Faith, hope and clarity

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Ten years after 911, British schools and communities are still struggling to counter 'home-grown' fundamentalism. But, as Mark Gould reports, local groups presenting the moderate face of Islam are turning the tide of bigotry

One morning in May this year, Gary Smith, head of RE at the Central Foundation School for Girls in east London's Tower Hamlets, was walking to work. Out of nowhere he was set upon by Azad Hussain, Akmol Hussein, Simon Alam and Sheikh Rashid, who repeatedly beat and stabbed him.

His crime? Being a non-Muslim teaching Islam, among other religions, to Muslim girls, including the niece of one of the assailants. The gang had been recorded by the police ahead of the assault as saying to one another: "He's mocking us and he's putting thoughts in people's minds.

"How can somebody take a job to teach Islam when he's not even a Muslim himself?"

The group - who each received custodial sentences for the attack - left Mr Smith unconscious with a fractured skull, slashed face and a number of mental and physical injuries that will have long-term consequences for his career in the classroom.

Attacks of this type in Tower Hamlets are, sadly, not infrequent. Indeed, last year a Bengali student was badly beaten for smoking during the fasting period of Ramadan, and in March posters featuring a black line through a rainbow appeared outside schools claiming the areas as "Gay Free Zones".

Tower Hamlets is home to 70,000 people of Bengali origin - the vast majority of whom are Muslim. It is an area where schools, teachers and students have been victim to a steady stream of violent attacks and intimidation by young fundamentalist Islamists, and has been highlighted as an area of major concern by ministers. It is an area of extremes; painfully trendy, but blighted by drug abuse and unemployment. Bengali youngsters who do badly in education face a choice of two extremes - the street gangs or the lure of fundamentalist rhetoric, both of which all too often translate into violence.

The local authority also neighbours the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which recently hit the headlines when a small extremist group, Muslims Against Crusades, announced that it had set up a "Sharia-controlled zone", and flyposted the area.

These issues - combined with the Government's relaunch of its "Prevent" strategy for tackling home-grown fundamentalism which promises that teachers will be given the "theological and technical expertise to challenge terrorist ideology" - have brought education in the area into sharp focus.

Some 10 years after the extraordinary attacks on the Twin Towers and six years after 77, teachers, schools and their political masters are, it seems, still struggling to find a way to deal with the rise of fundamentalism on British streets.

But there is hope - and it is of a grassroots variety. Often unreported, local groups are taking it upon themselves to challenge fundamentalism by going into schools and colleges and offering them alternatives to taking up with extremists.

It is in areas such as the one where Mr Smith was subjected to his appalling attack that Ansar Ahmed works. His charity, the Swadhinata Trust, runs exhibitions and workshops in community centres and local schools promoting the secular history, culture and heritage of Bangladesh - topics that are not taught in mainstream education or in madrassas, Islamic religious schools.

He says recent extremist incidents are the tip of an unpleasant iceberg and that central Government and the local council are partially to blame, for promoting "wishy-washy community cohesion and not challenging extremism".

When Mr Ahmed speaks in schools, he explains that some young people are drawn to fundamentalism by opposition to Western foreign policy or because they cannot identify with their parents' country of origin or cultural heritage and are looking for a sense of belonging.

"The extremist groups provide this sense by offering religious identity and a perceived sense of belonging to a much bigger community than an ethnic community," he says.

"We need to work to expose young people to the secular tradition of Islam in Bengal, which is one of peace and love for all humankind. That way we offer young people a concept of identity that encompasses a wider definition, of being British of Bengali origin, before they are exposed to the extremist narrative."

Explaining their national history, Mr Ahmed says, is key to the way he attempts to combat fundamentalism - for example, Bangladesh's war of independence. In 1971, West Pakistan invaded the culturally and theologically heterogeneous Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, triggering the conflict and a massive loss of life. Bengali children should understand that secularism was an important part of the motivation behind the independence fighters, he says.

But Mr Ahmed also supports more practical measures. He points to Government proposals for a "national blocking list" of violent and unlawful websites as well as considering whether computers in schools, libraries and colleges could be barred from accessing unlawful material on the internet.

He says money must go into using modern communications, smartphones, DVDs, CDs, to counter misinterpretation of the Koran - perhaps even anti-fundamentalist phone apps - and a strong internet presence.

"Look at the example of the young woman student who stabbed Labour MP Stephen Timms. During her trial she said she was inspired by YouTube videos of extremist Yemeni cleric Anwar Awlaki. Young people are confused; a lot of extremist websites will say it's haram (forbidden by Islam) to vote or haram to do any number of things. We need to show that isn't the case."

