Martin Parsons is an author, writer and teacher who has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations
So far I have refrained from commenting on so called ‘Trojan Horse’ enquiry in Birmingham, an alleged plot by Islamists to put Islamist governors in local schools, replace Head Teachers with Muslims and bring about an islamisation of the school curriculum and practice. However, the National Association of Head Teachers has now raised concerns that similar problems may exist in other cities.
I would suggest that the underlying problem here is that many public bodies operate with a deficient understanding of Islamism. In particular, the paradigm they operate with sees radical Islamism as a misinterpretation of Islam followed by a few misguided individuals. There are two basic problems with this:
First, while it is not for non Muslims to say what is or is not a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam, we can say that historically there have always been a spectrum of interpretations of Islam which can be broadly characterised as two streams:
One stream has emphasised that Islam is primarily a devotional activity. The Kashaf al Mahjub written by al Hujwiri around 1042, the oldest Persian text on Sufism, is the first written example we have of this primarily devotional stream of Islam, and although this stream is significantly wider than ‘Sufism’ per se, it is one that many British Muslims will identify with.
However, another stream evident throughout much of Islamic history has emphasised the political aspects of Islam. The writings of Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth century Sunni theologian, represents this stream. In fact, Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, specifically drew on ibn Taymiyya’s writings, as do many modern Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood (al ikhwan). This stream emphasises the ‘need’ the islamise the whole of society, including education, and impose sharia across the world. Both of these streams – and many in between – have existed throughout virtually all of Islamic history. So it does no one any favours to suggest that Islamism, whether in its peaceful or violent forms, is somehow a modern innovation.
Secondly, related to this is an assumption that Islamism is something that is followed by a few misguided individuals. It is not: it is a strategy that is being pursued by Islamists not just in Britain, but in many other countries around the world. In 1991, the Muslim Brotherhood in North America produced a strategy for the Islamisation of North America, which essentially aimed at islamising every area of public life including education and the media.
In the UK, the Muslim Education Trust has long had as its central aim the promotion of Islamic education not just in Islamic schools, but also within the state sector. In fact, if anyone is in any doubt that Islamists have long believed it necessary to develop a strategy to islamise state schools and every other sector of society, they might care read the book Islam: Beliefs and Teaching, written by Ghulam Sarwar who was the Muslim Education Trust’s director for many years, in which he praises ‘organised efforts’ by Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan to bring about total change in society by setting up an Islamic system.
Islamists see the initial stages of this islamisation strategy as being aimed not so much at non- Muslims, but at Muslims who they do not regard as living strictly enough according to sharia. Education is a particular focus, both because it plays a key role in the inculcation of values and because it is a means of exerting pressure to conform to Islamist norms within the wider Muslim community. For example, once a state school gives permission for one girl to wear the hijab, pressure is more easily exerted on other parents – “you too ought to behave like ‘proper Muslims’ and ensure your daughter wears it as well”.
So whether or not state schools in Birmingham are being taken over by Islamists and islamised, it should come as no surprise to Ofsted or to any local education authority that Islamists are seeking to develop strategies to do so.
Go back 20 or 25 years, and you will find British Islamists talking about creating an Islamic state in Britain almost in revolutionary terms: this was, after all, just after the Iranian revolution. However, since then Islamists around the world, particularly led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots such as Hamas, have become politically savvy and highly adept at using the political and democratic process to further their aims. Realising that an Islamic state will not be created in Britain overnight, British Islamists have developed a strategy of seeking to increasingly align British law with sharia, both by pushing test cases through the courts and by lobbying for changes to parliamentary law. Tony Blair’s deeply flawed incitement to religious hatred bill was one such example, and was widely viewed by Islamists as an Islamic blasphemy law that would criminalise any criticism of Islam or its prophet.
So one comes back to the point that it would be hardly surprising if Islamists have been strategising to take over state schools in Birmingham or elsewhere. What is surprising is that public bodies responsible for education have apparently not been alert to it until now.
The National Association of Head Teachers ,which represents several of the non Muslim head teachers who have been replaced in Birmingham, recently commented that “…a small number of primary and secondary schools in both the maintained and academy sectors have experienced concerted efforts to alter their character in line with the Islamic faith. Most of these efforts took place within the freedoms permitted by our education system”
This is perhaps understandable coming from a head teachers’ union, yet in some respects it misses the point. The most important issue is not whether the proper procedures were followed, but whether those procedures are adequate to prevent Islamists gaining control of a school’s governing body and seeking to islamise the school.
The answer is not to ban all religion from schools. That would be simply to give in to another form of intolerance – secular fundamentalism. Rather, schools must be required to emphasise historic British values such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality for all under the law – male and female, Muslim and non Muslim alike. A central aspect of education that has been neglected by the predominantly liberal minded education establishment is the transmission of national cultural values and history – our national story of how we developed those rights and values that characterise our national identity.
Multicultralism is fine – at the outer layer of culture: what we eat; what we wear; how we spend our leisure time. In a free society, the Government should normally not concern itself with whether someone walks down the high street in a burka or a bikini top, eats halal food or ham, listens to bangra music or Beethoven. It should however concern itself very much with ensuring that the underlying values in our culture are transmitted to the next generation – and frankly the education establishment has failed badly there. As former Australian Prime Minister John Howard observed in his Margaret Thatcher Freedom lecture in 2010:
In responding to the threat of terrorism…there is nothing more important that to reassert our self belief…the history of fanatical movements - and Islamist extremism is a fanatical movement by any definition – shows that there is nothing they despise more than weakness and lack of self belief in the ideologies that they attack. I hope that all of the nations, not only in the Anglosphere, but all the nations of the broader free world, see this as a time not to apologize for our particular identity, but rather to firmly and respectfully and robustly reassert it.