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UK Education and Islam – The Trojan Horse and the Ladder of Inference

June 4, 2014



This week’s edition of the UK Sunday Times runs stories about the “alleged Muslim plot to wrest control (of schools) and force out non-Islamic staff. There have been claims of homophobia, segregation of boys and girls in some lessons, refusal to teach sex education, bullying and invitation to extremists to speak at assemblies”.

Ofsted, the schools inspection authority, have sent inspectors into a number of schools in Birmingham to carry out emergency checks on 21 schools suspected of being subject to attempts by Islamic extremists to gain control of their governing bodies. At the same time Michael Gove, the Minister of Education, has appointed a former head of the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit to investigate the “Trojan Horse” allegations.

One the same page, there is a story about Tahir Alam, the man suspected of being at the centre of the plot. Apparently he was the leader of a fundamentalist group called the Movement to Reform Muslim Youth. The Sunday Times claims through an anonymous source that the group, which was active from the late 1980s until Mr Alam shut it down in 1995, was highly sectarian. It regarded the Shia as not proper Muslims. Several members “went to fight in Afghanistan and Bosnia”. According to the source, the group was in favour of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the United Kingdom.

At which point my ladder of inference automatically kicked in. This the mental process whereby we make assumptions based on the way we see the world. We chose our facts, select our reality, make assumptions based on that reality and take action accordingly.

So according to one reality Mr Alam is an Islamic extremist. He probably still wants to establish a caliphate in the UK. Bin Laden, Abu Hamza and all the other people who committed, facilitated or encouraged acts of terrorism, had the same ambition to establish caliphates. Ergo the Trojan Horse plot is all about radicalising young Muslims and producing foot soldiers who will go to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan et al, learn the terrorist tradecraft and return to the UK to practice their new skills in this country. Birmingham’s schools, and in the future schools in Blackburn, Bradford, Luton and any other part of this country where there is a large Muslim population will become recruiting centres for Al-Qaeda. Mr Alam must be stopped.

This seems to be very much a common train of thought within government and the print media. I found myself effortlessly rolling down that track, until I stopped for a second.

Hold on, I told myself. It is no more against the law of this country to advocate an Islamic caliphate than it is to call for a Nazi dictatorship run by Kermit the Frog. But there are rules. If you want to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a Commander of the Faithful, you would first have to gain a majority of MPs in parliament and pass an Act establishing a new constitution. Plotting to remove the Queen by any other means would leave you open to prosecution for treason. Using violent means would mean that you would fall foul of anti-terrorism laws. And there is a host of other laws that would curtail your efforts – against gender discrimination, promotion of religious and racial hatred for example.

As far as I am aware, Mr Alam has never been convicted of any of these crimes. He has the same right to speak about his beliefs as any other UK citizen. We may not like what he says, but unless and until he falls foul of our laws, he is free to continue to advocate the establishment of a caliphate, no matter how abhorrent such an outcome might appear to the rest of us. In short, he is not a terrorist, and assumptions about his motives should be rigorously tested, including the possibility that he changed his mind in 1995.

Extremism is not terrorism, and this appears to be the cause of some in-fighting between the Education Ministry and the Home Office. The Home Office sees its role as countering terrorism, whereas Mr Gove’s department has a duty to prevent any form of extremism from distorting the state education system. The former is accusing the latter of not picking up on evidence of Islamisation as early as 2010, while the latter believes that the former is at fault by restricting its brief to preventing terrorism, rather than addressing extremist activity likely to lead to criminal acts.

If we wish to prevent the kind of education Mr Alam is alleged to be attempting to introduce in the schools concerned, we have processes that can deal with the attempt. What parents do to influence their children we cannot control so easily. Acts of violence in the name of family honour are against the law, as is female genital mutilation. But here again the ladder of inference comes into play by associating such acts with religious belief rather than cultural tradition: most honour killings are committed by Muslims, therefore Islam supports honour killings. Not so, even if the perpetrators try to justify their acts on religious grounds.