More high profile than Mr Ahmed's project is the work of the Quilliam Foundation, which also operates in schools and colleges in the area, and nationally, to counter fundamentalism. Ghaffar Hussain, Quilliam's head of outreach and training, tells 15 to 18-year-olds that he was "mixed up" with Muslim extremist groups when he was young - and recognises many of the signs in Tower Hamlets' Bengali community.

"I got into it because I was interested in the issues and extremists seemed to have a monopoly of talking about them at the time," he says.

"We get invited into schools that don't necessarily have a problem and give a general talk about the work we do to counteract radicalism and I open it up to questions. I suppose more than anything else I can be seen as someone who understands the issues they might have as I have the same upbringing, so I can share their own experiences to de-glamorise the phenomenon.

"Often there is a lot of resistance to talking about the issue, especially for young Bengalis who find it embarrassing and uncomfortable. But making young people aware of the dangers will help make them less susceptible to becoming involved in such groups in the future."

But he also says many teachers also feel embarrassed and inhibited in talking about fundamentalism. "It's because many have so little awareness of the issue. I think there is a question about teacher training and education here. Generally, teachers need to develop an awareness of the issues and the feelings among pupils and use their common sense when bringing it up."

Mr Hussain added that there were some very positive aspects of the previous government's policies, which included what became known as the "extremism toolkit" for schools, entitled Learning Together to be Safe.

Sent out to headteachers across England and Wales in 2008, it contains a number of important recommendations such as a nominated member of staff in schools to whom other staff can report concerns about "grooming" by extremist groups.

"This is not asking teachers to become spies or de-radicalisers, but rather to be aware of radicalisation as a phenomenon," Mr Hussain says.

A different grassroots approach can be found in another area of the east London borough. Every Saturday, about 80 children and their parents attend Soytten Sen School for the Performing Arts, based at St George in the East church, just off Cable Street in Tower Hamlets.

The school was named after Soytten Sen (sometimes called Sayaten Sen). Born a Hindu, Mr Sen, who died in 1981 aged 74, was a much-loved Bengali figure who filled his life with left-wing political campaigning, writing and poetry. The school's work attempts to follow this legacy.

"We teach arts, music, drama, history and culture and promote Bengali culture in a multi-cultural society," says Syed Enamol Islam, who helps to run the school. "We recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore.

"We also perform in the Brick Lane Mela - the biggest non-religious celebration of Bengali culture outside Bangladesh."

For him "the paradigm shift" that "fundamentalised" some young Bangladeshis lay in the semantics of the West. "Ten years ago we were considered to be the Asian community; now we are 'the Muslim community' - a community based solely on religion which threatens to submerge the whole idea of Bangladeshi arts, literature, history and culture. We try to counter that."

But this, and the many other initiatives, are only a tiny part of the solution. "We are a drop in the ocean," Mr Islam adds. "The Tower Hamlets under-18 population is 30,000. Some Muslim Saturday schools have 500 pupils, so how can we compete?"

There is, it seems, a long way to go before the day when the underlying conditions that fed an attack on an innocent inner-city RE teacher going about his business are on their way to being eradicated.

The Swadhinata Trust has organised a photographic exhibition at Tower Hamlets Local History Library celebrating the creation of an independent secular Bangladesh during the 1971 war against Muslim West Pakistan. It runs until December

Ministerial response

The Government promised firm action in June this year with its review of the #163;140 million Prevent Violent Extremism strategy. Prevent was launched in its original form in 2007 in response to the 2005 London suicide bombings carried out by four British-born Muslims that killed 52.

Its intention was to promote social cohesion. But civil rights group Liberty branded it a "spying mission" and MPs said it "stigmatised and alienated" British Asians. They said its aim was overshadowed by accusations that it was an intelligence-gathering tool for counter-terrorism services.

In March this year, the then security minister Pauline Neville-Jones promised a revised strategy that "will focus upon countering terrorist ideology by empowering communities with the theological and technological expertise necessary to challenge terrorist ideology... We will provide support to those institutions where radicalisation is most prevalent, including universities, schools and prisons."

Unveiling the new Prevent strategy, home secretary Theresa May told the Commons it would be countering all forms of extremism.

Some #163;36 million will go to 25 priority areas including Birmingham, Leicester, Luton, Manchester, Leeds and a number of London boroughs, including Tower Hamlets.

- Teachers should create time for pupils to discuss social and political issues with a view to exposing them to a variety of perspectives.

- Teachers should not be too concerned about pupils airing a particular point of view. Pupils often repeat things that they have heard elsewhere.

- Be aware if a pupil's social group has changed or if they have cut themselves off from people who do not agree with their particular socio-political perspective, especially if they subsequently direct hate towards specific groups.

- Be concerned if your pupils start propagandising a particular extremist viewpoint and encouraging others to embrace it, especially if they start relying on a very limited number of information sources for their news and analysis.

Ghaffar Hussain, Quilliam Foundation.

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