Muslims in Birmingham believe education authorities are pushing an anti-Islam agenda, following allegations of a plot to ‘Islamicise’ secular schools in the area. Speaking to VOC Drivetime on Wednesday, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in the UK said there was ongoing witchhunt against the Muslim community in Birmingham centred on the fictitious ‘Trojan Horse’ plot to take over some of the city’s schools.
A recent report by an independent education watchdog found that six schools, with predominantly Muslim learners and teachers, were being infiltrated by “conservative” Muslims. The alleged plot surfaced earlier this year after a leaked letter detailed how the governing bodies at the schools were marginalizing “moderate” head-teachers.
Other claims are that girls were forced to sit at the back of the classroom and non-Muslim pupils forced to teach themselves. 25 schools are now being investigated by police, government officials and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).
But the IHRC said the decision the manner in which enquiries have been conducted has left Muslims feeling that it is a” carefully orchestrated attack” on the whole community, its religious freedoms and their place in British society as equal citizens.
IHRC chairperson Massoud Shadjareh said from the very outset the response of the authorities to the receipt of an anonymously written letter 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 three separate investigations by the Council, Dept for Education (DfE) and Ofsted,” he said.
Shadjareh claimed 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’.
Shadjareh said 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.
“Indeed the witchhunt has now extended to Muslim individuals and organisations within the education system. Sections of the media are now repeating the Policy Exchange think tank’s call for the government to abolish the Bridge Schools Inspectorate, which has taken over responsibility from Ofsted for inspecting many private Christian and Muslim schools. The inspectorate is a joint Christian-Muslim initiative to establish a specialist faith schools inspectorate which respects their distinctive ethos. It is now being accused of whitewashing extremist schools.”
The 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,” he said.
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.” Park View has rejected the allegations against them.
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. UK media reports state officials now expect Ofsted to put some of the schools into “special measures”, and there may be a change in their leadership.
“According to the leaks it is likely that some of the schools under investigation will be placed under ‘special measures’ – a strategy employed solely to allow the government to remove governors from their posts,” said Shadjareh. VOC