While concerns about the growth of radical Islam have been with British society for some years now, few imagined that Islamists might ever attempt anything so bold as a takeover of parts of the public education system. Yet a government investigation overseen by a former counter-terror chief has revealed that this is precisely what has been happening at certain British schools. The report would seem to confirm allegations of an ambitious effort on the part of a set of hardliners who have been attempting to take over the administration of secular state schools in the city of Birmingham, Britain’s second city and home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations.
The matter first reached public attention back in March when an anonymous letter came to light stipulating how Britain’s state schools could be hijacked for the purpose of pushing Islamic values and teachings. As a result twenty-one schools in Birmingham were placed under investigation.
The reports that have emerged regarding the practices at several of the schools are truly shocking. Of most concern were the allegations that senior staff members had been openly promoting jihadists such as al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and that lectures by pro-al-Qaeda speakers were being advertised in the school bulletin. Additional allegations concerned reports of classes on “holy war” and of students receiving anti-American diatribes from the principle at one of the schools. While some attempted to brush aside these claims, the report by the government investigators has indeed now confirmed that several of the schools have been failing to protect their students from extremism and that in one instance an “extremist speaker sympathetic to al-Qaeda” did address the school.
What was made most apparent by the findings of the investigation has less to do with jihad and more to do with the implementation of Sharia law and the promotion of radical Islam within these schools. In some instances this took the form of compulsory gender-segregated seating in the classroom; in others the study of the humanities and particularly art, music, and religions other than Islam were essentially erased from the curriculum. When it came to the matter of religious studies specifically, it was found that non-Muslim students were simply being left to teach themselves while the teachers were directing their time toward the majority of the students who were being taught about Islam. With regard to biology what was being presented in the classroom had been altered to fit a hardline Islamic teaching, regardless of the requirements of the exam syllabus. More disturbing still are the accounts from some staff members who reported to the investigators that children as young as six were being taught about such completely inappropriate subjects as “white prostitute” and “hell-fire,” while pupils were also being encouraged to join in with “anti-Christian chants.”
Naturally, this entire saga has put the British government under considerable pressure—not least because it has been claimed that the government had actually been informed about these practices as early as 2010—and this has led to a rather public and damaging row between the education secretary and the home secretary. It is true that in Britain the concern about the radicalization of young Muslims has been an ongoing one. Previously there had been the exposé of how Saudi-funded Islamic schools were also making use of Saudi textbooks and Wahhabi teachings along with the petrol dollars provided by the sheikhs. And in 2009 the then-Labor government came under fire when it emerged that the state was channeling taxpayer money to the education group the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, which was tied to the extremist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (which the government simultaneously claimed it was trying to have outlawed). But never before have secular British state schools come under the direct influence of those seeking to promote hardline Islam.
This attempted takeover of public schools by Islamists can be seen as simply being the next logical step from their point of view. And if it is true that the alarm was sounded years ago and nothing was done, then that, too, would hardly be surprising. Even in the face of this latest affair, both the BBC and writers at the Guardian have expressed a strong degree of skepticism about these reports, just as some local community leaders and Muslim political figures have questioned the motives of those driving the investigation. Indeed, from the pages of the Guardian Salma Yaqoob—formerly the leader of George Galloway’s Respect Party and now a spokesperson for Birmingham Central Mosque—even likened the investigation to McCarthyism.
For now it appears that the hardliners have been stopped in their tracks. But it is alarming that they managed to get as far as they did. It had always been pretty much assumed that undesirable things were likely being taught in the Sunday schools of certain backstreet Mosques, but who wanted to risk their political career amidst the backlash provoked by attempting to take on the vast network of Islamic faith schools? Yet the fact that state-run secular schools should have come under the influence of Islamists and their sympathizers is a worrying indication of the degree of confidence that this group feels today. Britain may have so far been relatively successful in countering the terror threat, but how exactly it intends to deal with the much deeper social issues surrounding ultra-conservative Islam and a rapidly growing Muslim population is a much more troubling question.