Panorama: titillating the New Atheist set
The revelation that some British Muslim kids are reading Saudi textbooks was like manna from heaven for the anti-faith schools lobby.
From New York to New Delhi, Jerusalem to Stockholm, the news has spread around the world: British Muslim schoolchildren are being indoctrinated by the Saudi government through extremist religious textbooks.
According to this week’s BBC Panorama programme, British Schools, Muslim Rules, some 5,000 children attending 40 Muslim weekend clubs and schools around the UK are reading Saudi national curriculum textbooks. These teach six-year-olds that the only acceptable religion is Islam; ask 12-year-olds to list the reprehensible qualities of Jews (they resemble pigs and monkeys, apparently); and instruct 15-year-olds in how to cut off the hands of criminals.
It is headline-grabbing stuff. The material printed by the Saudi Ministry of Education and shared with many children in Britain is certainly reprehensible. It is fine, of course, to inform children about all aspects of their religious faith; one should not hide the fact that the Koran contains certain references to gays and non-Muslims, for instance, even if they jar with contemporary sensibilities. But that is quite different from giving children an instruction manual for limb excision or teaching them that it is a fact that infidels ‘will face hellfire’.
However, the Panorama programme should be treated with caution. Essentially, it flags up an extreme and rare example as a way of demanding the further control, regulation and scrutiny of religious associations in general. The Saudi-style weekend schools are effectively being deployed in today’s fashionable crusade against all things godly, helping to fuel the already existing prejudice that dodgy things must be happening within those weird, mysterious faith communities. For today’s religion-bashers, a programme that sends undercover reporters into Muslim communities, browsing strange religious websites and knocking on the doors of Islamic organisations is like a titillating, political peepshow – the climax being the uncovering of those Saudi textbooks in west London.
The documentary contained many close-up images of hijab-clad girls set to sinister music, as well as slow-motion shots of so-called radical preachers and Muslim men praying in mosques. The message was that Muslim communities are isolating themselves from mainstream society. It gave the impression that Muslim parents who send their children to faith schools are exercising ‘voluntary apartheid’, as one Oldham primary school teacher of South African origin put it.
Yet, as the programme acknowledged, 95 per cent of Muslim children in Britain attend non-faith state schools. And the majority of the Muslim schools that do exist make an effort to teach pupils about other religions and emphasise inter-faith dialogue, citizenship education and all manner of PC-ness that non-faith schools also engage in. A string of Muslim teachers and scholars interviewed by Panorama denounced the Saudi education material.
Yet the BBC couldn’t resist focusing on the strange material found via hyperlinks that were listed on some Muslim schools’ websites. One linked-to website apparently says birthday parties are sinful. Another, recommended by some seminaries training future imams, suggests swimming pools should be avoided in order to preserve modesty. One London school once invited the notorious anti-Semite Riyadh ul Haq to address its pupils. We were also told that a girls’ school in Leicester compels its pupils to wear the full hijab from the age of 11. This school is connected to the local mosque, as is a local fatwa service that advises women not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary and says Muslims should not listen to Western music.
Panorama complained that some Muslim schools and societies are teaching elements of the Muslim faith without grounding them in a wider historical or cultural context. Yet its programme-makers employed precisely the same method in order to convey a broader message about Muslims in Britain. In fact, the documentary appeared positively conspiratorial at times, spinning a web of weird people and practices to suggest that there are sinister forces at play. This is classic conspiracy-theory stuff – presenting a list of true but disconnected facts to suggest that there is a link between various institutions and individuals. While all the occurrences mentioned were apparently true (and all ought to be critically scrutinised), they don’t add up to evidence of mass radicalisation of Muslim children in Britain.
Yet on the basis of these disconnected facts, Panorama effectively made the case for government regulation of all state and private religious associations. It suggested the government should take more responsibility for regulating activities within Muslim communities in the interest of clamping down on extremist views and segregation, which, it warned, could lead to street riots, like those that took place in Oldham in the summer of 2001.
We should be wary of this slippery-slope argument being used to justify the right of the authorities to bring private associations and entire communities under the watchful gaze of the state. While most of us will agree that the world could do without the kind of ignorant bile spouted by some Muslim preachers and taught through Saudi textbooks, there are plenty of other views and practices that officialdom might deem radical, unacceptable or anti-social that are nonetheless every citizens’ right to hold. We should not allow extreme cases to be used to limit the rights of individuals who share certain beliefs, interests or hobbies to get together informally, without the state’s official seal of approval.
In the programme, Michael Gove, the Lib-Con education secretary, said he has asked education regulators to look into closing the ‘inspection loophole’ to ensure that part-time education provision, such as weekend clubs, is better regulated. But Panorama was not even satisfied with this. It suggested that faith schools in general are being allowed too much freedom to set their own agendas. The Bridge Schools Inspectorate, the so-called ‘faith schools watchdog’, came under fire for being untrustworthy. It inspects some 70 Christian and Muslim schools in England that have been allowed to opt out of reviews by Ofsted, the government school inspection body.
Amongst the liberal elite and sections of officialdom, there is a deep suspicion of faith schools today, precisely because they are seen as being too unregulated, too far away from the control and scrutiny of the authorities. They look on faith schools as strange places where the other, brainwashed half of the population learns. As Catherine Bennett put it in the Observer: ‘[W]e have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms….’ And this is why the kind of titillating exposé offered by Panorama, which purports to lift the veil on these mysterious communities, is so secretly satisfying to middle-class religion-bashers.
What the Panorama investigation really exposed was today’s deep-seated elite suspicion of all religious people – not just bearded weirdoes like ul Haq, but of regular, non-threatening ones, too. It also showed that those who obsess about faith schools have a distinct lack of faith in the mainstream education system. They believe that Muslims want to – and probably can – rule British schools. They fear that more and more people will turn to faith schools and, by implication, children will be won over by the kinds of lessons offered by the Saudis. It is as if they believe there’s not enough appeal in mainstream education to keep Muslim kids away from becoming anti-Semitic, limb-cutting suicide bombers.
The obsession with faith schools is helping to justify wider official intervention into communities and private associations. It is also helping to justify more of the kind of regulation, inspection and bureaucratic scrutiny that is hindering teachers and pupils from getting on with the business of teaching and learning. And that is more likely to do harm to our education system than the Saudi government is.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
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