Oldknow Academy, one of the Birmingham Schools under inquiry. Photo: Getty
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In the so-called “Trojan horse” debacle, Birmingham schools have become Gove’s sacrificial lamb

The problem in these schools is not an issue of radicalisation.

Are there problems in some of the schools at the centre of the so-called “Trojan horse” debacle? Certainly there are.

Having spoken at length with various members of the community in Birmingham, there are undeniable concerns among certain – yes, including Muslim – students and parents pertaining to a narrow interpretation of Islam being enforced within some schools. There are also allegations of mismanagement, nepotism and of the misuse of funds. The detail of these issues is likely to emerge in upcoming reports.

But what the problem is not, is an issue of radicalisation. Rather, attempts to link the problems to radicalisation reflect an expansion of the counter-terrorism agenda to the policing of socially conservative views among some Muslims and the effects of this policy are likely to be disastrous.

The entire affair has been worrying on many levels, not least in the language used to report the story. Several outlets have referred to a “Muslim plot” – would that be all Muslims plotting to take over our schools? The uncritically regurgitated term “Trojan horse”, a term widely employed by the far-right, while the Times ran a headline “Gove told to launch dawn raids on schools”, with the implicit suggestion that the schools were being raided for terrorism-related activities. The man at the centre of it all, Michael Gove, opted for dehumanising imagery in his call to “drain the swamp“ in reference to the Muslim community – a swamp which, if one accepts the analogy, would be harbouring the crocodiles. None of this can or should be understood outside of the rise in support for the xenophobic UKIP or a rise in racism. There is a broader climate in which both the media and politicians operate and feigning ignorance of it doesn’t mitigate the reception of this terminology.

The narrative, despite denials to the contrary, has been that schools have been infiltrated by extremists who are at risk of radicalising Muslim children. The remedy? “Prevent” teaching, as recommended by Ofsted, in order to inoculate them. As if by virtue of being Muslim, children should be assessed as potential terrorists who require early intervention to stop them jumping on the conveyor belt of violence. There couldn’t be any more damning indictment of this government’s engagement with communities than its choice to identify individuals on the basis of a reified conception of their identity, rather than as multifaceted citizens. These children are Muslim, but that doesn’t mean they’re potential radicals, despite what the demonising front cover of the Spectator might suggest. They’re also brummies, British and Asian and African, they’re football fans and aspiring entrepreneurs. The lens which brands them a potential “risk” is itself a grave threat to social cohesion.

Underlying this stigmatising view of Muslim identity is the assumption that the source of radicalisation is a given interpretation of Islam which has widespread enough traction within our society, that it could be openly taught within several schools, with the complicity of parents, students and officials. It’s also an insight into a flawed counter-terrorism strategy, the so-called conveyor belt theory, which assumes that socially conservative views can represent the first step on a broader path to terrorism. In fact, studies suggest that a strong religious identity is an important bulwark against the risk of radicalisation. The profile of the 7/7 bombers, politically radicalised by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but otherwise not particularly devout, alleged to have been smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol – suggests a far more complex understanding of radicalisation is required. A perfect illustration of this confusion is the classic scene in the cult film Four Lions when the police raid the house of the devout, big-bearded brother of the true terrorist, Riz Ahmed’s character, rather than his and his Lion King-watching, clean-shaven, “modern” family. In so doing, they like Gove and his allies, confuse illiberal, conservative religious views with extremism, itself usually a very modern reinterpretation of Islam.

Meanwhile, the neo-conservative voices within the Tory party continue to push an unsubstantiated view of radicalisation. In July 2010, a leaked government memo concluded that it was wrong “to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence…”. Although foreign policy isn’t the only catalyst for terrorism, in her evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, the former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller said that the invasion of Iraq had radicalised a new generation of young British Muslims, highlighting the centrality of conflicts abroad in the motivations of extremists. Ultimately the journey to terrorism is a complex one which cannot be easily situated on a neat continuum. Despite this, Gove has been pressing ahead for a crackdown on nonviolent, as well as violent, “extremists”, a strategy which in its current form involves casting the net so wide as to try and encompass entire communities, alienating and stigmatising whole sections of society in the process.

I have no interest in defending some of the practices reported in these schools. I think music and drama should remain on the curriculum. I think trips abroad cannot implicitly exclude any students. And I think vetting speakers who address children is essential. But I will not accept that the over-reach of a number of zealous governors, who advocate a socially conservative view of Islam in their schools, represents a threat requiring a national existential soul search and a crackdown on all Muslims.

What this affair does indicate is the failure of the application of neo-liberal “laissez-faire” principles to education. On the subject of academies, Gove spoke of giving schools more freedom, specifically by ensuring they could opt out of the type of supervision previously guaranteed by local authority control. Academies and free schools give communities the power to define their own curriculum and ethos and yet when we consider that ethos to be at odds with our educational ideals, we denounce those who are merely making use of provisions made available through this policy. This is where a brouhaha over the shortening of days during Ramadan for example, or of the cancelling of tombola and raffles in schools with an overwhelmingly Muslim student body, is less evidence of a nefarious plot than of anti-Muslim prejudice. Academies and free schools have been given the sort of autonomy which allows them to do exactly this.

And this is also why there is an issue of double standards. Politicians have been at pains to claim this is not a Muslim issue. The truth is, there are many indications that even before any reports had been compiled, the DoE were treating any problems found within these schools through the lens of counter-terrorism, rather than an internal educational concern. The decision to appoint the head of the inquiry into 7/7, Peter Clarke, to investigate and give repeated warnings of an “extremist plot”, even when Birmingham council had themselves dismissed the anonymous letter as a fabrication, set the tone. What should have been evaluated as the likely pitfalls of an ill thought through educational scheme, has been painted as a stealth takeover by radicals. The message this sends to Muslims is loud and clear – your participation in the public sphere will be afforded intense scrutiny and any suggestion that your moral values might be influencing your work risks you being branded an extremist. One Muslim governor of an “outstanding” rated school in east London told me: “I always thought engaging with public institutions was a good thing. After all this, I worry that saying I’m a governor and a Muslim will evoke suspicion about my ‘agenda’.”

As someone educated in the French educational system, I cannot wrap my head around the idea of allowing different communities to define their own notion of education. Education is a critical tool of socialisation: it imbues us as citizens with a sense of our national identity and priorities, and it cements a shared narrative of common purpose. It is precisely this socialising experience which fosters a sense of collective values and ideals, however disputed their ultimate definition may be. Government failures in providing a streamlined educational framework which would ensure all children receive an education to standards we as a society deem beneficial, are what is truly to blame here. A truly liberal society accepts the right to voice illiberal views. It might however, not wish to create the conditions for them to devise their own curriculums and run publicly-funded schools.

But the real tragedy here is the damage done to community relations, to trust and to the willingness of Muslims to engage in a system which seemingly paints the participation of the devout as a part of a stealth takeover. After years of telling Muslims to engage in public institutions, the damage caused by the government’s hawkish mischaracterisation of this issue will reverberate in years to come.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories