In 2014, a series of allegations surfaced about schools in Birmingham. The central claim was that a group of Muslim men had conspired to take over governing bodies in order to “Islamise” schools. The story quickly became a national – even international – scandal. The media descended on a small corner of Birmingham, and the ripple effect went up to the highest levels of government.
Yet three years later, there is still no evidence that there was a conspiracy. So what happened? I spent over a year working on a piece for the Guardian’s Long Read section, investigating events at Park View – the school at the centre of the scandal – and schools affiliated to it. I spoke to former teachers, students, politicians and council workers to try and build up a picture of what happened and what went wrong in the handling of it.
Three years on, the Trojan horse affair remains perhaps the best known and most polarising story about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. For many, the story has come to symbolise the failures of multiculturalism and the threat that hardline Islamic ideology poses to the future of the country. It was mentioned in the 2017 Ukip manifesto, and it is rare for a month to go by without some reference to the scandal in the rightwing press. (Several reports this year in the Telegraph and the Times have warned of a “new Trojan horse plot” in different parts of Britain.) For others, it is a confected scandal promoted by rightwing newspapers, the product of a climate in which all British Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and complex questions about faith and integration are reduced by politicians and the media to hysterical debates about terrorism.
You can read the full story over at the Guardian, and the clipping is below. (I also wrote about the Trojan Horse affair at the time, in this 2014 article for the New Humanist)
“The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write” is a fantastic anthology, published by Saqi and edited by Sabrina Mahfouz. It contains writing from a wide range of women – poetry, short stories, essays, plays – from established writers like Kamila Shamsie and Ahdaf Soueif, as well as from young spoken word poets published here for the first time. I’ve got an essay in the book, a personal piece about the first time I travelled to Pakistan as an adult with my mother. It’s in good bookshops and, obviously, on Amazon.
There’s a big schedule of events planned for the book; the launch at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in April was a joyful occasion full of laughter and brilliant women. I spoke at Asia House, and will also be appearing at the Hay Festivalon 3 June with Sabrina (the editor) and Aliyah Hasinah Holder.
This December I wrote a couple of pieces for The Pool, looking at different aspects of integration in Britain. The first dealt with Louise Casey’s government-commissioned report into integration. My piece dealt, particularly, with her disproportionate focus on Muslim communities and her emphasis on patriarchy and the oppression of women.
Casey talks a lot about not shying away from “tough questions” but much of her report covers common ground, reflecting prevalent prejudices and offering little in the way of new solutions. What good would an oath to Britishness do? Surely more effective strategies would be better funding for local services that can seek to access isolated woman with English lessons or simply information about the support that is available to them; for careers training, community groups, English teaching, and women’s refuges. This type of small-scale, local level community work has fallen out of fashion in favour of sweeping statements about extremism and a failure to integrate, but it is where our best hope lies.
My second piece for The Pool was totally different in tone. It looked back at the Grunwick Strike, a historic moment in 1976 when Indian women factory workers led a strike that was backed across the country. It was a remarkable moment of solidarity with the “strikers in saris”, which feels particularly poignant given the current political climate.
The Grunwick strike failed after 23 months. The factory refused to reinstate sacked workers or recognize their right to a union. But regardless of this ultimate defeat, it was a victory in race relations at a time when the broader political picture was bleak. The strike was significant because it was started by immigrant women bravely standing up to injustice – but even more so because it was not limited to those women or those immigrants. It became a wider movement against injustice and unfair working conditions, where people from different communities stood side by side. For 20,000 people to stand alongside a small group of disenfranchised Indian women was a moment of huge symbolism.
In January, David Cameron announced extra funding for English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes, to be targeted at Muslim women in order to counter extremism. It was quite a semantic leap to link women’s language skills with the wider problem of extremism, and was particularly odd given swingeing cuts to ESOL budgets in recent years. To get a fuller picture of the story, I went to an ESOL class in east London, mainly populated by, yes, Muslim women, and found that extremism is less of an issue than slashed budgets that make it harder for colleges to access vulnerable students. You can read the article over atVice magazine.
In this classroom in Tower Hamlets College, the majority of the 14 students are Muslim women, and all are originally from Bangladesh: the demographic Cameron claims his new initiative will be aimed at. The threat of deportation, says Rebecca Durand, another teacher at the college, has really shaken students here. “We don’t want language-learning to be linked to any sort of threat,” she says. “That’s really frightened the people I’ve talked to in my class. People are motivated because they want to learn English.”
The following week, Ofsted announced that schools could be downgraded if students wore the face veil and it was found to be affecting learning. (Are you sensing a theme here?). In another article for Vice, I spoke to teachers about their views on this potential ban of face veils in schools.
I’ve got a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist (out now) following up on the long piece I wrote about attacks on secularists in Bangladesh. The column looks at rising intolerance across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and at some of the historical reasons for this.
