London, UK – The UK government faces accusations of demonising Muslims and playing politics with children’s futures over its tough response to reports of an alleged Islamist plot, dubbed “Trojan Horse”, to take over schools in the English city of Birmingham.
Representatives of Muslim organisations and communities affected by the controversy, triggered by what is now widely regarded as a discredited leaked document, claim that the government has fuelled Islamophobia following the publication this week of a series of critical reports into the schools under scrutiny.
“We have had a climate of demonising Muslims for some time now, but this has really escalated that by raising the idea of a potential threat existing among children,” Arzu Merali, the head of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told Al Jazeera.
“The spectre that is raised is that anywhere there are groups of Muslims in numbers there is something funny going on, even when it is in schools. A lot of people who have tried to involve themselves in public life are being targeted and we have an executive that is almost out of control.”
Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, the public body that monitors standards in schools, said on Monday that inspectors had found evidence of “a culture of fear and intimidation” at some schools and “an organised campaign to target certain schools in order to impose a narrow faith-based ideology”.
Responding to those allegations, Michael Gove, the minister for education, told parliament the government would introduce measures requiring schools to “actively promote British values“.
“Schools which are proven to have failed will be taken over, put under new leadership and taken in a fresh, new direction,” he said.
‘Operation Trojan Horse’
The inspections at 21 schools in Birmingham followed allegations reported in March of a “jihadist plot” to infiltrate and gain control of school governing bodies in areas with large Muslim populations in order to run them according to strict Islamic principles.
|UK schools accused of radicalisation|
But an anonymous document leaked to newspapers that purported to detail plans codenamed “Operation Trojan Horse” to take over schools in other cities was subsequently dismissed by local officials as a probable hoax.
The schools included Park View School, considered one of the high achievers of the government’s flagship education policy, in which institutions with poor academic track records were rebranded as academies and given greater autonomy in an effort to raise their performances.
Park View serves a predominantly Muslim community in the deprived inner-city Alum Rock neighbourhood, and was rated outstanding in all areas by inspectors in 2012 and praised by David Cameron, the British prime minister, as a model of academic excellence.
But Park View is now among six schools, including two others under the same management body, deemed to require special measures, which give education authorities the power to withdraw funding and take over failing institutions. Twelve others were found to require improvement.
The reports said some teachers had been marginalised or forced out of their jobs, and that governors had used their powers inappropriately to change the character of schools in line with their personal views.
Examples cited included a school which organised trips to Saudi Arabia from which non-Muslims were excluded, and which banned raffles and tombolas at a school fete because they were considered un-Islamic.
Another school was found to have installed loudspeakers to broadcast the call to prayer, while inspectors also said they had found evidence of gender segregation and discrimination against female students.
‘Climate of suspicion’
But the reports were angrily rejected by management staff, teachers and representatives for parents at the schools affected, who said inspectors had failed to uncover credible evidence of an extremist plot.
Dave Hughes, vice chairman of the Park View Education Trust, said the reports had been ordered in a “climate of suspicion” that put Muslim children “at substantial risk of not being accepted as equal, legitimate and valued members of British society”. Jahangir Akbar, the acting principal at Oldknow Academy, said the schools were victims of a “political witch-hunt”.
Shabina Bano, speaking on behalf of parents at Oldknow, which was also placed under special measures, told Al Jazeera they had been angered by weeks of lurid and unsubstantiated media stories.
“What evidence has been put forward? You’ve had in the newspapers today that we are telling children about hellfire and prostitutes. When is it going to stop?” said Bano. “How much dirt are you going to throw on us before we do retaliate and say, ‘Look, is it because we are Muslims?'”
While the opposition Labour Party has mainly taken advantage of the episode to attack the government over its education policies, Ofsted’s reports were welcomed by Khalid Mahmood, a local Labour member of parliament who said they confirmed complaints he had repeatedly heard from constituents over several years.
“This hasn’t started now. This has been going on in Birmingham for almost 10 years [and] there are a huge number of complaints that were made,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.
“This particular element of predominantly Salafi people have been grooming children away from Sunni Barelvi and Shia communities that live in Birmingham inner-city areas, and they have tried to push them towards their way. This is a gentle approach. They get about eight years on these children before they leave school, so it is a long time to persuade them of a different mindset.”
But Talha Ahmad, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a former teacher in Birmingham, said inspectors had failed to acknowledge the achievements of many Muslim governors in turning around under-performing schools and transforming academic opportunities for pupils in deprived areas.
“It is no secret that there were organised efforts to get more Muslims onto governing bodies. That came about because there were many schools which had almost 100 percent Muslim pupil intake which did not have a single Muslim voice on their governing body, so it was only right and proper that there were serious efforts to make sure that local Muslim parents and professionals got involved,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera.
“These were failing schools, and within the community the memory of going to school and being let down and leaving without any qualifications is still vivid. We are concerned that Ofsted has not acknowledged the strides forward that these schools have made. It begs the question of whether Ofsted is exercising an independent judgment or whether it is being influenced, if not outright dictated to, by a political agenda.”
Muslims are again being viewed through the prism of counterterrorism and security.
Many schools were also criticised for failing to safeguard children from radicalisation by providing staff with training in the government’s controversial Prevent counter-extremism programme, which is viewed by many Muslims as a form of discriminatory state surveillance.
In one case, a nursery school for children aged three to five was criticised because leaders were unaware of government guidelines on preventing extreme and radical behaviour.
Critics argue that current government policy aimed at tackling extremism is driven by a conservative ideology that conflates conservative interpretations of Islam with a heightened risk of violent radicalisation.
“Muslims are again being viewed through the prism of counterterrorism and security. This should be about educational standards but there has clearly been political manoeuvring,” Imran Awan, a researcher at Birmingham City University studying the impact of counter-extremism policy on the city’s Muslim population, told Al Jazeera.
“Hardline neo-conservative thinkers within the heart of the government like Michael Gove have seen this as an opportunity to push an agenda that marginalises and demonises Muslims, and community cohesion has been seriously undermined as a result.”
Ahmad said he feared that the government’s stance would drive disaffected Muslims further towards the margins of mainstream society.
“This has reinforced the idea of the Muslim community as a suspect community, a community that poses a security risk, and that is going to provide succour to extremists,” he said.
“The irony is this. This has supposedly been done in the name of preventing extremism and saving children from being recruited. But extremists will use this opportunity to say to Muslims, ‘Look, no matter what you do, you will never be accepted as one of them’.”