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The 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta on the 15th of June next year has taken on a whole new level of importance and symbolism. It’s now become a major plank in the government’s response to the Trojan Horse controversy in some Birmingham schools. Historians may have argued for decades about the true significance of the document, but today politicians are clear – this is now about “British Values” – what they are and the role they should play in education. The only trouble is you have to define them first. And David Cameron wouldn’t be the first politician to come unstuck there. Writing about it this week he started one paragraph with “freedom”, followed quickly by “tolerance” and only 37 words later had resorted to “fish and chips”. So how do we define these values? Perhaps they’re being the kind of socially responsible parent who wants to instil their values into their children and who’s willing to dedicate a considerable amount of their spare time to become a school governor to help their local community? What if those parents happen to be Muslims who want their schools to have more of an “Islamic” ethos in an attempt to insulate their children against the “corrupting” effects of British society? What should you do when the values of a community clash with wider social norms? How tolerant should we be? Is it the role of the state to define and dictate what values should be taught in schools, or should that be the job of parents? Can you even teach values or are they something that we absorb gradually? Is this really about what is, or isn’t being taught in a small group of schools in Birmingham, or is it more a crisis of confidence in our society about what we should and shouldn’t value? Moral Maze – Presented by Michael Buerk.
The panel :
The Witnesses :
Ted Cantle – Former local government leader who carried out an inquiry into the riots in Bradford and other northern cities in 2001. Now advises, writes and lectures on community cohesion.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah – Journalist and broadcaster and a D.Phil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.
Sunder Katwala – Director of British Future, a think tank dedicated to opening up more public debate about identity, integration, migration and opportunity.
Alasdair Palmer – Journalist and former speech-writer for the Home Secretary, Theresa May.
The discourse on British values smacks of neo-imperialism in a post-colonial world.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on “British values”, published as an op-ed in The Daily Mail, had all the hallmarks of a colonialist eulogy. If the colonial project was about land and power, it was also a cultural project which involved exporting a presumed superior culture and imposing it on presumed inferior peoples.
We in Europe have a long history of defining ourselves in opposition to the great “other”. The Greeks often contrasted themselves with the Asians who were deemed to be servile, ruled by tyrants and corrupt, whereas Greeks were virtuous and freedom loving. Viewing Islam as the great threat also dates back to the days of competing empires, in which Islam came to be the measure against which European Christians forged their identity.
“[F]reedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” are values all human beings aspire to and the British have no monopoly over. In fact, a recognition of the multiplicity of routes through which humanity has arrived at these ideals, acts as a form of global solidarity, of mutual respect and ultimately, of equality. Although many societies lack these ideals in their formal structures, this shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of their rejection, but of the tumultuous conditions which impede their full realisation.
Any discussion of British values can’t be blind to the historical inequities undertaken in the name of those very values, and any assessment of other cultures cannot occur outside of an understanding of their position within the global system of wealth. When Cameron stated “I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity”, he could have inverted the sentence with far more accuracy to: “I strongly believe our prosperity forms the foundation for our values.”
We have come to formalise, institutionalise and uphold certain principles thanks to a level of affluence which not only came off the back of many nations but deprived them of the ability to achieve those same objectives. We absolutely should be bashful about our “greatness” because it came at the expense of others who continue to suffer the consequences to this day. The supreme haughtiness is to then decry the backwardness of the very nations which we helped relegate to the developmental dung heap.
What’s more, to speak of the need to assert the greatness of British values over a portion of society requires examining the power relations which govern those dictating the values and those being dictated to. As the educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse rightly points out, in reference to a number of schools in Birmingham targeted in Cameron’s “British values” speech, “what the proud city of Birmingham needs least is to be treated as a colonial outpost of London”.
Cameron’s op-ed is a clear means of expressing the dominance of white, secular liberal Britons, and articulating the commensurate respect of that supremacy from those deemed subordinate, in this case, minorities and specifically Muslims from some of the most impoverished areas in the country. It was also an attempt to arrogate the meaning of “British values” while excluding those targeted by the speech from inclusion in any discussion over their ultimate definition.
Identifying “the other”
The claims about historical truth made in the speech mask the very real construction of a narrative, a particular vision of “Britishness” in which some Britons apparently have no say. This vision is asserted as enduring and unchanging in nature when such narratives always involve a convenient reimagining of history, as illustrated through the grandiose extolling of the Magna Carta.
Inside Story – Extremism in British schools?
As the historian Dr Dominic Selwood points out in the Telegraph, “despite widespread beliefs about the charter’s contents, it actually contained very little of significance.” It also had a number of clauses we might not be so keen on highlighting today, such as “No one will be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband” and provisions against Jewish bankers.
The discourse concerning the “otherness” and danger posed by Muslims is reasserted through manufactured hysteria about otherwise mundane aspects of Muslim life.
From halal meat to circumcision, the construction of a mega-mosque or the amplification of abhorrent, but thankfully limited social injustices: forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation – all these are portrayed as inherently Islamic issues, despite evidence of their presence across ethnic and religious groupings.
The consequence is a social stigma attached to the Muslim label, reinforced through media associations of relatively uncontroversial issues, such as separating boys and girls for certain activities, with far more serious allegations, such as endorsing extremist speakers. An unconscious equivalence is drawn between the two, equating a practise otherwise normalised in other parts of British society such as single sex schools, single sex clubs or facilities with support for al-Qaeda-style views.
Most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the problems identified within a number of schools in Birmingham somehow reflect the type of Islamic extremism “practised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network”. This slippage creates the notion of a monolithic Islamic threat, stretching across the globe. Such high-profile statements reinforce perceptions of essential “otherness” and of a latent threat posed by the so-called enemy within.
Other social issues are labelled in manner which essentialises them, as a means of locating the route of oppression within Muslim culture, rather than broader, patriarchal practises found across societies. The term honour killing suggests phenomenon culturally distinct from domestic violence, which afflicts 30 percent of British women.
The same might be said of forced marriages, for which new legislation has recently been passed. The establishment of a specific law to target this practice, one already criminalised under existing laws, reinforces the perception of a culturally specific crime, rather than recognising coercion as one of a myriad of patriarchal oppressions. As activist Amrit Wilson states, the reason prosecutions are so low isn’t to do with laws, or a lack thereof, but rather, “These are often not implemented, partly through lack of will and partly because most services which support women through the legal process have been abolished.” Such laws actually serve a distinct purpose: They are about defining ourselves against an imagined bogeyman, rather than recognising shared ideals.
‘A wink to the right’
Ultimately, the debate on British values hinges on the nature of liberalism and whether we think of liberalism as a tool which allows for the articulation of varied and mutually contradictory viewpoints, including illiberal ones, or if we consider it a narrow ideology, which requires a muscular imposition on those who fail to recognise its truth. The irony of the latter position should hopefully not be lost.
Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?
It is also an opportunity for the Tory party, which has lost support among its more conservative followers to pander to those voices who might otherwise be leaning towards the UK Independence Party or UKIP.
This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron’s choice to refer to “fish and chips”, rather than Britain’s national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of white Britain, untainted by these foreign influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.
Every empire has claimed it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy. Although the empire may be long gone, the mentality which views the descendants of the former colonies as subjects remains. The motivation for imposing “superior” British values on others was bound up in a doctrine of European superiority and racism. Back in the 19th century, it was a British mission to lead the backward non-European nations to civilisation. Today, it’s all about leading the backward non-European subjects to civilisation, a notion of British greatness constructed off the back of its own minorities.
What we do need as a society is a common language, a critical and contested understanding of global history and our place within it, and some common ideals. The ideals cannot be forged by a section of society as a civilising project, but rather should include a broad-based discussion on the nature and manifestation of those ideals. To paraphrase the great philosopher Aime Cesaire, no culture possesses “the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory”.
New Statesman: In the so-called “Trojan horse” debacle, Birmingham schools have become Gove’s sacrificial lamb
You can read my latest on the New Statesman site here
Are there problems in some of the schools at the centre of the so-called “Trojan horse” debacle? Certainly there are.
Having spoken at length with various members of the community in Birmingham, there are undeniable concerns among certain – yes, including Muslim – students and parents pertaining to a narrow interpretation of Islam being enforced within some schools. There are also allegations of mismanagement, nepotism and of the misuse of funds. The detail of these issues is likely to emerge in upcoming reports.
But what the problem is not, is an issue of radicalisation. Rather, attempts to link the problems to radicalisation reflect an expansion of the counter-terrorism agenda to the policing of socially conservative views among some Muslims and the effects of this policy are likely to be disastrous.
The entire affair has been worrying on many levels, not least in the language used to report the story. Several outlets have referred to a “Muslim plot” – would that be all Muslims plotting to take over our schools? The uncritically regurgitated term “Trojan horse”, a term widely employed by the far-right, while the Times ran a headline “Gove told to launch dawn raids on schools”, with the implicit suggestion that the schools were being raided for terrorism-related activities. The man at the centre of it all, Michael Gove, opted for dehumanising imagery in his call to “drain the swamp“ in reference to the Muslim community – a swamp which, if one accepts the analogy, would be harbouring the crocodiles. None of this can or should be understood outside of the rise in support for the xenophobic UKIP or a rise in racism. There is a broader climate in which both the media and politicians operate and feigning ignorance of it doesn’t mitigate the reception of this terminology.
The narrative, despite denials to the contrary, has been that schools have been infiltrated by extremists who are at risk of radicalising Muslim children. The remedy? “Prevent” teaching, as recommended by Ofsted, in order to inoculate them. As if by virtue of being Muslim, children should be assessed as potential terrorists who require early intervention to stop them jumping on the conveyor belt of violence. There couldn’t be any more damning indictment of this government’s engagement with communities than its choice to identify individuals on the basis of a reified conception of their identity, rather than as multifaceted citizens. These children are Muslim, but that doesn’t mean they’re potential radicals, despite what the demonising front cover of the Spectator might suggest. They’re also brummies, British and Asian and African, they’re football fans and aspiring entrepreneurs. The lens which brands them a potential “risk” is itself a grave threat to social cohesion.
Underlying this stigmatising view of Muslim identity is the assumption that the source of radicalisation is a given interpretation of Islam which has widespread enough traction within our society, that it could be openly taught within several schools, with the complicity of parents, students and officials. It’s also an insight into a flawed counter-terrorism strategy, the so-called conveyor belt theory, which assumes that socially conservative views can represent the first step on a broader path to terrorism. In fact, studies suggest that a strong religious identity is an important bulwark against the risk of radicalisation. The profile of the 7/7 bombers, politically radicalised by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but otherwise not particularly devout, alleged to have been smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol – suggests a far more complex understanding of radicalisation is required. A perfect illustration of this confusion is the classic scene in the cult film Four Lions when the police raid the house of the devout, big-bearded brother of the true terrorist, Riz Ahmed’s character, rather than his and his Lion King-watching, clean-shaven, “modern” family. In so doing, they like Gove and his allies, confuse illiberal, conservative religious views with extremism, itself usually a very modern reinterpretation of Islam.
Meanwhile, the neo-conservative voices within the Tory party continue to push an unsubstantiated view of radicalisation. In July 2010, a leaked government memo concluded that it was wrong “to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence…”. Although foreign policy isn’t the only catalyst for terrorism, in her evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, the former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller said that the invasion of Iraq had radicalised a new generation of young British Muslims, highlighting the centrality of conflicts abroad in the motivations of extremists. Ultimately the journey to terrorism is a complex one which cannot be easily situated on a neat continuum. Despite this, Gove has been pressing ahead for a crackdown on nonviolent, as well as violent, “extremists”, a strategy which in its current form involves casting the net so wide as to try and encompass entire communities, alienating and stigmatising whole sections of society in the process.
I have no interest in defending some of the practices reported in these schools. I think music and drama should remain on the curriculum. I think trips abroad cannot implicitly exclude any students. And I think vetting speakers who address children is essential. But I will not accept that the over-reach of a number of zealous governors, who advocate a socially conservative view of Islam in their schools, represents a threat requiring a national existential soul search and a crackdown on all Muslims.
What this affair does indicate is the failure of the application of neo-liberal “laissez-faire” principles to education. On the subject of academies, Gove spoke of giving schools more freedom, specifically by ensuring they could opt out of the type of supervision previously guaranteed by local authority control. Academies and free schools give communities the power to define their own curriculum and ethos and yet when we consider that ethos to be at odds with our educational ideals, we denounce those who are merely making use of provisions made available through this policy. This is where a brouhaha over the shortening of days during Ramadan for example, or of the cancelling of tombola and raffles in schools with an overwhelmingly Muslim student body, is less evidence of a nefarious plot than of anti-Muslim prejudice. Academies and free schools have been given the sort of autonomy which allows them to do exactly this.
And this is also why there is an issue of double standards. Politicians have been at pains to claim this is not a Muslim issue. The truth is, there are many indications that even before any reports had been compiled, the DoE were treating any problems found within these schools through the lens of counter-terrorism, rather than an internal educational concern. The decision to appoint the head of the inquiry into 7/7, Peter Clarke, to investigate and give repeated warnings of an “extremist plot”, even when Birmingham council had themselves dismissed the anonymous letter as a fabrication, set the tone. What should have been evaluated as the likely pitfalls of an ill thought through educational scheme, has been painted as a stealth takeover by radicals. The message this sends to Muslims is loud and clear – your participation in the public sphere will be afforded intense scrutiny and any suggestion that your moral values might be influencing your work risks you being branded an extremist. One Muslim governor of an “outstanding” rated school in east London told me: “I always thought engaging with public institutions was a good thing. After all this, I worry that saying I’m a governor and a Muslim will evoke suspicion about my ‘agenda’.”
As someone educated in the French educational system, I cannot wrap my head around the idea of allowing different communities to define their own notion of education. Education is a critical tool of socialisation: it imbues us as citizens with a sense of our national identity and priorities, and it cements a shared narrative of common purpose. It is precisely this socialising experience which fosters a sense of collective values and ideals, however disputed their ultimate definition may be. Government failures in providing a streamlined educational framework which would ensure all children receive an education to standards we as a society deem beneficial, are what is truly to blame here. A truly liberal society accepts the right to voice illiberal views. It might however, not wish to create the conditions for them to devise their own curriculums and run publicly-funded schools.
But the real tragedy here is the damage done to community relations, to trust and to the willingness of Muslims to engage in a system which seemingly paints the participation of the devout as a part of a stealth takeover. After years of telling Muslims to engage in public institutions, the damage caused by the government’s hawkish mischaracterisation of this issue will reverberate in years to come.
You can watch me discuss this issue with Jon Snow and Nick Ferrari here:
You can watch me debate with writer Sunny Hundal and MP Khalid Mahmood here:
You can here me debate with Henry Jackson Society’s Douglas Murray here