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 is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder