For several weeks the news has been dominated by inquiries into schools in areas of Birmingham with large Muslim populations. Some of these state schools were given an ‘outstanding’ ranking by the UK government schools’ inspectors Ofsted in 2012. Yet the publication of a letter - almost certainly believed to be fabricated - led to accusations of an ‘Islamic plot’ to take over British state schools in Birmingham. At the same time there have been stories in the media about Muslim schools, which are accused of teaching ‘extremist’ ideas to children, despite widespread refutation of these stories by affected teachers including many non-Muslim teachers. Politicians, journalists and commentators have mixed the language of ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ to such an extent that an average member of the public could be forgiven for assuming that these schools have become military institutions, indoctrinating children to attack all around them! Once again Britain’s political establishment - across all political parties - has fuelled hatred of Islam and Muslims.
What has been reported until now has been hearsay. Yet, many members of the political establishment have pronounced judgment nonetheless. What appears to have been happening are straightforward legitimate actions by Muslim parents and governors, which few Muslims (and indeed many objective non Muslims) would deem problematic. In areas where there are either majority or significant minority Muslim populations, some aspects of school life have reflected this fact - whether occasional assemblies, food preparation, accommodating prayers, accommodating dress or changing facilities. There is little proof that there has been any ‘enforcement’ of religion on people or that there has been a wholesale departure from the state curriculum. It has even been said that some former staff members may have used this episode to take revenge for former grievances.
However, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - widely regarded by informed Muslims to be one of the most hostile people in the UK towards Islam - not only sent in Ofsted to investigate, but also former counter-terrorism police chief, Peter Clarke - a man with no known expertise in education. Ofsted have shamefully discredited themselves in the past few weeks - and have lost all trust in the eyes of the Muslim community. A community which is now rightly asking why similar schools with large numbers of Jewish or Christian pupils and have similar religious allowances is not treated in the same way.
Like the Charities Commission, Ofsted are behaving like a kind of ‘thought-police’ against Muslims - and what is being proposed is a sort of compulsory ‘re-education’. There have been complaints from parents that Ofsted inspectors have almost run an inquisition for primary school children, exploring social issues like boy-girl relationships and sexuality - sometimes in one-on-one conversations. There have been complaints from schools that the inspectors arrived, with their minds made up.
It is apparent that Ofsted have moved the goal posts in how it assesses the schools in question. Whereas before they were considered adequate - or even outstanding - in terms of education, happiness and well-being conduct and respect. They have now been told the students are not prepared properly for life in a diverse and multicultural society! Or that the sex and relationship education is ineffective!
What should Muslims do?
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam! Any children, parents, teachers or governors who have been wrongly victimized in the episode deserve our prayers and support - especially if they wish to challenge any wrongful judgments made against them. It is good to give them vocal support as well as to raise our voices in legitimate criticism of Ofsted, the government and the political establishment.
But there are wider lessons for all of us.
1. We must understand the game at play is to change the values of Muslims.
The UK government (like its predecessor) insists on linking its counter-terrorism policies to policies that are aimed at the Islamic values of the Muslim community. They feed lies that these values are ‘extremist’ - like the relationships between boys and girls, or sexual conduct, or even dress codes. They deliberately link these to important aspects of the Islamic Shari’ah -related to politics or law and order - that Muslims call for in the Muslim world, and then label these as ‘extremist’. Muslims are then expected to denounce them all as ‘extremist’ ideas and adopt secular liberal values.
2. We must not fall into this trap of labeling other Muslims as ‘extremists’ arbitrarily - even when we disagree with their view.
This is because the views being attacked are not the individual case examples (often misrepresented or misapplied) but Islam and the Shari’ah as a whole. So, in the current media onslaught, the schools in question have been linked by some commentators and politicians to Jihad, Hudood punishments, etc. These have nothing to do with the schooling issue, yet Muslims are expected to denounce these Islamic rules or beliefs in principle.
3. We must realize this policy has become more aggressive because of the strength of Islam and the weakness of secular liberal values.
Muslims in Britain (along with many others from British society who have embraced Islam) have failed to be intellectually convinced of the worth of adopting secular liberal values. They can see the problems that many unfortunate people in Britain suffer as a result of them. They can see the injustice and inequalities of the capitalist system. They can see that democratic systems are not only rigged and corrupt in places such as Pakistan and Bangladesh! And to prove that these values cannot stand on their own in convincing people, despite seeing them implemented up close, the state has decided to use force to coerce Muslims into adopting these values.
