Recent protests about supposed LGBT lessons in a school in Birmingham, England, have drawn attention from the media, politicians, the High Court, and the National Secular Society. Pictured: Birmingham, England. (Image source: Brian Clift/Wikimedia Commons)
Recent protests about supposed LGBT lessons in a school in Birmingham, England, have drawn attention from the media, politicians, the High Court, and the National Secular Society. While the protests may well spread to other cities, for the moment they are contained. When these lessons, which are based on the "No Outsiders" curriculum within the international system of "Diversity Education," become legally compulsory for almost all schools in 2020, either the protests will die out or become more clamorous in a struggle to rescind the law -- an act to which the government might well not agree.
The question of demands placed on Western governments to alter national laws in order to accommodate religious rulings remains an issue that is divisive, notably between secular states and citizens who might not want a secular state but a religious one instead.
In the instance of Birmingham, the current controversy calls to mind another that took place in the city's educational system several years earlier. This was the so-called "Trojan Horse" affair, in which it was alleged that some school governors and teachers had plotted to undermine the teaching of secular values by placing extremists within staff and management positions. The claims about Operation Trojan Horse started in March 2014 with publication of a letter supposedly written by an Islamist in Birmingham and sent to a contact in Bradford. The letter had apparently been sent to Birmingham City Council some months earlier, in late November 2013.
By March 11, the London Times had declared the letter to be "a crude forgery", and by June 8, two newspapers, the Independent and the Guardian, had also declared it a hoax and the investigation that had started into it "a witch hunt". Nevertheless, by July, Birmingham's Education Commissioner, Sir Mike Tomlinson, stated that it was no hoax but was happening -- "without a shadow of doubt".
In the end, it did not matter greatly whether or not the letter itself was a forgery, or who the agitators had been. As time passed and investigations were carried out into schools in Birmingham and elsewhere, it became clear that something unprecedented had occurred and that there were reasons to look into it.
The situation attracted enormous publicity, and its ramifications are beyond the scope of a short article. However, the Government, the Home Office, the Department of Education, Ofsted (the government's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills), the Birmingham Council, and many others were drawn into investigations and the production of reports. In March, Ofsted investigated 21 schools in Birmingham while the Education Funding Authority carried out similar enquiries. Later, Ofsted extended its investigations to schools in East London, Bradford, and Luton -- after the publication of reports concerning the schools in Birmingham.
Of those, the most telling was a 129-page report for the House of Commons written by Peter Clarke, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner and head of the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism branch. In his report he states that, "I most definitely was not approaching my role from the perspective of looking for evidence of terrorist activity, radicalisation or violent extremism." The emphasis, therefore, fell on extremist doctrine.
One of Clarke's leading conclusions regarded the failure of the City Council to respond to concerns they already had even before the above-mentioned letter was received. Clarke then goes on to identify the reason why the Council was so slow in responding over a long period:
"Despite this, some eight weeks after the receipt of the 'Trojan Horse' letter, in a further Birmingham City Council briefing note sent to the Leader of the Council, there is no suggestion that the central allegation – that headteachers were being systematically undermined and driven from their posts – needed further investigation. The focus of the Council was very much on the potential community cohesion impact that the publication of the 'Trojan Horse' letter might have. It was not until the appointment of Ian Kershaw in April 2014 that the Council mounted a full investigation into these serious allegations."
This unwillingness to offend indicates the same extreme sensitivity to possible Muslim reactions that seems to have led other councils, police and social workers to drag their feet for years despite concerns about grooming gangs in Rotherham, Telford and other cities. Baroness Caroline Cox made this clear in an address to the House of Lords on 14 May 2019:
"It seems it was far less politically complicated to keep quiet. Many victims did not receive support because of the state's reluctance to interfere in supposed cultural practices. Agencies downplayed ethnic or religiously identified dimensions of abuse. They also applied generic labels such as 'Asian' to the perpetrators, which is a source of great concern to Asians who would never indulge in or condone such horrible crimes."
The Clarke Report, regarding education, listed numerous examples of how, in many schools, a conservative Islamic agenda was imposed. These may be found in section 4 under various rubrics. For example, schools were often packed with Islamic symbols (4:25); conservative religious practices were widespread, with bans on music, severe limits to art, gender segregation, and enforced prayer (through bullying of pupils to do so: "children bullied into prayer" (4:26); prefects called 'Ambassadors' were selected from pious families to act as a form of religious police to monitor and report on improprieties committed by other students ("They have been described as the 'religious police' by some members of staff." (4:29); some anti-Western themes were spoken at school assemblies (4:30); there was witness evidence of intolerance in several schools towards those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual (4:32); there was considerable imposition of gender segregation and preference for boys over girls ("There is evidence that women and girls are not treated as equal to men and boys in schools," "there are classes where boys and girls are required to sit separately. In Park View maths lessons, where all the teachers are men, the girls were separated at the sides and back of the classroom, while the boys sat in the centre, towards the front." (4:43; 4:49-4:52).
