It was only a matter of time before Birmingham’s Muslim minority was thrust into the headlines. The hammer fell when local educational leader Tahir Alam was linked to an alleged “blueprint of Islamization” that would co-opt the city’s schools. It didn’t seem to matter that the entire document may have been a hoax.
Although Birmingham adviser Ian Kershaw wasn’t exactly kind in his analysis of the academies, which have also attracted the ire of the National Association of Head Teachers, he still concluded that the evidence “does not support a conclusion that there was a systematic plot to take over schools.” Conspirational talking points still dominate the national discussion, though, at the expense of tackling the actual problem.
Media outlets have insisted on using the phrase “Trojan Horse” in reference to the scandal. Not only has this lended authenticity to a “leaked blueprint” that may not even be real. It has also obfuscated a legitimate problem with Islamophobia. There are genuine problems in Birmingham’s schools. Official inquiries have looked into twenty-one schools since the scandal broke out. As a result, five were put in “special measures” (since they were failing) and eleven are being monitored because the “quality of leadership and management requires improvement.” However, the public and governmental backlash has been so obsessed with “Islamist infiltration” that it has turned a controversy about education into a debate about quelling jihadist activity and keeping Muslim minorities in line. Why else would the government’s initial inquiry have been led by Peter Clarke, a former counter-terrorism official for the London police?
Let’s be clear. The affected schools have neither been overwhelmed by a fiendish plot of infiltration, nor have they started turning kids into terrorists. Kershaw explicitly said that there was no evidence of an “anti-British agenda” in the schools. The government’s Ofsted report agrees with him, and is best described as outlining conditions that arise when any conservative religious doctrine has too much of a presence in schools. Members of the governing body at one of the academies were criticized for trying to “promote a particular and narrow faith-based ideology,” while others removed subjects like music, and segregated their students based on gender. Essentially, what happened is that zealots managed to pressure these schools into indoctrinating students with conservative religious values. The fact that those zealots were Muslim is simply an additional detail, not proof of some bizarre phantasmagoria that links immigration, Islam, terrorism, and Birmingham.
Once we accept that this didn’t happen because of Islam, or a threat to national security, we can start discussing the actual problem. The British government has no idea how to educate its increasingly diverse student population. Rather than reforming the state-run system so that it is both secular and meets the needs of pupils from various backgrounds, it has avoided the issue altogether. The coalition government has run with an idea that was first proposed under Gordon Brown, which sets up “free schools” (or “faith schools” when they are religious) and also allows private schools to teach conservative religious values. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove kicked the plan into overdrive. In the process, Gove defended a homophobic Catholic school pamphlet which said that “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals,” and also authorized the teaching of creationism in three institutions (which provoked governmental action.)
There were Muslim ones too, and despite its moral outrage at the events in Birmingham, government bodies like Ofsted have already signed off on similar regulations elsewhere. All that happened in Birmingham was that overzealous parents and community leaders were using fundamentalist guidelines that were already in play at the Muslim faith schools. Earlier this year, Ofsted authorized them to institute gender segregation, restrict the teaching of music and art, and allow special rules about hijab “as a part of their identity and a commitment to their beliefs within Islam.” Gove himself can say whatever he wants about a vaguely-defined curriculum of “British values,” and protecting children from extremism. But the fact is that he has constantly encouraged religious groups to express their most fundamentalist values in the free schools. Are we really surprised that some Birmingham Muslims would start wanting public schools to do the same thing? It’s very difficult to combat problems like this when the system is so inconsistent.
Besides the curricula themselves, one of the other issues has been Kershaw’s claim that the Birmingham City Council was aware of the problem, but didn’t confront it because it didn’t want to seem racist or Islamophobic. This point has been taken up by rightists who believe that British government is too spineless to confront Muslims and tell them to integrate. The reality is obviously more subtle than that. If Kershaw’s allegation is true, then the BCC members were probably afraid to seem prejudiced because they were being overly political correct. As a result, they fused the demands of Muslim fundamentalism with the needs of Muslims more broadly. The obvious problem is that this can also be racist in its own way, by assuming that right-wing attitudes are also the most authentic representations of Islam. It is way too crude to guide municipal policy. The idea that the only way the BCC could meet the needs of Muslim students was to broadcast the call to prayer and have school assemblies with right-wing preachers is absurd.
The only way forward is to strip away the polemics of Islamophobia and the War on Terrorism, and productively use the controversy to reinvent how Birmingham public schools can remain secular, while still allowing room for religious considerations. This can be done in any number of ways. Instead of structuring the school calendar around Christian religious holidays, students can be given an allotment of “religious leave days” that they can allocate as they please. Perhaps school dress code can be reexamined to allow for hijabs, as well as other religious headgear like Sikh turbans. And so on. The point is that there are a lot of challenging questions that can be answered by intelligent policy. The only real problem is that by instituting reforms, local and federal authorities have to first be willing to defend the idea that minorities are a large and permanent part of British life. This will probably bring them into conflict with groups like UKIP, but there are just over 234 000 Muslims in Birmingham, which is about a fifth of its total population. It’s not like they are going to disappear, or stop having social needs.