I think, readers, that you may be familiar with the concept of a forged document being used to promote a conspiracy theory about a demonised minority, the better to incite moral panic against them.
The facts of the forgery
in this case, are these. The Times
recently published excerpts from a letter purportedly written by 'Islamic extremists' describing a plot - 'Operation Trojan Horse'
- to 'take over' a number of Birmingham schools and run them on "strict Islamic principles". Media reports, initially credulous, eventually began to acknowledge that the credibility of the document was weak. However, the same reports have claimed that the forgery addressed 'real concerns'.
As to those 'real concerns', a number of former teachers, governors
, and head teachers
in some schools have alleged bullying and marginalisation, and the imposition of a narrowly conservative religious agenda in Birmingham schools. The education chief of Birmingham city council suggested that there have been 'hundreds' of allegations of takeover plots
, some going back twenty years, and also suggested that there might be some substance behind the letter. I'll come back to this.
These allegations fall under the remit of Michael Gove, the education secretary. Gove is a neoconservative, a member of the Henry Jackson Society and the author of Celsius 7/7 -
a testerical screed which alleges that 'Islamic extremism' is a threat to 'Western civilisation' on a par with the Third Reich. His text supports the 'Londonistan' narrative of Melanie Phillips insofar as it alleges that the UK has become a soft touch for 'extremists' to embed themselves, indoctrinate potential recruits and prepare 'terrorist' actions.
It was logical, therefore, that Gove should interpret these allegations in terms of 'terrorism' and appoint a former 'counterterrorism' apparatchik
, Peter Clarke from the Metropolitan Police, to head the council's investigation into the claims. It was also logical that Ofsted should be sent into these schools using the same frame of reference, the same 'war on terror' ideology. This is a big moment for Gove. His core ideology and political virtuosity are being tested here. He has acted audaciously, even to the extent of incurring criticism from the leadership of West Midlands Police, which has launched its own investigation.
Clarke has not yet returned with his report. Ofsted, however, has. Its findings
can be condensed into a number of categories: mishandling of budgets, with money spent on meals in restaurants; bullying; the 'inadequate' teaching of 'citizenship' and the dangers of 'extremism'; undue influence on some schools by some governors, insufficient governance in other schools; gender segregation in religious and personal development classes in one school; some head teachers claim they have been forced out of their jobs. For now, I would just note that none of this appears to add up confirmation of a plot or anything of the kind.
A result of all this is that a number of schools that less than a year ago were ranked outstanding successes are now deemed to be failing. A number of teachers have been arrested
on at best tangentially related fraud charges. Several schools have had 'special measures' applied to them. Already, elements in the media and political classes are cheerfully claiming vindication of the conspiracy theory and extending its lesson more broadly. Jim Fitzpatrick MP has now claimed that Tower Hamlets has been the target of a 'Trojan Horse'-like operation. Fitzpatrick is the key pugilist behind the local Labour establishment's attempts to oust the popular, moderately progressive mayor Lutfur Rahman
Behind the bombast and paranoia are two key issues.
Let's start with something that the news reports never begin with: the problems faced by Muslim schoolchildren. Indisputably, state schools have been failing Muslim children
. This is a problem created by institutional racism, a national curriculum that doesn't speak to Muslim children of whatever background, low expectations and a lack of support for parents. It's also related to wider social factors such as the higher risk of child poverty linked to the lower average earnings, lower occupational status, and lower educational status of Muslim parents. The increasingly punitive state, the tendency toward mass incarceration, and the specific penal focus on Muslims in the last decade has also registered an important effect in terms of the higher number of Muslim children who have a relative in prison.
Of course, it is not only Muslim children who have been failed by state schools. The problems mentioned above are often an acute form of problems already faced by other poor, working class pupils. It is within the spaces of discontent with the school system that the government has been able to build a degree of support for a top-down neoliberal restructuring of the schools system, sold as 'choice' and 'freedom'. The Academies Act (2010) allowed for all schools to become academies, giving them substantial autonomy from the Local Education Authority, the right to diverge from the national curriculum, to determine admissions, adjust the length of the school day, and set wages independently of national bargaining. This is concurrent with the creation of 'free schools', similar to American 'charter schools', wherein charities, voluntary groups, businesses, groups of parents and teachers, can set up schools with central state funding but which are otherwise autonomous.
