Tuesday, 29 July 2014

When is a bigot not a bigot?

                                       Alexandre Bigot: ceci n'est pas un Bigot.

I'd intended writing on something else other than Islam, Trojan Horse schools etc etc, but Sara Khan's article in the Telegraph has pulled me back in.

Addressing bigoted views of anyone informed by their belief system or ideological outlook is never beyond the scope of debate. Bigotry which is promoted by anyone in our schools must always be challenged. If the bigotry is promoted by Muslims, it is not Islamophobic to root it out. As the priest and journalist Giles Fraser once wrote “bigotry is bigotry whether it’s dressed up in the language of faith or not.”

I thought I recognized the quote from Fraser and a bit of googling traced it to a report on the issue of bed and breakfast establishments offering beds to homosexual couples:

But Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a leading Church of England liberal, said the legislation was right and fair because discrimination against homosexuals was always wrong.
"It is nonsense for the Government to allow any loopholes for religious homophobia," he added. "Bigotry is bigotry whether it's dressed up in the language of faith or not."

I've been so often called a bigot by bien pensants that I've stopped contesting the label: if bigotry just means thinking (eg) adulterers are sinners, then I'm a bigot. Now can we get on with discussing whether I'm right or not? Khan continues:

Does the MCB [Muslim Council of Britain] believe homophobia, sexism, intolerance and the "inferiority" of other faiths are conservative Muslim practices? The religious conservative Muslims I speak to tell me they are offended that this could ever be justified as such. Yet predictably, Muslim representative bodies like the MCB at best sound wishy-washy, and at worst continue to defend and justify such bigotry under the guise of “conservative Muslim practice.”

I've been over the Clarke report fairly carefully in my previous two posts (here and here). But let's come at this from a different direction. I believe that parents have a right to educate their children according to their own lights (subject to some negotiation round the edges about employability etc). In a Catholic school, I'd expect this to result (ceteris paribus) in teaching that homosexual activity was wrong, that women did not have a right to chose abortion and couldn't be priests, that Catholicism was the true and complete religion and extra ecclesiam nulla salus etc etc. I'm pretty sure I could find one or two commentators who would regard these as representative of homophobia, sexism, intolerance and the 'inferiority' of other faiths. So, on the assumption that some Catholics schools at least are teaching these standard elements of Catholic understandings, why aren't 'we' objecting to Catholic Trojan Horse schools?

What 'liberals' have succeeded in doing is depoliticizing thought. I believe certain things about the world. Muslims (unless they've completely secularized) believe other things. Atheists believe something else. None of this should be surprising in a large, modern country, and the only real question is a political one: how do we get these divergent viewpoints to live together peacefully and to interact fruitfully? (Hint: this won't be through everyone feeling comfortable or affirmed all the time.) Instead, we have a growing list of hurdles that have to be leaped over before we can even enter into the public forum.

There's something else going on here. In any organization or life, things go wrong. So as well as dealing with divergent starting positions, we have to understand that people with those (respectable) positions will occasionally say something stupid but which clearly emerges from that position.  (I gave a particularly striking atheist example of this here but I can think of lots of occasions -from my own childhood and from those of my children- where there have been other 'anti' Catholic remarks from teachers.) I don't particularly mind if, every now and then, some atheist teacher lets slip her true beliefs about Catholicism in a particularly crass way. I don't mind if an occasional Muslim lets slip the thought that ' “white women have the least amount of morals”, white children were “lazy” and that British people have “colonial blood” '. I'd give a pretty loose leash for teachers to express their characters and, if things start going radically wrong, there are disciplinary procedures and retraining available rather than hysteria. But again, we are now setting hurdles: teachers who say stupid things about Muslims or Catholics are fine. Muslims who say stupid things are subject to Trojan Horse enquiries.

Secularism has really stopped thinking. I had originally intended today to write about a particularly thick pair of articles by Stefano Hatfield -and I'll probably return to them. But at the moment we seem to be faced by large numbers of secularized liberals who seem to have forgotten two basic lessons which wise students of humanities need to grasp pretty early on: that other people don't always agree with you; and that coming to appreciate their point of view is an extremely difficult (intellectual and ethical) process. Put more simply, if you're a smug git, everyone else is a bigot.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Trojan Horse schools: a reader comments....

This is response to a combox comment on my last post on the Trojan Horse schools. As it's gone on too long for a combox, I've posted it instead!

Dear Simon

Thanks for engaging on this. Given the current events in the Middle East, I think that it’s extremely important that we don’t get distracted from the central problem here in the UK which is simply about how we educate minority cultures and groups. (Of which Catholics are one.) There’s a tendency –particularly among conservative Christians- to resort to the general line that Islam is bad and therefore to give an inch to it is naively setting up problems for the future. Whatever the merits of such a position, it doesn’t really address the reality that Islam is a living presence in the UK and is the deeply held religion of millions of our fellow citizens. Moreover, if I were a Muslim, I’d end up by being pretty hacked off by being discussed as a problem and as if I weren’t British, and end up by being pretty alienated.

