Here are five words that liberals should say more often: thank God for Michael Gove. The Education Secretary has sent dozens of inspectors to 15 state schools in Birmingham targeted by Islamic radicals – and now, reportedly, plans to extend the idea nationwide, with new powers for Ofsted to fail schools where religious conservatism prevents balanced learning. He has acted because he knows what others have too long ignored: that schools are the key battleground against Islamism in Britain.
As poll after poll tells us, the vast majority of ordinary Muslims reject radical views. They support a mixed, plural society. They want to get on with their own lives, not interfere with anyone else’s. Successful Muslims, such as the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, are making their way to the top – defining themselves by their jobs, or their politics, or the football teams they support, and not (unless they want to) by the faith they were born into.
The problem is that the leading institutions of Muslim Britain are disproportionately dominated by the small minority of Islamists. They get all the publicity. They make all the noise. Sometimes publicly, sometimes only when they think no one’s looking, key mosques, charities, TV stations, schools and university societies promote a separatist, grievance-led agenda, in which Islam is the only identity that matters, in which Muslims stand against corrupt Western values and are victimised for doing so.
For those who think this way, schools are the front line – because they are how the hardliners hope, over time, to convert more British Muslims to their cause. And in a small but significant (and growing) number of schools, a new generation of students is being raised to be much more radical than its parents.
Of these, the worst are in the private sector – such as the schools where children study anti-Semitic textbooks, or the Madani Girls’ School in Tower Hamlets, which forces all pupils to wear the full-face veil and has explicitly stated on its website that “we as Muslims oppose the lifestyle of the West”. The Association of Muslim Schools, the private schools’ trade organisation, has hosted extremist speakers at its annual conference.
Most Muslim children, however, go to state schools – so the hardliners’ efforts are moving there as well. In Birmingham, five non-Muslim head teachers in a tiny area of the city have left their posts in the past six months. Dozens of staff, former staff and parents at these supposedly secular schools have told me and others that extremist and anti-Christian views are preached at assemblies, that teaching has been Islamified and that secular heads have been hounded out.
Messages leaked to me revealed the existence of a group called Educational Activists, including many teachers and school governors, which pursues what its leader calls an “Islamising agenda” in Birmingham schools. At each of the schools concerned, links can be traced to the same small group of activists, and to the Association of Muslim Schools. The local council says it has received “hundreds” of complaints from teachers, governors and parents.
When confronted, those involved have four lines of defence. The first, inevitably, is that any criticism is an “Islamophobic witch-hunt”, which rather ignores the fact that many of those complaining are themselves Muslim parents who want a broad education for their children. Fortunately, such brazen attempts to play the race card have gained little traction.
The activists’ second defence is that they are merely seeking to improve “failing” schools. The problem, alas, is that most of the schools affected were graded “outstanding” or “good” by Ofsted. By contrast, the religious school that ties together most of the plotters has been graded “inadequate”.
It is also argued that any changes that have occurred simply reflect the dominant culture in these overwhelmingly Muslim-majority schools and Muslim-majority neighbourhoods. But if you live entirely among people of your own faith, it is even more important that you are exposed to other cultures at school, and that teachers from other backgrounds are not removed from your life.
Finally, it is sometimes said (not least on the BBC) that any extremist incidents that may have occurred were “isolated”. They weren’t – but even if they had been, can we seriously imagine that line being tenable if the position were reversed? Had there been even one teacher leading white children in anti-Muslim rhetoric, it would rightly be proclaimed a national scandal.
The same double standards used, until recently, to apply in official Britain. Many private Muslim schools have been allowed effectively to inspect themselves – using a private inspectorate co-controlled by the Association of Muslim Schools. In others, Ofsted seemed prepared to overlook bigotry, so long as the bigots were Muslim. At Madani, which openly expressed its hostility to the West, the Ofsted report claimed the school left its pupils “well-prepared for life in a multicultural society”.
Yet it is precisely because such an education leaves its pupils adrift in a multicultural society, prey to all sorts of dangerous influences, and with a negative view of their fellow citizens, that Islamist influence in schools is so desperately dangerous for social cohesion. And it is a profound relief that the authorities have finally recognised this. Let us hope that the work continues if and when Mr Gove moves on.