Academies and 'free schools' can seem to offer a way out of the failings of state schools. By 'freeing professionals' - above all, head teachers - to 'be creative' and offering parents a choice between schools of different flavours, it is hoped that the ensuing competition between schools will 'drive up standards'. Parents can select schools, or help found schools, that offer an education more attuned to their specific values, more resonant with their specific class and ethnic experiences. What is more, the selection and exclusion procedures allow for a degree of social engineering in the schools, which is especially a gift to middle class parents who don't want their kids mixing with common sorts. Gove and Ofsted's imperious interventions now give the lie to the promise of 'freedom'. The schools have been taken out of local democratic oversight, but they are still subject to authoritarian - and frankly capricious - control from the top. That's the neoliberal state for you. Nonetheless, the offer of 'freedom' was obviously attractive for several civil society layers, and the fact that segments of Muslim civil society in Birmingham chose to make the best of this offer is an important part of the story.
The second, related issue is the position of Muslims in Birmingham. They have been made to feel like a suspect community
, largely because they are
suspect in the eyes of the state. Consider the treatment of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza
, the use of police spy cameras under the rubric of Project Champion, the use of control orders against people like Cerie Bullivant
who turn out to be entirely innocent. Or take the recent case of Birmingham Metropolitan College which, citing 'security concerns', fought to ban the niqab
in its grounds. These are all local manifestations of the national state crackdown on Muslims, linked to a generalised moral panic about Muslims and Islam propagated through media, think-tanks, academia and government departments. These are race-making practices.
For those subject to Islamophobia, it has therefore become a strategic imperative not just to embrace Islam - howsoever that is construed - and to fight for its validity in British culture, but also at the very minimum to ensure that Muslim children are validated in their identity whenever they are educated. That can mean a wide range of things. There is no doubt that, for some Muslim parents and teachers, it does include gender segregation. That is insupportable. But it is neither peculiar to Muslim parents, nor somehow a generic Muslim demand - much less proof of a 'plot'. For others, it may be more important to enable their kids to learn a language such as Arabic, or acquire some historical knowledge of Islam. Or it may be a bigger priority to limit the damaging effects of the Department of Education's 'counter-extremism' mandate. For the state's demand for education on 'the dangers of extremism' is exclusively aimed at Muslim schoolchildren, who are seen to be 'at risk'. The language, and I will say more about this in a moment, communicates that there is something genetic in Muslim culture and identity that leads to 'extremism'. It says that Muslims must surveil themselves for such tendencies, internalising the state's suspicion of Islam and its watchful eye - truly rooting out "the evil within
". If I were a Muslim parent, I would lobby any school governor, any teacher, any head teacher, to rein this stuff in: compulsory self-hatred is never a good basis for learning.
The point is this. If the schools are a key apparatus through which society in its normal state is reproduced, there is always going to be a series of overlapping struggles within them over what exactly is being reproduced. It is not necessary to explain these struggles with reference to a racial conspiracy just because it happens that Muslims are involved.
The plot claims, stimulated by a forgery, have not been borne out. But as I have said elsewhere, some things have to be believed in order to be seen.
Take the local MP, Khalid Mahmood. He is, like Gove, a member of the Henry Jackson Society. He has been the most forthright advocate of Gove's narrative. He has long advocated intrusive, authoritarian measures overwhelmingly rejected by locals, such as spy cameras in Muslim areas
to help catch 'terrorists'. In this case, he has referred on national television to a "culture of grooming" in Birmingham schools. Mahmood will be aware of the toxic connotations of that phrase, in a context of a series of panics about Asian 'grooming gangs'. His substantive claim, though, is that the schools are being turned into training grounds of 'extremism' leading to 'terrorism'. In short, he claims vindication for the conspiracy theory. When challenged by Salma Yaqoob over the actual findings of Ofsted's report, Mahmood replied that she was missing 'the big picture'.
In a sense, Mahmood has a point. Facts never 'speak for themselves'. It is the implied theoretical relation between them which 'makes them speak'. Two Muslim women walk into a college classroom, each wearing a niqab. In and of itself this does not make a 'security threat'. It is 'the big picture', the way in which those facts are seen as being connected to a wider set of facts, that counts. In this case, it is the conspiracy-theoretical relation insinuated between a set of apparently quite distinct and contingently related facts which should be studied more closely.
