While prejudiced comments on Muslims by the United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sickeningly help his popularity within the US political right, Britain’s overwhelming rejection of his comments sends a clear message that discrimination and bigotry are not acceptable in our robust democracy.
In many ways, Britain surpasses others when dealing with minority and disadvantaged people. Successive Race Relations Acts since 1965 and the inclusion of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 – guarded by the robustness of our judiciary and watchful citizens – have contributed to our current standing.
Regrettably, however, many Muslims are now gripped with nervousness for fear of facing further scrutiny because of the political short-termism of the government led by David Cameron. His rigid policy on anti-radicalisation, in other words “Prevent” agenda, has effectively pigeon-holed activist Muslims into the category of non-violent extremists with all the negative connotations that label brings.
Prevent has already proved counter-productive. There have been high-profile cases of schoolchildren being picked up for questioning – one for saying the term “eco-terrorism” and another for wrongly spelling “terrorist (terraced) house” in the class; there is a huge disquiet in the community.
Cameron’s announcement to the Conservative Party conference last autumn on supplementary schools increased the anxiety. His comment that Ofsted was to inspect religious educational institutions, such as madrasas, which will be shut down if they are suspected of “filling children’s heads and hearts with hate” sent a chilling message to Muslims across the country.
His assertion that “some of these supplementary schools were helping to incubate divisions within society” was challenged as not being based on evidence. The country’s main umbrella Muslim organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain, expressed concernand asked the prime minister to “substantiate” these serious allegations.
Al-Qaeda or ISIL-inspired terrorism is real and serious, but its main victims are Muslims themselves.
Since then the education watchdog Ofsted has stepped up its rhetoric on madrasas. The Department for Education initiated a consultation on November 26, 2015, and called for evidence on out-of-school education settings. Some mosque leaders have decided not to cooperate with the government on the grounds that mosques “should remain independent and free to teach Islam in a lawful manner, as they currently are”.
Examples chosen by the prime minister in his conference speech were only about madrasas, and the message the media and ordinary people heard was a clear shot at the Muslim community. When the Ofsted chief recently suggested Sunday schools could be inspected under counter-extremism measures, this caused consternation among some Conservative MPs.
Under serious pressure from them, Cameron pledged to stop Ofsted inspectors raiding Sunday schools. This double standard not only flies in the face of equality, but also raises a fundamental issue of fairness and British values in a pluralist democracy. Alas, there was no such voice in favour of madrasas!
According to 2011 IPPR research, there are about 2,000 Muslim supplementary schools across the country that cater for around 250,000 children. Such schools are mostly very small in the local community. The report states that those madrasas have “the potential to positively influence Muslim children’s development, allow pupils to explore and understand their own identity and strengthen community cohesion”.
As most of them are embedded within mosques, they are much valued by parents. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a think-tank focusing on collaboration and exchange of ideas, found that the sector currently “faces a complex set of challenges and may require some stability funding” from the government. Instead, the prime minister’s step is causing instability.
More efforts needed
Madrasas teach young children Arabic to recite the Quran and essential religious rituals, in a non-political, traditional pedagogic way. Some madrasas are ill-equipped and have limited resources; there are issues such as a shortage of quality teachers, limited funding and inadequate physical infrastructure.
Due to all these issues, the curriculum in some is not as broad, and quality assurance is not as comprehensive as other educational establishments. However, there are good models of successful partnership between some madrasas and the statutory and voluntary bodies. This has improved the quality of education and contributes to bridging gaps in many places.
There is no evidence to suggest that madrasas present a risk of radicalisation or extremism. What most of them need is funding and collaboration from local governments and business to perform better. If this is done with understanding and mutual respect, madrasas can be an asset for producing better citizens. Some local authorities are indeed helping mosques in child protection and other issues.
Cameron has, in recent times, taken some constructive steps by recognising Islamophobia and asking the police forces in England and Wales to record anti-Muslim hate crimes separately and treat them as seriously as anti-Semitic attacks. He and his ministers are now referring to ISIL as Daesh.
But these positive gestures are often overshadowed by his irresponsible swipes at Muslims, such as the one he recently made on Muslim women needing to learn English to stop extremism. This created unnecessary headlines in the media and anguish in the community.
Crime is not a Muslim monopoly. Others have their share, such as those churches that have faced high-profile historic child abuse cases recently. Al-Qaeda or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-inspired terrorism is real and serious, but its main victims are Muslims themselves.
It is absolutely essential that Cameron and his government support Muslims too, rather than keep the community under pressure and continuous scrutiny.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.