MG Khan, a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a governor at Saltley School, Birmingham, writes:
Broadsheets, tabloids, TV and radio have been having a field day about the various allegations regarding supposed Muslim plots to take over Birmingham schools. As a governor at one of the schools in the eye of the storm, I see it in a wider context, namely the claim of our society to be civilised not just rhetorically, but in action.
The so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ document is not, as the media speculate, a ‘hoax’, ie, a simple crude trick or joke. Rather, it is being used to destabilise governing bodies in Muslim majority schools in Birmingham by galvanising Ofsted into snap inspections that would find these governing bodies unfit for governance, caricaturing them as driven by ideology rather than student needs. In its intended consequences it is not too dissimilar to that of the Zinoviev letter which led to the downfall of the first Labour government in the 1924 by galvanising public opinion against the spectre of socialism and communism. Today, just change that to Islam.
Over the last few weeks a number of allegations have been made about governors in Birmingham schools being involved in a jihadist plot to take over and ‘Talibanise’ schools as part of operation ‘Trojan Horse’. These allegations have included plots to overthrow heads and in the case of Saltley School (where I am a governor), the governing body has been falsely accused of banning sex education, stopping GCSE citizenship classes, forcing everyone to eat halal food – something present in schools for at least 25 years – and ultimately aiming for secession into an academy, in order to gain complete control of the school and its curriculum. In the course of this same period, Muslim school governors have been referred to by the media as jihadist plotters, Muslim zealots, Salafi fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, Islamists, etc. The vocabulary is impressive and journalists’ ability confidently to use it as a way of describing Muslims even more so.
These are emotive terms and methods designed to play on people’s fears and prejudices, tapping into a vein of Islamophobic sentiment that is never far from the surface, eliciting caution, fear and a horrible doubt that affects Muslim men and women in all walks of life in this country. They are reminiscent of witch hunts in the Middle Ages or McCarthyism in post-war America.
These doubts and suspicions ultimately mean that organisations become cautious about employing Muslims. Indeed, a recent research report worries that institutional racism is at the heart of the difficulty of recruiting people of Asian heritage into teaching. The depth of this is evident in the way that Birmingham City Council has responded to allegations in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter. Despite receiving the letter at the end of November, they still have not supplied a copy to Saltley School. This raises the suspicion that, in the minds of the officers dealing with the allegations, Muslim governors were complicit in the alleged plot.
Allegations from an ex-member of staff from the ‘outstanding’ Park View School of white teachers being sidelined in senior positions due to Muslim favouritism deserves careful analysis in its ability to trigger an Ofsted inspection. Incidentally, the senior management team employed a mile away at Saltley School is all white. Would the same happen if a black member of staff at Saltley made similar allegations? One suspects not. Where there are majority Muslim/black staff in leadership positions, the insinuation is that it must be due to some kind of unethical behaviour, favouritism, unfair advantage due to political correct equal opportunities or, in the case of Park View, implied secret Muslim expansionism. Reverse the skin colour and it is simply meritocracy in action.
The irony of operation Trojan Horse is that no self-respecting Salafi group would use a Greek legend to name its activities. If the local authority had confidence in the Muslim governors in these schools, they would have been able to point out the inconsistencies in the Trojan Horse document, which are now starting to be noted in the national press. But this is a surreal landscape where the unreal is treated as more real than the real. This surreal landscape reached new levels in the Legoland saga reported in the national press over the last few weeks. Legoland was forced to close for a weekend due to the English Defence League (EDL) protests against the Muslim Research and Development Foundation’s decision to have their annual family day at Legoland in Windsor. One can imagine the comic potential of the conversations that must have taken place in the course of these events in these different communities. I would love to know the Islamic reasons for the decision to choose Legoland above other theme parks, how Legoland might be more Islamic-compliant than Thorpe Park or Alton Towers. Equally, it would be fascinating to overhear the conversations in the EDL about why Legoland is their symbol of unviolated England and the new front line of their war against the Islamification of England. Maybe they did not know Lego was a Danish creation. It is this refusal to see the absurd grotesqueness of the imaginary Muslim that is frightening Muslims.
Since the Education Acts of the 1980s, governments have consistently asked for greater involvement, challenge and accountability from school governors. Governors are obliged therefore to ask questions when they think there is a conflict between the interests of the children and the interests of the school – or, for that matter, the government. So questioning the relative value of citizenship or philosophy or English literature, of BTEC or GCSE courses, can so easily be interpreted falsely as governor bullying in predominantly-Muslim schools when all we want is the best future for all children.
It is not easy being a Muslim school governor when Islamaphobic characteristics are so prevalent. It is not surprising, therefore, that increasingly many school governors in Muslim majority schools think twice about their position, and some, whether Muslim or not, decide to leave. As each does, ignorance claims another victory and our society loses one more advocate of what it means to be civilised.