For, although Yaqoob was right to point to the paucity in Ofsted's findings, the really scandalous thing is the way in which the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Willshaw, linked his findings into the conspiracy theory through the framework of counterinsurgency ideology. This was the most pointedly politicised, headline-grabbing aspect of his report. (This is to say nothing of the manner of the Ofsted inspections, or the veracity or otherwise of the report's substantive claims, which are presently being contested.) He spoke, like Gove, in terms of 'radicalisation' and 'extremism', situating problems as diverse as budget management, obtrusive governance, too-much-Islamness, alleged bullying, and so on on the terrain of 'counterterrorism'. He did not need to go further and verify the existence of a 'plot', since that is Clarke's remit.
The basic motif here is that of the conveyor belt. One begins with Muslims who are showing signs of being more identified with their religion, more critical or 'rejectionist' of 'Western values'. They are exposed to a 'radicalising' influence, such as a sermon or a video propaganda message; they are radicalised. They progress along the conveyor belt, through a succession of such influences, to 'extremism'. And, as we all know, an 'extremist' is but a 'terrorist' in chrysalis, and it all ends in 7/7.
The counterinsurgency framework of the 'war on terror' required that the political violence of certain groups be i) decoupled from its geopolitical context (imperialism, war), ii) thus decoupled, explained instead in a reductionist way from Islam, and iii) linked to a wider conspiracy 'against civilisation' or 'against the West'. (For those who want the long version of this story, I have written extensively about this in a textbook chapter which you can read here
.) That is why the language cited above is so very useful. The language of 'extremism' is invaluable to governments precisely because, like 'terrorism', it doesn't actually mean very much. No one can agree on a definition, so it can be deployed with great versatility. It also usefully implies the existence of a 'norm', viz. 'British values' or 'Western values' which can only ever be defined negatively and in response to a manifestation of 'extremism'.
As for 'radicalisation', it has never been demonstrated that such a thing actually exists. It works as an animating mythology, justifying a series of repressive measures designed to hunt out and extirpate 'radicalising' influences. But the idea that the conveyor belt course described above is what actually happens does not appear to be borne out in practice. (Again, for the long version of the critique, listen to Mark Sedgwick here
, or read the chapter on 'The Myth of Radicalisation' in Arun Kundnani's book, The Muslims Are Coming
However, it is this view which mandates the current political focus on 'Britishness' and the teaching of 'British values'. Gove has already insisted that this will be a major political fruit of the plot investigations, although a result of his tiresome interventions had already been the exclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum
on the grounds that its author was not British.
What might 'British values' turn out to be? It will undoubtedly occur to someone to say that they are about tolerance, open-mindedness, pluralism, freedom of choice, because that is the sort of thing we're supposed to believe in. But it's like those 'welcome' signs at Heathrow. They're nice until you get to passport control and customs, whereupon the dismally authoritarian, exclusionary face of the state becomes apparent. Jack Straw has suggested that Muslims have to be made to accept the 'Christian values'
underpinning Britishness. This, of course, defines 'British values' in such a way as to problematise British Muslims in advance. It is to insinuate that the 'British Muslim' is some sort of weird paradox, and that the quality of Britishness is only present to the extent that the Islam is 'moderated'. It is not a huge step from this position to that of right-wing Tories such as Philip Hollobone MP, who has been attempting to pass legislation banning the wearing of Muslim headdress on the grounds that this is 'not an Islamic country'. (It is not, as far as I know, a dictatorship yet either - but I digress.) The response of the political establishment to this entirely bogus plot panic, therefore, is to double down on the systematic othering and encircling of British Muslims.
This entire controversy, following from the 'Halal Pizza' gyrations, is a moral panic in the classic sense. We have a group of people identified by a specific cultural practice, who are preemptively defined against the interests and values of the wider national community. It's agreed that they must be isolated, studied, circumscribed, controlled, neutralised, ghettoised. And having ghettoised them culturally and politically with all of these techniques mentioned above - the media scare stories, the political invective, the police repression, the growing Muslim prison population - insult is then added to injury with the repine: "why won't they integrate?"
Welcome to 'British values'.