There is a climate of apprehension mixed with anger amongst the Muslim community of London’s east end. No sooner did Eric Pickles announce his takeover of Tower Hamlets council’s administration, than the Dfes and Ofsted announced ‘no-notice’ inspections against the outstanding state-funded C of E school, Sir John Cass, (with a majority Muslim intake) and six independent Muslim schools. John Cass has been placed under ‘special measures’; the six Islamic schools are threatened with closure.
Taken together the schools are accused of placing students at risk of “extremist influences and radicalisation”. I have commented on the academic aspects of Sir John Cass inspection elsewhere but I would make one further note.
One of the most damning allegations against the school is that the sixth form Islamic Society’s facebook page had links to ‘extremist’ preachers. The preacher so far named is Sheikh Omar Suleiman. This is very strange. Suleiman belongs to the mainstream, albeit socially conservative, US Islamic Circle of North America. Their 2013 convention, at which Suleiman was a key speaker, was attended by 18,000 Muslims from all over the US.
Omar Suleiman is indeed very conservative. He has referred to homosexuality as a 'disease' and a 'repugnant shameless sin'. On his facebook page he opines “Practicing homosexuality is a sin like adultery, drinking, etc. The sin should be condemned, and the sinner should be called to the path of the Most Merciful”, echoing the “condemn the sin, help the sinner” approach of religious homophobia.
It must be said that Suleiman’s views on homosexuality are extremely prevalent amongst fellow religious preachers in Texas, which perhaps helps explain why he has not attracted the same attention for his views in the US. Thus, evangelical fellow preacher, David Barton, former Vice Chairman of the Texas Republican Party and consultant to the Republican National Committee on outreach to evangelicals, has declared that AIDs is God’s punishment on gays for their sin.
Suleiman’s views on gays also align with other religious leaders. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, also declared homosexuality to be both a sin and a disease. The late leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, labelled homosexuality a “moral degradation”, and the former Chief Rabbi, Baron Jacobvits described homosexuality as "a grave departure from the natural norm … like any other affliction"; Jacobvits even advocated genetic engineering to remove “errant genes" that caused such "disability".
Whilst Suleiman’s views on homosexuality are indeed extremely homophobic, placing Sir John Cass for special measures, on the grounds of a student's facebook link, would seem to imply that immediate action needs to be taken against very many of our Catholic schools (10 percent of UK schools) and of our 130 or so Jewish schools.
However, here things become curioser and curioser. Apparently the facebook ‘link’ did not refer to homosexuality at all but to grief counselling. One might be forgiven for assuming, from inspection reports and press coverage, that Suleiman was a cleric who issued apologetics for terrorism. Not a bit of it. He and the ICNA have repeatedly condemned 9/11, the Fort Worth killings and ISIS, as well as ‘keyboard jihadists’ and ‘radicalised youth’ who criticise their elders. Both he and the ICNA have been attacked vociferously by hard-line Saudi clerics for arguing for a 'modern' approach based on clerics who have grown up in western society.
What then of the six independent religious schools now threatened with closure? Again the inspection reports are very strange beasts.
The inspectors seem unable to find even the odd facebook post or an example of 'radical' preaching. The worst examples seem to include that of a child who thought that mummy's place was at home cooking their dinner and an unspecified number of students who thought it would be wrong to study religions other than Islam. To be challenged for sure, but how many schools would be threatened with closure on this criteria, particularly evangelical schools promoting the Accelerated Christian Education programme for example?
There is much that could be said but I will confine myself to three further points:
First, in their previous inspections not one of these schools was found to be inadequate; all of them met the regulations. Suddenly without notice, they are now threatened with closure. This is in a borough at the centre of a storm marked by establishment Islamophobia.
Second, let's take the Jamiatul Ummah School featured in the Guardian article below. As the school itself points out in a statement on the school website: "in reaching its conclusions, OFSTED has given disproportionate emphasis to certain issues which do not reflect the real characteristics of the school and has not portrayed accurately the school or given appropriate weight to the varied educational experiences, including National Curriculum....In 2014, every student in Year 11 attained at least five A* to C grades including English and mathematics i.e. 100% GCSE passes.... more than half of the Year 10 students already achieved 4 GCSE grades A* to C."
Below I have posted the Ofsted inspection summaries for Jamiatul Ummah 2011 and 2014… How can there be a reasonable explanation for this? Either the school has metamorphosed overnight into an Al-Quada madrassa or Ofsted has for some reason changed its assessment criteria. It is difficult not to conclude that the inspection teams were told what judgements were expected by Dfes and Ofsted high command; the targetted schools were then ambushed by 'no-notce' inspections while the teams scrabbled around for ‘evidence’ to fit a pre-determined outcome.
My comments should not be read to imply any support whatsoever for independent, selective religious education. My point is to expose the hypocrisy and the racist, Islamophobic double standards now being applied by Ofsted to the only borough where Muslims constitute the largest single religious group.
The 'evidence' so far presented against the seven Tower Hamlets schools is hardly worthy of the name. It ranges from the lack of hand-basins to vague, unsubstantiated charges of failing to protect children against unidentified ‘extremist influence’. To quote Sir Michael Wilshaw precisely: 'Given the evidence gathered from these inspections, particularly in relation to the narrowness of the curriculum, I am concerned that pupils in these schools may be vulnerable to extremist influences and radicalisation.'
"May be vulnerable" (may not be vulnerable?), "extremist influences" (which influences and where?), "narrow curriculum" (compared to which other institutions? secular? religious?). And this is the Ofsted that insists that school self-assessment reports must be "evidence based".
I would make one further point. After decades of war, horror, sectarian bloodshed and rampant Islamophobia at home, it would not be surprising that a small minority of young Muslims drew the conclusion that they are on their own in a sea of hostile foes. This can lead to the most nihilist forms of politics. The way to address this is open discussion and debate. This is precisely what the latest events in Tower Hamlets are designed to crush, regardless of the consequences.
Articles on this occasional blog reflect particular areas of political interest. My intention is not to duplicate excellent material available elsewhere but to include comment on current issues of debate where this may, hopefully, be useful.