More of those in Britain who declare themselves to be Muslims than Christians practice their faith. But only a minority adhere to the Salafist version of Islam, and not all of them will agree that, in school, “boys should always be covered between the navel and the knee and girls should be covered except for their hands and faces, a concept known as ‘hijab’ ” (especially in primary school, or before those girls have reached puberty, or both).
Nor will they necessarily believe that “dance performances before a mixed gender audience may also be objectionable”, that “studying forms of music and drama that may raise religious or moral concerns for Muslim pupils and parents”, or that pupils may be exposed in schools to “potentially harmful forms of music”. These strictures are as worrying as they are vague. What are these “harmful” forms of music? Part-song? Minimalism? Tech house? And what dance performances might be “objectionable”? A school rehash of “Strictly”, perhaps? What are the forms of drama that might raise “religious and moral concerns”? A sixth form production of “Romeo and Juliet”, maybe, with a Christian boy and a Muslim girl? “Then have my lips the sin that they have took,” says Juliet, after kissing Romeo for the first time. Would it be a real sin for that kiss to be acted out upon a stage?
The questions are as suggestive as the words that provoke them are real. These are all taken from a document called Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils, published by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2007, but now missing from the website of that organisation. (The title turns up on google, but the link is blank.) The man who extolled that report in the Guardian, Tahir Alam, is a former Chairman of the MCB’s education committee – and one of the key figures in the Birmingham school row.
It should be said at once that nothing has been proved or disproved in relation to what the Department for Education calls “allegations that schools in Birmingham are being targeted by individuals wishing to push an Islamist agenda”. (Michael Gove has appointed Peter Clarke, who formerly headed Counter Terrorism Command, to investigate.) But the controversy raises issues that reach beyond it, and the MCB report helps to give them context. To what degree should state schools accommodate themselves to religious practice – in either faith schools or secular ones? Do Islamic schools, or schools with Muslim pupil majorities, raise particular problems? Should state and faith be separated – when it comes to taxpayer support for schools, at least? Should even private faith schools be heavily regulated?
The faith school aspect turns out to be a red herring question – at least in this case. None of the Birmingham Schools are faith schools, and Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils was concerned with practice in ordinary state schools. There will be different views about where the line in these should be drawn. For example, some conservative Christians, and members of other faiths, would agree with the report that schools should not demonstrate or distribute “condoms or contraceptive pills”.
They might, too, think that sexually explicit videos should be avoided in sex education classes. The document was issued long before the same sex marriage bill was presented to Parliament – let alone became law. The potential tangle between the measure and equality legislation will concern Muslim and Christian teachers alike. None the less, one point is clear. Parts of Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils may be compatible with what British schools should provide but, as a whole, it is certainly not. If implemented, it would be so restrictive as to deny young Muslims human and artistic expression. It would make it more difficult for them to adapt to the society they live in. It is true that modern religious fundamentalism is not confined to Islam, and that there are Christian, Jewish, and Hindu versions too.
None the less, Islamist ideology, which sees no separation between mosque and state, poses unique challenges. So does the connection between that ideology and terrorism in Britain, as memories of 7/7, 21/7, the murder of Lee Rigby, the attack on Glasgow airport and the liquid bomb plot (inter alia) remind us. There is a particular extremism problem, and it raises three main points for government, state institutions and civil society – for more or less everyone, in fact.
First, most Muslim parents are, entirely unsurprisingly, like most others. They want their children to have a full education – which includes drama and the arts and music – and be integrated as British citizens. The authorities should not presume that minority bodies or people with separatist agendas speak for them. Second, it follows that, at a local level, politicians and the police should welcome decisive action by central government, which is the ultimate guardian of the norms. This has not been the case in Birmingham. Chris Sims, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, has described Clarke’s appointment as “desperately unfortunate”. This form of words would have been better deployed in the context of the force’s behaviour over the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque – it was compelled to apologise to and compensate its makers for accusing them of distortion.
Finally, there are limits to localism. “Why was a school with such divisions between leadership and governors allowed to convert to academy status?” asks Tristram Hunt, Gove’s shadow, in the Guardian. “Why did Ofsted rate it ‘outstanding’? More fundamentally, there is the fear that Gove’s fractured schools landscape – with no system of local oversight or accountability – will only increase the risk of such silent takeovers.”
Hunt’s questions are good ones. And, commendably, his approach to the Birmingham controversy has been robust – more so than that of Sir Albert Bore, the Labour council leader, at any rate. “We should not hide from the fact that many respected teachers and local politicians in Birmingham think there is evidence of militant entryism in their schools,” he writes. But the answers that Hunt floats are less penetrating than his questions. He falls back on schools succeeding “as part of their communities”. However, this ideal offers no solutions if Islamist activists, like the communists of a generation ago with whom they have so much in common, seize control of boards of governors, or if local authorities are indolent or the police are part of the problem, not the solution. None of this may have happened in Birmingham. But the possibility is real, there and elsewhere.
To thwart it, national government needs inspectors who know what they are about. These need enough presence to be able to keep an eye on suspect schools, the legal powers to act quickly, the determination and expertise to do so – and people to put in if necessary, fast. As John Bald pointed out on this site, Gove moved quickly on the Al-Mahdinah school failure in Derby. It was not the first such case, nor will it be the last.