These tensions were enforced by colonisation and then by Partition; divisions encouraged to cement power. Occasional outbursts of horrific communal violence have punctuated the Subcontinent since it was carved up at the end of the British Empire. Indeed, India and Pakistan were born amidst bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947 that left an estimated 1 million people dead.
I also wrote something for The Pool, looking at the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK in the aftermath of the horrendous terror attacks in Paris. My piece took as its starting point the Sun’s headline that one in five British Muslims has “sympathy with jihad” and focused particularly on violence against hijab-wearing Muslim women.
The Sun’s headline, bigoted as it is, does not exist in a vacuum. It is the natural product of a political and media culture that demonises British Muslims at every opportunity, creating the spectre of a terrifying “enemy within”. This has real consequences.
I’ve also continued to report on UK politics for Deutsche Welle, including this article on Britain’s relationship with India and China, and this on David Cameron’s plans for airstrikes on Syria. I regularly interview different people for the New Humanist, where I’m assistant editor. One recent example is this Q&A with David Wootton, the author of a new book on the history of science. And I wrote this article for Index on Censorship about the situation for atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.
In the aftermath of the horrendous attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar in December, I wrote this piece for the New Statesman looking at the impact of such terror attacks. I also appeared on Channel 5 News to discuss the incident.
I wrote a piece for Deutsche Welle about the new counter-extremism guidance in schools that was introduced following the “Trojan Horse” scandal. You can read the full piece here.
The government’s new guidelines for “promoting British values” in schools are on top of the existing “Prevent violent extremism” program, which makes teaching about online safety and other elements of counter-extremism compulsory. There have been questions from head teachers, who say that the new guidelines have been rushed through without an adequate consultation period.
I’ve continued to blog regularly for the New Humanist, where I’m assistant editor, and for Middle East Monitor. I’ve also appeared on numerous Monocle 24 radio shows, including both general discussions of foreign policy, and analysis of ongoing political instability in Pakistan. On Thursday 4th September I appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Richard Bacon Show, discussing the top stories from social media that week.
Allegations of an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham, which surfaced earlier this year, caused a national outcry. The debate was intensely polarised, with the government sending in a former counterterrorism police officer to investigate, and local residents arguing that the schools simply reflected the faith of their primarily Muslim intake.
In the aftermath of the scandal, I went to Birmingham to speak with people involved about the impact this national scandal has had on the local community. i wrote a long report on the subject for the latest issue of the New Humanist, which is out now.
The sharp differences in narrative illustrate the polarised debate over Birmingham schools: one camp argues that these schools were indoctrinating children, while the other maintains they simply accommodated the cultural needs of their Muslim intake. What is the truth?
You can read the full piece over at the New Humanist website, and the clipping is below.
The Ahmadiyya are one of Pakistan’s most persecuted communities. Legally classed as non-Muslims, this sect is subject to a whole range of persecutions. As such, many have left Pakistan in search of peace abroad. But sometimes, this discrimination continues. For the April issue of the New Internationalist, I spoke to members of the Ahmadi community in the UK and the US about global persecution.
In December 2013, two men visited a homeopathic clinic in Lahore, an eastern city in Pakistan. It was run by Masood Ahmad, a 72 year old British-Pakistani dual national. He had returned to his home country in 1982, and lived quietly, keeping to himself. The two men, posing as patients, questioned him about his faith. They used their mobile phones to secretly record him reading a verse from the Qur’an.
Soon afterwards, Ahmad was arrested on blasphemy charges. He is a member of the Ahmadiyya, a minority sect of Islam considered heretics in Pakistan. Declared non-Muslims in 1974 by the Pakistani government, they can be jailed for up to three years for “impersonating Muslims”. They are prohibited from publically quoting the Qur’an.
It’s not online yet, but I’ll post a link when it is. Meanwhile, the clipping is below, and my article on the Ahmadi community in Pakistan (written in the run up to last year’s election) is here.
Is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? That was the central question posed for a panel discussion I took part in at the Royal Court on 31 October. Part of the theatre’s “Big Idea” series, the discussion was titled “I Speak for Myself: Feminism and Islam”. It’s a big topic and the discussion was wide-ranging and interesting. Also on the panel – chaired by Dr Laura Zahra McDonald – were consultant and researcher Humera Khan and writer and performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz.
After the event, I blogged for the New Statesman with some of my thoughts on the topic. You can read the full post here.
So, let me answer my own question: is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? Well, of course. As in any other large group of humans (there are 1 billion Muslims in the world, around half of whom are women), a huge range of views exist. Some of these half a billion women are not feminists; some are. There is a distinction to be drawn here between Islamic feminists who explicitly draw their feminism from their faith, and Muslim women who also happen to be feminists.