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Tahir Alam on the Today programme: A Trojan Horse update [UPDATED]

Some of the final Ofsted reports have now been released to schools which were investigated following the publication of the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter.  However they are not yet in the public domain.

It is hard to form a clear picture of what has happened here, due to the amount and complexity of the data, and the continuing uncertainty over so many factual matters.

Here’s just one of the pieces of the puzzle.  It was asserted that children were told that, in Islam, women were required to obey their husbands and could not refuse to have sex with them.  It was counter-asserted that this was all a misunderstanding, and that a special assembly was called to discuss the issue and clear up the confusion.

Whatever the precise truth of the matter, it seems that the schools’ case – the anti-Trojan horse case – has been very poorly made.  Here’s a link to a gobsmackingly bad piece from M. G. Khan (a governor at one of the schools).  I am not sure what this bit even means:

The comparative absence of counter-narrative or audible murmurings of worry, was weakening conviction, that this is not a Jungian expression of a collective unconscious which may find the cure uncomfortable, but agrees with the diagnosis of Michael Gove. But there are now voices appearing worried at the implications of what started out as a witch hunt has now turned into a modern day inquisition.

Chair of Governors at Park View School Tahir Alam, speaking on the Today programme yesterday morning, tried to present his own views and writings in a softened light.  (Listen here from about 2:10:40.)

However the 2007 document which he co-authored, a guide to supporting Muslim children in schools, does not quite match with his assertions.  For a full account of this document see Andrew Gilligan’s article here.

The guide implicitly prescribes a certain dress code for Muslim students, implying that ‘no true Muslim’ would choose to dress otherwise.

In public boys should always be covered between the navel and knee and girls should be covered except for their hands and faces, a concept known as ‘hijab’.

Other cautions relate to art, drama and music.

Whereas schools are encouraged to celebrate the interests and festivals of Muslims, they are advised to avoid events which may make Muslim children feel excluded.

There are a number of other important occasions in the Islamic calendar which schools can recognise through assembly themes. They include the Islamic New Year (Hijrah), Night of Power (Lailatul Qadr), Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the day of Ashurah.9

Social events and celebrations

When organising either celebration or social events it is important for schools to consider the appropriateness of certain events, such as school balls/discos, fashion shows that might inadvertently exclude pupils and parents from the Islamic faith background.

Although Alam’s involvement with this guidance is not itself definitive proof that any particular allegation is justified, its very conservative and prescriptive tone does seem to shift the balance of probabilities on some counts.

Almost more concerning than the document was the evasive way he handled questions about it.  His answers might make a casual reader think that the guidance simply describes views some Muslims might hold, for the benefit of teachers wishing to make reasonable accommodation. In fact, although it does acknowledge some areas on which Muslims may disagree, a pretty conservative interpretation of the religion is presented as the minimum and the default. Alam denied that it should be seen as a ‘prescription document’. It may not be a ‘prescription document’ for schools but it is, in effect, a ‘prescription document’ for Muslims.

This made it more difficult to accept his answers on other topics unquestioningly. When asked if a gender segregated sports day was planned he deflected the question by responding that they hadn’t had them yet.  He said the school had no policy of segregation – but that statement is perfectly compatible with some teacher directed segregation having taken place.

Given the huge mass of data on this issue, not to mention very many unanswered questions, it’s almost impossible to keep the whole picture in one’s mind.  Fresh findings can be spun in different ways – was the more appropriate headline ‘Council expects ‘firestorm’ over Trojan Horse schools plot’ or ‘No Trojan Horse extremism links’ Birmingham teachers hear’.

Neither headline is exactly neutral, but such slight hints at bias pale beside the excesses of those most anxious to dismiss the whole issue.  For example Yvonne Ridley is still clutching at a straw man and complaining that the Trojan Horse is a hoax. Of course nearly everyone thinks that, technically, she is correct.  What she doesn’t acknowledge is the evidence that suggests the document, while not ‘genuine’, may still record some genuine problems.

This is her latest spittle-flecked piece.  Rather than engage with the allegations, she launches into a tirade against Michael Gove.  It seems she views him with particular resentment because of concerns he raised back in 2008 about Ibrahim Hewitt.

Ibrahim Hewitt, was “revealed” to be an Islamic hardliner, which sent ripples of laughter through the Muslim community among those who know the genial convert. By the time the press had finished with Hewitt he was a stone-throwing, woman-hating, homophobic extremist.

He may be genial, but his views are just appalling.  It seems perfectly reasonable that Gove should have been worried.

Of those who can be identified as partisans on the side of the schools, and against Gove and Gilligan, Tim Fenton is perhaps the best of bunch.  Here, for example, he points out that there may be some exaggeration and selectivity in Gilligan’s account of segregation.

I assume one reason there aren’t stronger voices coming out on the side of the schools is a reluctance to offer hostages to fortune.  The only intervention I’ve seen Mehdi Hasan make was an objection to the phrase ‘Islamic plot’. I don’t believe there has been any mention of the issue on the Tell MAMA blog. Right from the start Inayat Bunglawala expressed concern that there might be something in all this.

It’s a pity this recent article in the Guardian didn’t engage properly with the allegations – instead writing what comes across as a puff piece for Park View. (And it’s worth noting that Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood has himself reported that teaching and other practices at the schools have been adjusted recently following the allegations.)

Vice Principal Lee Donaghey may be right when he says the inspectors picked out things which would fit their narrative – but it seems over the top to imply that envy or mistrust at the school’s striking improvement over the years somehow helped fuel the enquiry.  The only thing I feel absolutely sure about right now is that all this scrutiny is very tough on those children who are currently in the middle of their GCSEs.

UPDATE

It seems appropriate to add a link to a lengthy response from Park View which came out shortly after I wrote this post. (Thanks to Tokyo Nambu for alerting us to this.) Not all the responses seem satisfactory, but some seem reasonable.  Almost all invite follow up questions – which isn’t a criticism so much as a reflection of the topic’s complexity. Here are a few thoughts about one small issue, the very last point in the document.

Have Easter eggs been deliberately smashed in the playground at Park View by a school‐sanctioned so‐called morality squad?

No. This is another example of an allegation attributed to an ‘anonymous source’ and is entirely fictional. We feel that this allegation is a blatant attempt to create disharmony between communities.

There are various possibilities here, e.g.. 1) The response is truthful. 2) The response is sincere, but in fact the incident did happen even though the teachers weren’t aware. c) The response is untruthful. Even if the third scenario is correct, it is still the case that this was spun in an exaggerated way – as is apparent from purely internal evidence, independent of what actually happened. See my earlier post where I discuss this.

Further update Andrew Gilligan responds to the Park View statement, countering some of its assertions.