For years, we all turned a blind eye to the segregation of Muslim pupils. Now it is time to stand up to propagators of barbarism and ignorance
Allison Pearson By Allison Pearson
11 Jun 2014
If I have learnt one thing working with children as a teacher, a volunteer and, more recently, a parent, it’s that what children want above all else is to fit in. The desire not to be different must be hard-wired, so urgent is the need of your average nine-year-old to have the same pencil case as every other nine-year-old. Individuality, much prized in adult life, is abhorred by our conservative juniors, who crave acceptance as the thirsty crave water. “Fitting in” is braided into the DNA of every child, regardless of creed or colour. When the deep, resonant bell of human evolution tolls, it says: “Belong, belong, belong.”
Integrating children into a new society, then, should not present too much of a problem. A football, some Panini World Cup stickers to trade, One Direction, Harry Potter, 97 episodes of Friends, especially the one where Rachel has a baby: common interests for youngsters are not hard to find. So how have we ended up with a situation where so many Muslims are adrift from the mainstream? Why this scandal in Birmingham where five overwhelmingly Muslim schools, some until recently judged to be outstanding, are to be put into special measures because they have sought to inculcate ideas that are repellent to this country?
Let me quote Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a writer and Muslim convert, who told Channel 4 News on Tuesday that she rejected calls by the Prime Minister and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for schools to promote British values. “In many ways, the problem is creating a hierarchy of cultures when you say you need to promote British values,” she objected. “What does that say to children in a classroom whose heritage harks from outside the British Isles? It says this country has superior moral values and you are coming from some backward culture whose values you … must not consider equal to our own.”
Funnily enough, that’s exactly what we are saying, Myriam. Spot on! A Muslim girl who winds up in Bolton or Luton should thank her lucky stars she doesn’t live in Sudan – or Pakistan, where, only last month, a woman was stoned to death by her family for the crime of marrying a man of whom they disapproved. Farzana Parveen’s father explained: “I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it.”
Are British values superior to Mr Parveen’s? I do hope so.
Unfortunately, the great lie underpinning the creed of multiculturalism, as spouted by Francois‑Cerrah and her ilk, is that all cultures are “equally valid”. Well, patently, they’re not. The reason irate Pakistani patriarchs are not chucking bricks at their errant daughters in the Birmingham Bull Ring is because Britain has a basically uncorrupt police force, a robust judiciary and an enlightened, hard-won system of liberal values that regards women and girls as equals, not third-class citizens.
But instead of standing up to barbarism and ignorance, too often we have looked away in embarrassment or fear. How many teachers have averted their gaze when 13-year-old Muslim girls suddenly disappear from the classroom to be taken “home” for a forced marriage, because this would present unwelcome evidence that some cultures are less valid than others?
How many health professionals in Bradford are concerned, but never say so, that intermarriage in the Muslim community – 75 per cent of Pakistanis in the city are married to their first cousin – is causing babies to be born blind, deaf and with other disabilities? Back in 2008, when Labour environment minister Phil Woolas said that British Pakistanis were fuelling the rate of birth defects, he was slapped down by Downing Street, with a spokesman for prime minister Gordon Brown saying the issue was not one for ministers to comment on. Government after government has filed this thorny issue in “The Too Difficult Box”, the title of a timely new book edited by former Cabinet minister Charles Clarke.
This was all so predictable. Back in the summer of 1981, I was working in a primary school in west London where the children were dizzy with excitement about Prince Charles and Lady Di. The royal wedding was a great unifying event, but there was one group of pupils who were not allowed to fit in. The little Muslim girls did not wear cool, gingham-checked dresses in the heat like the others. Instead, they were dressed in the winter uniform – a polo neck and tunic worn over strictly non-uniform trousers and thick tights. As far as I could tell, no teacher dared challenge this clear breach of school rules. In a similar spirit, it was accepted that the Muslim girls could not attend the weekly swimming lesson.
When a trip was planned to Hampton Court, the children were told they would be seeing Henry VIII’s bed. Somehow, the word “bed”, coupled with the humongously horny Henry, set off alarm bells among Muslim parents, who withdrew their sons and daughters from the outing. This irrational boycott was tolerated. I remember thinking how awful and sad it was that liberal, white teachers didn’t stick up for the Muslim children’s right to play a full part in the life of their country.
It made me angry when I was practically a child myself, and it makes me even angrier now, 30 years on, thinking of the lost decades when good people did nothing to prevent the toxic situation outlined this week by the chief inspector of schools. Music and dancing banned in a primary school because they are un-Islamic. Muslim pupils not allowed to study Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing because it shows young people falling in love and marrying. A preacher who believes homosexuals should be stoned to death invited to address an assembly – in a British school in a British town, forsooth. Children as young as six told that Western women are “white prostitutes”, if you please.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief, said that hardline Islamists wanted to impose a “narrow, faith-based ideology” on schools in Birmingham, though clearly the problem is not confined to one city. Now Bradford, Luton and east London are being investigated.
And still our politicians will not face up to what multiculturalism has unleashed: one of the biggest peacetime challenges ever faced by Britain. Nick Clegg, at his most ineffectually Fotherington-Thomas, says he is “sure that all parents will support a wide curriculum”. As if. The promised “dawn-raid” school inspections, which will not give schools time to stage Christian lessons to fool Ofsted inspectors, are too little, too late.
Growing suggestions that all faith schools should be banned because some Muslims cannot be trusted to prepare their children for life in contemporary society are simply outrageous. Why should Catholic, Jewish and Church of England schools, which provide a terrific, disciplined learning environment for millions of children, be forced to cease their good work and shut down? Why must the tolerant be made to carry the can for the intolerable?
The crisis in Birmingham made me look up Ray Honeyford. The headmaster of a school in Bradford, Honeyford published an article highly critical of multiculturalism around the same time that I was wondering why Muslim girls in west London weren’t allowed to learn how to swim. Honeyford was damned as a racist and forced to take early retirement, but how prophetic his words seem now. The alarmed headmaster referred to a “growing number of Asians whose aim is to preserve as intact as possible the values of the Indian subcontinent within a framework of British social and political privilege”. Honeyford questioned the wisdom of the local education authority in allowing such practices as the withdrawal of children from school for months at a time, in order to go “home” to Pakistan, on the grounds that this was appropriate to the children’s native culture.
“Those of us working in Asian areas,” he wrote, “are encouraged, officially, to 'celebrate linguistic diversity’ – ie, applaud the rapidly mounting linguistic confusion in these growing number of city schools in which British-born Asian children begin their mastery of English by being taught in Urdu.”
Ray Honeyford died in 2012, so he didn’t live to see the Leeds secondary school where every single pupil, including a handful of white ones, is being taught English as a foreign language. He didn’t need to see it. He knew it would happen, and what the cost would be, and his warnings were shouted down or put away in the Too Difficult Box.
I think the battle we must fight now really has very little to do with sincere religious belief. It’s about social control, repression, misogyny and cruelty. The battle is about Kamaljit, a 14-year-old girl I once taught, who chided me when I read the class a story about snakes in India, like the good, clueless multiculturalist that I was. “Please, Miss, we don’t like that stuff,” she said. “We’re English. We like ice skating.”
We have to expose Muslim children to as wide a range of experiences as possible so they will feel the gravitational pull of British values. If a Devon primary school recently criticised by Ofsted for not being multicultural enough (yes, really) can arrange a horizon-broadening trip to the inner city, then surely it’s time that Birmingham and Bradford came to Hereford and Hampshire. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein who observed in South Pacific: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear / You’ve got to be taught from year to year / It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight / To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
But there is another song, and a better one, and children will learn it if they are only given the chance: Belong, belong, belong.