In recent weeks and months the breathtaking 'Trojan Horse' news that 'Islamic extremists' in Birmingham and a few other cities are 'taking over' British schools is all over the place. Many call this a hoax. Being a well-informed member of the British Muslim community (in fact, community of communities) and quite aware of its dynamics and weaknesses, I find this mind-boggling.
Fertile ideas and accusations are now flying around as Muslim-bashing has become a popular trend in sections of our post-7/7 and post-Woolwich media. Muslims are being seen as a suspect community and subjected to unabashed McCarthysm by some media inquisitors at every opportunity. No community should be above criticism, but continuation of this relentless witch hunt that has increased significantly after the Lee Rigby murder last year, has the potential of reversing the good progress made by Muslims in public sphere. The fallout from this 'Trojan Horse' saga could damage our education, particularly the attainment of Muslim children achieved over the last two decades.
We all want decent education for our children and the last thing we need is educational standards failing and our children suffering. A speedy outcome of the investigations that are being carried out by the Birmingham City Council, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Ofsted is thus crucial. A Public Inquiry on this should not be ruled out.
A wild idea has now been thrown out by right wing broadsheets, such as The Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, that a handbook ("Towards Greater Understanding: Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools") published by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 2007 could be behind this alleged 'Trojan Horse' plot. This is extremely inaccurate and misleading. I was at the helm of MCB in 2007 and I do not recognise this. I cannot recall anyone from the MCB that would prepare a 'Communist Manifesto' type agenda for some future 'Islamists' to take over British schools after seven years! The idea that MCB document was a Communist or Trostkyite-type plot to takeover all Birmingham/UK schools is laughable. This feeds into a wider 'counter-jihadist' (Breivik, EDL, etc) that Muslims want to "take over".
To describe the handbook as 'a document on manipulating teachers and curriculum' or 'a detailed blueprint for the radical "Islamisation" of secular state schools', as Sunday Telegraph says, is an insult to the many thousands of professionals and lay people who have been involved over the last ten years in the massive improvements in the educational achievement of young Muslim people.
There is a level of hysteria building which is not justified, we need to take the temperature down and politicians must not play with these issues or else face a potential backlash, possibly in community cohesion.
The handbook was a very public document and summation of practices which had already been developed in schools and local authorities throughout Britain in the preceding two decades. It was compiled in close consultation with headteachers and other educationists (Muslims and others) from the mainstream education sector. It was launched by Professor Tim Brighouse, the then Schools Commissioner for London, and, although there was usual disparagement from right wing tabloids such as the Daily Express, it was welcomed as useful and helpful by many teachers and some LEAs. BBC's Education Correspondent, Mike Baker, gave a balanced critic of the handbook and the National Association of Head Teachers posted a statement after its publication welcoming the document as "helpful and useful", although its leader expressed some concerns.
Based on parental rights given by preceding Education Acts, and by no means prescriptive, the handbook highlighted the needs of many Muslim children in the state sector so that teachers are aware of conservative Muslim traditions and can adopt them, if they so wish, in accordance with the school's governance protocol.
As many Muslim parents were new to the British education system and there were prevailing gaps in understanding between parents and teaching establishments, it was meant to help all to understand the needs of Muslim children from traditional Islamic perspectives. Disagreement on some of the elements or the tone of the Guide was natural.
Having been encouraged by successive governments, the Muslim community has come a long way in making significant progress in children's statutory education. A significant part was also played by various Government-funded programmes on the achievement of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Somali and Turkish pupils - mostly Muslims. The bulk of the community started their journey in Britain at a relatively lower level-playing-field, but many talented Muslim professionals have now adopted teaching as their career and are becoming better involved with the education system.
Government statistics show that nationally pupils of Muslim heritage are achieving results which are the same as, or higher than, the average for all pupils. This remarkable progress is due in large part to the expertise and leadership of the nation's headteachers and their staffs, working in partnership and consultation with parents, governors, local authorities and communities.
There are of course challenges that need to be addressed, but political point scoring or sensational media descriptions should be kept out of our children's education.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari was the former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.