If additional measures are needed to counter the radicalisation of Muslim schoolchildren, we are free to do so within the law, or to introduce new laws. And if Ofsted finds that governing bodies and senior teachers in the United Kingdom are seeking to curtail independence of thought and critical thinking in our schools, those responsible should be prevented from doing so. We only need to look at the Saudi education system to see the consequences of an education in which religion is the primary guiding force. It has been controlled for decades by the religious establishment with similar views to those advocated by Mr Alam’s former group, and is deemed by many observers within the country to be incapable of producing graduates fully fit to enter the workplace.

All children in our schools should be given equal opportunity to spread their wings and think for themselves without interference by religious bodies. There should be no right to pick and choose from the national curriculum according to religious belief.

Having said that, it would be wrong to try to drive the likes of Tahir Alam underground. We should be countering his ideas with persuasion and influence, not prescription, or our country is no better than those that impose religious, social or political orthodoxy on their young.

It should be obvious to anyone but a fantasist that the United Kingdom will never become an Islamic caliphate. The views of the fundamentalists will never reach the mainstream unless our culture becomes so rotten that radical Islam appears an attractive answer to our problems.

But the schools cannot stop the radicalisation of children unless it is with the cooperation of parents. And they are beyond the reach of the educators. So it is unrealistic to expect one government department to change the mindset of the Muslim community or any other community given to extremist thought or behaviour by diktat or otherwise, just as it is not a merely matter for the government as a whole. It’s an issue for our society – not just politicians and civil servants.

Nonetheless we do need standards and best practice in our schools that give the young – regardless of their faith – the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about the world they live in. Such standards already exist, even if they are applied inconsistently and with varying levels of competence. And if it is necessary to monitor the activities of the fundamentalists and, within the law, to pre-empt acts of terrorism by our citizens at home or abroad, then that is the price we have to pay to maintain our vibrant, querulous, multi-national, multi-faith and multicultural society. And where breaches of the law take place, be they for cultural or religious reasons, we should be prepared to use our laws to deal with them systematically and energetically.

Here’s the bottom line for me as a father. Both my daughters are way beyond school age, but if they were students today and we happened to live within a predominately Muslim school catchment area, I would be delighted for them to learn about Islam – and all its variants of belief and practice – along with all the other major world religions.

I would also expect them to wear a school uniform, but not be forced to cover their hair. I would object strongly to any gender segregation on religious or cultural grounds. I would have no problem with them celebrating Muslim festivals provided the Muslim kids celebrated Christian ones – and that would include the right to use the term Happy Christmas, Happy Eid or any other recognition of another person’s beliefs rather than anodyne, politically correct phrases like Season’s Greetings.

I would have no problem with my kids receiving sex education lessons as long as all kids received the same lessons. I would support the teaching of Creationism as a belief system provided it was presented dispassionately alongside other theories about our origins and our children were given the opportunity to make up their own minds about the science. I would have no problem with proponents of any faith addressing school assemblies provided they formed a basis for debate on the merits of what the speakers were saying. I would expect my children to be taught to be highly sceptical about assertions of right and wrong. I would expect teachers to be selected on their merits as educators, not on grounds of faith. I would encourage my kids to visit the homes of schoolmates of different faiths, just as I would welcome their visits to my home.

Above all, I would expect my children to learn the difference between belief and fact, between subjective and objective and between emotion and logic.

If there are any schools – be they secular or faith-based – that are failing to provide such an education to our young, then we should identify them and take whatever measures are necessary to bring them back into the mainstream.

  1. Andrew Morton permalink

    Since the 1980s, there has grown up a whole generation of Muslims who have no idea how far they have been radicalized, or at least traditionalized if such a word exists. It is now virtually impossible to tell the difference between “extremists” and those who merely espouse a highly conservative form of Islam. The whole Trojan Horse thing was not dealt with years ago, when it should have been, because it was a political hot potato. Several years ago, a highly talented Muslim student of mine who went on to study as Oxford described Park View as ” a virtual training camp for al Qaida.”

    • Thanks for your interesting comment, Andy. For there to be those who do, there needs to be a bedrock of those who think. That’s one of the worrying aspects of the current situation. S

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