These and similar forms of behaviour are attributed by Clarke to "The ideological agenda in Birmingham schools" (section 5 title.):
"This investigation has revealed a sustained and coordinated agenda to impose upon children in a number of Birmingham schools the segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline and politicised strand of Sunni Islam. Left unchecked, it would confine school children within an intolerant, inward-looking monoculture that would severely inhibit their participation in the life of modern Britain." (5:1)
"In the context of schooling, it manifests itself as the imposition of an aggressively separatist and intolerant agenda, incompatible with full participation in a plural, secular democracy. Rejecting not only the secular and other religions, but also other strands of Islamic belief, it goes beyond the kind of social conservatism practised in some faith schools which may be consistent with universal human rights and respectful of other communities. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to convert secular state schools into exclusive faith schools in all but name." (5:2)
He went further, saying:
"This agenda, though not necessarily the tactics involved, appears to stem from an international movement to increase the role of Islam in education. It is supported by bodies such as the Association of Muslim Schools–UK (AMS-UK), the International Board of Educational Research and Resources (IBERR), the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the recently closed Muslim Parents Association (MPA). The movement provides practical advice and religious legitimisation to those who, in the words of the IBERR, seek to 'Islamise the provision of educational services'. Some of the individuals who have featured in the investigation were associated with, or held positions in, these bodies." (5:3)
So far so good, but there was something much wider that was never included in either the Clarke Report or the Ofsted inquiry. Omission of earlier important evidence that shows a deep reluctance to carry forward information that might unsettle Muslim communities -- the sort of reluctance referred to by Baroness Cox.
As far back as 2008, the present writer was commissioned by Civitas, an influential independent think tank known as the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, to write a full report on Muslim schools in England.
As Clarke reported six years later (4:28), Islamic materials were often removed from schools when Ofsted inspectors were expected (they did not make unannounced visits). As going to schools in person and interviewing staff might not show the true picture of what was happening, it seemed preferable to start by looking at websites: reading them might reveal their thinking on all sorts of issues. The hunch turned out to be right.
My report, Music, Chess and Other Sins, went online in February 2009; its sections looked at:
- Moderates and Extremists
- Social Cohesion
- The Muslim Curriculum and the National Curriculum
- Muslim Schools and Women
- Muslim Schools and Ofsted
- Muslim Schools and Hate
In section 3, there is a reference to items in the Muslim Council of Britain's 2007 document, Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools: Information and Guidance for Schools:
".... the organization articulated several areas where Muslim pupils have to be separated from their non‐Muslim fellows. Although there has always been a right for parents to withdraw their children from acts of collective worship, the MCB's insistence that Muslim children must not take part in any but Muslim worship (p.44) denies them the opportunity—which so many other children take advantage of— to share a religious experience with the rest of their school. But the self‐seclusion impinges on so much of the curriculum that it places enormous restrictions on young Muslims and their ability to be part of the schools to which they belong. The activities and lessons from which the MCB wants the right to withdraw Muslim pupils include: mixed swimming (p.38); dance (p.39); sex and relationship education (p.47); music (p.52); drama (p.53); figurative drawing (p.53). On farm visits, touching or feeding pigs is prohibited (p.56), and staff are warned that pupils and parents may refuse to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex at prize‐giving ceremonies (p.58)"
This gives some flavour of how Muslim educators were trying to keep Muslim children separate from Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others in their own schools.
The original plan was to publish a much longer 78,000-word report with a massive bibliography, a vast array of footnotes, and numerous quotations directly or indirectly on school websites or other linked material were cited. In a long appendix, all the schools surveyed via those websites were listed, with names of teachers and preachers or radical organizations involved in setting educational standards and curricula. The list also contained links to school websites and links from those sites to extremist material. Not all schools had such links, but a surprising number did.
This full version could not be published for fear that the detailed remarks on schools and individuals might lead to litigation. However, after Civitas presented Ofsted with the "safe" version -- probably a valuable enough guide to matters school inspectors were probably unaware of -- the present author handed a printout of the unedited version to the Ofsted official to whom we had given the published report.
Even though the contents of that full version might have struck alarm in official circles in and beyond Ofsted, as far as we were aware the reports were buried. Ofsted has never since referred to any of their contents, not even when the Birmingham scandal erupted a few years afterwards.
As a result, a great opportunity was missed that may have forestalled some later developments, especially the clear evidence of extremist schools, some of whose websites had even openly favoured jihad. Nevertheless, although there is a full list of photographs and links, schools have now cleaned up their online sites, removing material of concern.
With many decent schools, there appears to be transparency. But the Darul-Ulooms and other extremist-linked institutions often have direct and indirect links to fundamentalists. It is hard to single out any one school, but the following passage, taken at random, may suffice to sum up why so many of these schools are run on lines contrary to the values and expectations of British society. The Jameah Girls School in Leicester is a Darul-Uloom for female students between the ages of 6 and 16:
"The Jameah Girls Academy in Leicester has a direct link to a fatwa site run by the school's own patron, Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari. Among his many distasteful rulings are these: He places severe restrictions on male doctors treating female patients; he rules that women may not swim (even for medical reasons) where a male lifeguard is present, or where there are non-Muslim women; using tampons is 'disliked' (makruh — a classification in shari'a law); a woman may not travel beyond 48 miles without her husband or a close relative accompanying her; a female is encouraged to remain within the confines of her house as much as possible; polygamy is permissible. If anyone were to ridicule polygamy, he would become an unbeliever; it is a grave sin for a woman to refuse sex to her husband; it is forbidden to have close, intimate relations with or have love for non-Muslims Muslims are not to sit, eat, live or mingle with them; the legal punishment for adultery is stoning."
In the light of recent protests outside schools in Birmingham, it is likely that many fundamentalists are still working to restrict attempts to bring Muslim children inside the way of life British society offers them. Do the anti-LGBT protests act as a smokescreen for continuing attempts to block integration from the earliest age? If this is happening in some state schools, have things improved in Muslim schools more widely? Is Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, still hampered by an unwillingness to ask hard questions and a desire to "avoid giving offence"?
Denis MacEoin PhD is a British-Irish scholar who has taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at universities in Morocco and the north-east of England. He has written more than forty books and think-tank reports, as well as hundreds of articles. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.