The so-called “Trojan Horse” plot, supposedly put in motion to turn a small number of British schools into state-sponsored madrassas or religious schools, continues to swamp the British news agenda.
One line of the ongoing investigation is looking into the possibly of the “plot” being a crudely executed hoax. Police made four arrests in Birmingham in April, all understood to be ex-employees of one of the schools, on charges of fraud.
Michael Gove, the education secretary who has taken it upon himself to flush out the “extremists”, has ignored all this. Instead, he hastily appointed the former counter-terrorist chief Peter Clarke to a new team of emergency school inspectors, a move which was labelled “desperately unfortunate” by the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, Chris Sims. The Muslim Council of Britain warned that “once again, our community is seen through the narrow prism of security and counter-terrorism”.
Reporters from the BBC and The Guardian have questioned teachers and parents at the schools, and found sparse evidence of an ‘Islamist’ plot: “A poster on the wall [in one of the classrooms] told of a recent ‘award trip’ for the best-behaving pupils to watch Captain America at the local Vue cinema. It didn’t look much like a fundamentalist madrassa.”
When the new inspection reports were officially released - of the 21 schools, only five were rated as inadequate - but two of these had recently been rated as outstanding, and one school as good, after a recent visit by another team of inspectors. One teacher later claimed the inspectors “had already decided to condemn the school”, and asked leading questions which weren’t part of normal inspection procedures.
Yet Gove has been accused of an Islamophobic agenda by pushing for new inspections: The former Deputy Prime Minster John Prescott has even labelled the education secretary as “the REAL extremist interfering in our schools”.
As author of Celsius 7/7 - released after the July 7/7 bombings in London, Gove positions Islamism as a threat similar to Communism or Fascism, and believes that “there are many Muslims across the globe, within Europe and in Britain, who share the same basic ideological assumptions behind the jihadist worldview.” He rejects the idea that the invasion of Iraq, for example, could have led to the proliferation of terrorist groups, instead blaming radical ideologies.
Gove’s idea about a “conveyor belt” system of terror is a theory whereby the spread of peaceful conservative Islam leads automatically to more violent terrorism attacks. As journalist Mehdi Hasan points out, this theory was shown to be false by former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman’s research and a leaked government memo in 2010 urging ministers to reject conveyor belt thinking - “which misreads the radicalisation process and gives undue weight to ideological factors”.
Still, our education secretary, who has never lived in the Middle East and barely travelled there, sits on the government’s Extremism Taskforce (ETF), was the author behind much of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s controversial “Munich speech” in February 2011, and has been outspoken on issues relating to Islam in the UK.
Gove is also signatory to the Statement of Principles of the The Henry Jackson Society, whose outspoken Associate Director Douglas Murray argued that “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”, suggesting the demolishing of mosques, alongside stopping all immigration from Muslim countries to Britain, as a way to achieve this. Murray denounced the Ground Zero mosque and has written enthusiastically in defence of the Dutch far-right politician, Geert Wilders - and described Islam as a “backward ideology”.
It is clear that some of this misguided thinking is now seeping into our government. And the British media has leapt on Gove’s bandwagon of Muslim bashing. It has barely reported on the “Trojan Horse” letter being a hoax, or that four arrests have been made in relation to the fraud, or that the suspected perpetrators were all disgruntled ex-employees.
Journalists and editors routinely betray our Muslim citizens and friends, skirting good journalism in favour of scapegoating, conflation of Islam with terrorism, and a total rejection of conservative Islam. “Muslim schools ban our culture”, “Muslims tell us how to run our schools”, “Christmas is banned: it offends Muslims”, and “BBC puts Muslims before YOU!” are just a few of the hysterical headlines from Britain’s media in recent years.
The effect of all this negative news coverage is devastating. The United Kingdom, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2013, has one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet Pew Research Centre found that one in four Britons had a “mostly unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” opinion of Muslims. In 2011, Baroness Warsi, a Conservative Minister, claimed that Muslim prejudice had now passed “the dinner party test”, a quaint way of saying that society comfortably accepts Muslims as second-class citizens.
This isn’t a dinner party problem though: Secret filming by a BBC investigative reporting unit in 2013 suggested that employers were looking more favourably on non-Muslims. British mosques have been advised on security measures including the installation of safe rooms and panic alarms: There have been hundreds of Islamophobic attacks in London alone in the last year.
Eleven mosques were attacked in the aftermath of the British soldier Lee Rigby killing in May 2013, while hijabs were ripped off in the street and women spat at.
But perhaps the worst of this media coverage is that it allows men such as education minister Gove to enter government (perhaps even become the next party leader), be praised in the media for misguided ideologies and bizarre prejudices, and subsequently win votes. Yet still the witch-hunts go on, and Britain’s three million Muslims continue to suffer.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.–Aljazeera