Whereas the Quran is explicit in prohibiting coercion and force to make people believe, the UK State agencies seem to see it as their role to compel Muslims to believe in the secular liberal values they are unable to convince them of intellectually. And if Muslim kids in Birmingham did feel a happy part of their local community, after a few hours of being terrorized by Ofsted at Mr. Gove’s behest (with his opposite number in the Labour Party Tristam Hunt egging him on), it would not be surprising if they felt their community’s harmony had been violated.
4. Secular Liberal values are failing British students of all faiths.
In part, the desire of parents, teachers or school Governors to introduce a greater Islamic ethos into schools is simply borne from the shortcomings of liberalism itself. An unhealthy dose of secular values have left British children running amok with inconceivable reports of children raping other children within school premises. A thousand school children have been caught with deadly weapons in the last 3 years alone; 80 were at primary school. Compounded with massive rates of teenage pregnancy, ‘feral’ children from broken homes stamped with ASBOs, a regressive drink and drug culture, or reports of students stabbing to death their teachers - it desperately raises the question; how does the British government assess safety and educational interests? It is natural then that Muslims would seek other avenues to protect their children, finding comfort in the tried and tested sublime and unchanging values of Islam.
5. Muslims need to positively and confidently adopt a role as Ambassadors for Islam in Britain.
We cannot succumb to bullying. Nor should Muslims react in an emotional manner. Indeed, in the Messenger of Allah (saw) we have the best example.
((لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا))
“You have an excellent pattern (of conduct) in the Messenger of Allah for all who put their hope in Allah and the Last Day and remember Allah much.” [al-Ahzab 33:21]
When he and his companions in Makkah were persecuted, they embodied Islamic values to such an extent that the lies of the mushrikeen did not convince people who actually encountered those early Muslims. They upheld these values; they intellectually challenged the values of those around them and invited them to Islam.
They carried the best of arguments - but more than that, they embodied an example of Islam as a dignified and noble example for all around to see. Sadly, this is a society with a spiritual vacuum where unhappiness is rife; where individualism rules and community and family have broken down; where rudeness is celebrated and good manners belittled; where lewdness is encouraged and morality ridiculed; and where the interest-driven banking system benefits the richest at the expense of the ordinary person.
So many people are searching for an alternative. Our duty is to show them that in our conduct, our beliefs and our community’s values. This means making an extra effort to convey the noble Islamic values to the next generations. It means making our Masajid, Madrassahs and communities fit for purpose. It means defining a positive Islamic identity for our children and looking at ways to secure their values. It means preserving these Islamic values in our families as the basis of our community. It means protecting our teenagers from selfishness, arrogance and the materialism that is promoted by teen-culture. It means being Ambassadors for Islam, for the sake of Allah (swt) alone.
Brothers and Sisters! Allah (swt) tells us that these efforts to undermine Islam will fail; but they are also a test upon us to sort out the sincere from the insincere.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ لِيَصُدُّواْ عَن سَبِيلِ اللّهِ فَسَيُنفِقُونَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ عَلَيْهِمْ حَسْرَةً ثُمَّ يُغْلَبُونَ وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ إِلَى جَهَنَّمَ يُحْشَرُونَ. لِيَمِيزَ اللّهُ الْخَبِيثَ مِنَ الطَّيِّبِ وَيَجْعَلَ الْخَبِيثَ بَعْضَهُ عَلَىَ بَعْضٍ فَيَرْكُمَهُ جَمِيعاً فَيَجْعَلَهُ فِي جَهَنَّمَ أُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْخَاسِرُونَ
“Indeed, those who disbelieve spend their wealth to avert [people] from the way of Allah. So they will spend it; then it will be for them [source of] regret; then they will be overcome. And those who have disbelieved - unto Hell they will be gathered. [This is] so that Allah may distinguish the wicked from the good and place the wicked some of them upon others and heap them all together and put them into Hell. It is those who are the losers.” [Anfal 8: 36-37]
So help His Cause and He will make our foothold firm.
((يا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِن تَنصُرُوا اللَّهَ يَنصُرْكُمْ وَيُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَكُمْ))
“O you who believe, if you help Allah, He will help you and make your feet firm.” [Muhammad 47: 7]