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When Did Michael Gove Become The Government's Expert On Muslims Or Extremism?

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MICHAEL GOVE
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

"Michael Gove believes there has been a plot by extremist Muslims to take over schools in Birmingham and is preparing to drive them out," reports the Times on its front page. "The education secretary is convinced that a small group of extremists has infiltrated schools in the city with tactics similar to those used by the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party in the 1980s, a senior source has said."

Here's the kicker: "Mr Gove blames their influence on a reluctance within Whitehall, especially in the Home Office, to confront extremism unless it develops into terrorism and believes that a robust response is needed to 'drain the swamp'."

Since when, however, did Michael Gove become an expert on counter-extremism strategies? Robust or otherwise?

What are the education secretary's qualifications? He studied English at Oxford in the late 1980s and became a journalist upon graduating, serving as a leader writer and columnist for the Times prior to being elected as the Conservative MP for Surrey Heath in 2005.

His defenders, of course, point to Gove's authorship of the book, Celsius 7/7, published in 2006, which singles out political Islam, or Islamism, as a "totalitarian" ideology underpinned by "hellish violence and oppression" and compares it to the threat posed to the West by Nazism and communism.

In a scathing review of Celsius 7/7, however, the acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple, author of several award-winning books on Islam and Muslims, accused Gove of penning a "confused epic of simplistic incomprehension riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any book I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject".

Gove, Dalrymple noted, "has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture" and has "never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country".

Yet the education secretary continues to exert huge influence on the coalition's approach to Islam and Muslims, in general, and counter-extremism, in particular. He sat on the government's Extremism Tasforce (ETF), which was set up in the wake of Drummer Lee Rigby's murder in May 2013, and is believed to have helped write much of David Cameron's controversial Munich speech in February 2011. The latter saw the PM call on British Muslims to sign up to "liberal values" and emphasise how non-violent extremists tend to take their "radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence".

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This is the so-called conveyor belt theory of radicalisation, which a source close to Gove again pushes in the Times today: "Within government there has been pushback.. Charles Farr [head of the office for security and counter-terrorism in the Home Office] always believed if extremists become violent we should deal with it. It has been characterised by others in government as just beating back the crocodiles that come close to the boat rather than draining the swamp."

Yet leading terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer who has advised the New York Police Department and testified in front of the 9/11 Commission, have dismissed this view as "nonsense" and pointed to the lack of empirical evidence for Gove's cherished 'conveyor belt' process. "It is the same nonsense that led governments a hundred years ago to claim that left-wing political protests led to violent anarchy," he told me in May 2013.

marc sageman

Former CIA officer and terrorism expert Marc Sageman disagrees with Gove on extremism

In his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad, based on an analysis of more than 500 terrorist biographies, Sageman argued that radicalisation doesn't depend on a linear progression, from non-violent extremism to violent extremism, and that "one cannot simply draw a line, put markers on it, and gauge where people are along this path to see whether they are close to committing atrocities".

Senior government officials seem to agree. In July 2010, a leaked memo prepared by civil servants for coalition ministers on the cabinet's home affairs subcommittee concluded that it was wrong "to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear 'conveyor belt' moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence … This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors".

What of Gove's own 'ideological factors' then? Is his current crackdown on alleged 'extremism' in schools driven more by his hardline, neoconservative ideology, rather than a genuine threat on the ground? It isn't just liberals or Muslims making this rather explosive charge against the education secretary - Tory MP and former prisons minister Crispin Blunt told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday morning how Gove has "played a role.. of holding the security establishment to account from a neocon perspective", despite the fact that "the establishment has a pretty good grip on extremism and the whole counter-terrorist strategy".

Conservative commentator Peter Oborne, writing in the Spectator in 2011, damned Gove and other 'neocons' in the cabinet as members of a hardline faction inside government that is "an unconditional supporter of the United States of America, continues to defend the Iraq invasion, powerfully admires and in some cases worships Tony Blair, and automatically takes the side of Israel in the Middle East".

