Two of the most powerful cabinet members in the current coalition government have become embroiled in a much publicised row over who directs and controls UK policy on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. It led to the PM issuing stern warnings to pull their respective acts together, but while Michael Gove and Theresa May are at each other’s throats, it is the Muslim school children of Birmingham and their parents who will suffer the most. As a neoconservative ideologue, Gove has muscled his agenda through, but at what cost?
A great deal has been said about a so-called ‘Trojan Horse Plot’ to Islamise state schools in Birmingham. The content of this alleged plot ranges from managing senior appointments, to revising teaching practices and enforcing certain Islamic principles in the classroom, namely gender segregation and limiting the teaching of evolution. It is also said that extremist preachers were invited to speak, at the expense of taxpayers.
Andrew Gilligan has written damning articles in The Telegraph cataloguing the extent of the ‘Trojan Horse Plot’, naming individuals and their interlinkages, as well as printing text communications between significant actors. All of this suggests some kind of organised machinery in operation. Gilligan also censures The Guardian for being in denial about the extent of Islamism in these schools. But at present, there is no precise evidence on the specifics of any so-called plot, nor how it may have emerged in the light of checks and balances at the local authority and central government levels. Much of this is still under investigation, with Peter Clarke, a counter-terrorism officiator, formerly of Scotland Yard, regarded highly by the government, taking a lead on one.
In many ways, the Gove-May spat exposes a power struggle, which is about what happens after the election next year as much as it is about jockeying for positions now. But there are also ideological standpoints to consider. Gove believes that the Islamist threat is severe and deep, that this ‘Trojan Horse Plot’ is real and urgent, and that the DfE should have a major role in thwarting it. May believes that government policy should be wary of the good Muslims-bad Muslims narrative, as it has considerable implications for influencing public opinion. Importantly, May also argues that counter-extremism and counter-terrorism are very different beasts to contend with.
During urgent questions in parliament on Monday, May fended off every criticism levelled at her with a straight bat. For Gove, an emphasis on ‘British values’ being akin to ‘integration’ was regarded as important, but both are ambiguous terms at the best of times. May suggested that New Labour blanket-targeted Muslim communities with PREVENT funding. Thus, what presently remains of PREVENT funding is based on risk assessments rather than demographics. Undoubtedly, although many questions continue to be raised, Gove took the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter seriously enough to commence what has ultimately ensued. In his prepared statement he reeled out a long list of so-called Muslim extremisms in the six Birmingham schools allegedly most affected by the so-called plot. But Gove does have a difficulty with ‘mujahedin’ and ‘jihad’, with the idea of ‘non-violent extremism’ being something to with ‘religious conservatism’ – conflating all of these particular terms as suggestions of extremism per se. The front bench opposition, however, were weak and insignificant in challenging the official government lines put forward by Gove and May.
This whole discussion is not about faith in schools, but about empowering parents, governors and local teaching staff, supposedly permitted under the mandate of the academies system, one that Gove has been wedded to from the start. Rather, this headline-grabbing story is less about the importance of accepting or appreciating diversity within the UK but instead equating it with the risks of extremism and terrorism. It firms up existing narratives around the securitisation of multiculturalism. Author of Celsius 7/7 (2007), Gove is a self-confessed Zionist and the purveyor of arguably illiberal tendencies, Gove’s personal identity and political aspirations are stamped all over this spurious circus.
When the Park View Educational Trust realised that their school would be put under special measures, their statement revealed the extent of loss and betrayal felt by many. It evoked the sadness they felt for young people in the poorest areas of Birmingham trying to get a proper education. It offered sympathy to the dedicated professionals striving hard to break the link between ‘disadvantage, demographics and destination’ in education.
Regrettably, Gove is getting his way. If the planned wide-sweeping changes actually go ahead, including the random spot-checks from OFSTED or the promotion of ‘British values’ in the national curriculum, children and parents of Birmingham schools will be hurt the most.
It seems the Birmingham schooling system will remain under fire for some time. In the mid-1980s, the Birmingham education system severely damaged the life chances of ethnic minorities when school closures concentrated deprivation and disadvantage. The 1990s saw mismanagement and poor leadership in these same schools. The young children of inner city Birmingham are in the same schools and in the same areas. Little seems to have changed over the past three decades. And, today, stories of alleged plots in schools in Bradford, Luton and Tower Hamlets are also making the news.
There seems to be no end to this bearbaiting of British Muslims.
Tahir Abbas BSc(Econ) MSocSc PhD FRSA is Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute.
This article first appeared on tahirabbas.co.uk