muslims have all the more to contribute to an ethics of care and community based social action which draws on the obligations of what we owe each other.
At just such a time, we must not allow ourselves, and least of all our youth, to be cowed out of a commitment to radical re-imagination and radical social action towards a more just society and a more just world.
Britain needs to confidently embrace the global diversity and global reach of our plural traditions, histories, resources and connections, to forge the forward looking country which our children will make. If allowed.
This may well be a defining moment. What we need, more than ever, is more mobilisation in our communities, not less. It starts at the grassroots, with your needs, your challenges, and your aspirations. They alone fashion our vision.
AbdoolKarim Vakil, King’s College London