Oborne urged the prime minister to "reconsider his definition of extremist" and ask whether "some of the most blinkered and dangerous extremists are not to be found within the ranks of his own government".

In addition, Tory sources have suggested Gove not only tried to prevent the setting up a cross-government working group to tackle anti-Muslim hatred but has also campaigned to broaden the government's definition of Islamist extremism to include those who wear, or believe it is compulsory to wear, the 'hijab', or headscarf.

The home secretary's much-discussed letter to Gove, published on a government website on Wednesday morning, alluded to this point.

"We do.. need to recognise that many moderate Muslims, as well as people of other religions, believe that covering one’s hair is a religious requirement and some parents will therefore want their children to do so," wrote Theresa May. "The text on dress requirements should therefore not be part of the extremism definition.."

The current row over Muslim extremism centres on an alleged 'plot' in Birmingham by local Islamists to take over schools in the area. The so-called Operation Trojan Horse letter, which was published in the Sunday Times in March, claimed to outline a secret method by which schools with large Muslim student populations could be pushed into adopting a more reactionary Islamic curriculum. The letter, however, "is now widely assumed to be a forgery, and appears to have been written to alarm people," according to Newsnight's Chris Cook.

"Which Muslim group or Islamic text do you know of that refers to the battle of Troy or Trojan plots?" asks a high-profile British Muslim who has advised the government on its counter-extremism policy.

In fact, references to Trojan horses are a staple of anti-Islamism polemics. The eighth chapter of Gove's 2006 book, which focuses on a supposed failure to "scrutinize, monitor or check" the activities of British Islamists is entitled.. wait for it.. 'The Trojan Horse'.

gove

Conspiracy theorists rejoice: chapter 8 of Gove's own book is called 'The Trojan Horse'

In his 1,500-page online manifesto , '2083: A European Declaration of Independence', the convicted mass murderer and rabid Islamophobe Anders Breivik cites approvingly an author who has claimed that Islamists in Europe use democracy "as a Trojan horse".

Whether or not there has been an attempt, Trojan or otherwise, by British Islamists to infiltrate or 'take over' schools in Birmingham remains to be seen. So far, the evidence in favour is pretty thin while the alleged ringleader of the 'plot', Tahir Alam, the chairman of Park View School in Birmingham, has strongly denied the claims. "The whole thing has been blown out of all proportion. It's based on an anonymous document, unsigned, undated," he told the Today programme in May.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is set to produce its own verdict on the situation in Birmingham, and 'Operation Trojan Horse', in "weeks, not months", says a Department of Education source.

But will it be fair and balanced? In a letter published in the Guardian on Wednesday, a group of leading educationalists led by Sir Tim Brighouse, a former chief education officer in Birmingham, accuse Ofsted inspectors of being "poorly prepared" and pushing "an agenda that calls into question Ofsted's claim to be objective and professional in its appraisal of standards in schools serving predominantly Muslim pupils".

Ofted's report will be followed by another report on the 'plot', this time from Peter Clark, ex-deputy assistant commissioner of the Met and former national head of counter terrorism. Clark's appointment by the terrorism-obsessed Gove was criticised by, among others, the chief constable of West Midlands Police, Chris Sims, as a "desperately unfortunate" move which would invite people to "inevitably draw unwarranted conclusions from [Clarke's] former role as National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism".

Thus, the activities, habits and practises of British Muslims - from dress codes to dietary requirements, from Sunday schools to seating arrangements at university - continue to be viewed almost exclusively through the lens of security and counter-extremism. This Gove-backed approach, Blunt reminded listeners of the Today programme, is both "impractical and counter-productive" because it encourages a dangerous, black-and-white view of the world and further alienates those young British Muslims who feel disillusioned or demonised.

"You would find that people who are in the shades of grey are then driven into being black because they are invited to choose between black and white."