I’ve been impressed recently when reading Walter Scott as to how he deals with irreconcilable hostility. Profound disagreement (between Jacobite and Hanoverian; between Saracen and Crusader; between Jew and Christian etc etc) isn’t glossed over, but lived with. I don’t think all views are equal, but I don’t expect others to think my views are equal or superior to their own. Scott’s ingredients for living with hostility are not about seeking agreement, but allowing people to arrange their own private lives (including the bringing up of their children) according to their own lights; a respect for the humanity of others; a calm confidence in one’s own position which doesn’t need the acknowledgement of others; and, finally, a certain physical and moral bravery that, if things go wrong, one should face physical risk and death with equanimity. There’s clearly much more to be said here, but, on the whole, I think that’s a better recipe for a solution to our current social difficulties than pretending that, if we just get the right argument or social arrangement, we can convince everyone of our rightness.

I turn now to a detailed response. First, I reproduce your comment with added numbering of the paragraphs:

1) "Lobbing", eh? I realised that I was laying myself open to such criticism as I cut down my piece to its conclusion. But I found it difficult adequately to explain my own journey from imagining "islamic" replaced by "catholic" (20-odd years or so ago: I thought I was being "fair") to my current position: that I consider such an approach worse than merely misguided, and to fall for the secularist error of considering all religions equal, and to abdicate responsibility for judging what might be good in islam, and what is not. (Difficult, I mean, to do so charitably and, as I am posting under my own name and as I live and work among large numbers of mohammedans, responsibly.)

2) Yes, I have read Geoffrey's posts. I've never commented there, and I shan't do so now, but I will say here that I thought both of them rather poor and, yes, naive.

3) Yes, of course some of Peter Clarke's premises would not be shared by faithful catholics, and I agree that the evidence from the online forum is poorly presented (it reads - I hope the simile is not ill-judged - like telling tales in school). And I do agree that he is wrong - naive - to think that the opinions expressed there are not also held by parents. I think they are typical of opinions held by young Pakistani men (I mean, English-born Pakistanis). Certainly, the cadences are familiar to me, and the opinions are not a surprise. But I do think that he is right to highlight those opinions.

4) I think that the report does clearly show evidence of a conspiracy, based on the local presence of a majority of Pakistani muslims, surreptitiously to gain control of schools in Birmingham and elsewhere, encouraging children in racial and religious hatred and to despise the culture and nation that have welcomed their families. 

5) One last thing: you disparage the report as "anecdotal". What do you mean by that, and why do you consider it a Bad Thing? Evidence of various kinds is described, and much of it is inevitably anecdotal. Evidence often is. For good or ill, the report is not intended to be a balanced presentation of conflicting evidence, but a set of recommendations informed by a large body of evidence and illustrated by examples. Like it or not, and without being, er, naive, we have to accept its author's integrity. His role is not analogous to that of a prosecutor as you imply, but of an investigating magistrate (I think that's what they're called).

6) I agree that it's not an easy read.

Let's take your six paragraphs one by one:

1) I don't think all religions/philosophies/beliefs are equal. I do not, for example, think that Islam's attitude to marriage is correct. (Eg: polygamy and divorce.) But to note that is not to settle the question of what one then does about that falseness. There are two aspects here: the practical and the principled.

In terms of the practical -what we can do about it- we have large communities of people who are in error: that's not just Muslims, that's secularists and everyone who's not a Catholic. (And many who are!) But to focus just on Islam:

a) much of the effect of the report would be to substitute great errors for little ones. (For example, it is clear that Clarke is suspicious of religion and fully signed up to the modern liberal sexual agenda. Why is it a good thing to force Muslims who believe and worship God to be discouraged from that belief? Why is it a good thing for Muslims who have overstrict notions of male and female modesty, to abandon these for the licentiousness of modern secular standards?)

b) there is a naïve optimism behind much of this that, by changing the school, you will change the community. I think it is much more likely that, by changing the school, you will lose all the academic advantages that have apparently been obtained, and simply alienate the Muslim community further from British society.

c) the establishment of a principle in UK politics that parents should not be allowed to control their children’s education, and that ‘hardline’ religious views on (eg) sexual ethics should be forbidden will undoubtedly be extended to Catholics and other groups.

I conclude that, simply in terms of what’s likely to work, what’s practical, it is much better that we allow Muslim ethos schools than not.

Turning to principles, even if (and I assume this is what’s behind your general train of thought) there were bad consequences from allowing Muslim ethos schools (say, in terms of social cohesion) it would still be right to allow them. (In broad terms, even if the exercise of some rights produces harms, those rights may still be acknowledged.) There are a number of different ways this might be argued for. Based on the Church’s teaching, I’d talk about the parents as primary educators of children and the right to religious freedom. Based on Mill’s liberalism, I’d argue for the importance of experiments in living and the competition for ideas that results. Based on MacIntyre’s understanding of the role of traditions, I’d argue for the importance of encouraging the deep exploration of particular traditions and for an education based on the integrity of a particular tradition.

Of course, these arguments would have to be developed (although I’m confident, time allowing, I could do this) and, given the nature of philosophical disagreement, the discussion isn’t likely to be a short one. But I’d note that, particularly from a Catholic point of view, given the Church’s principles on this and the support (from a different direction) of the Catholic philosopher, MacIntyre, I’d expect it to be particularly difficult for a Catholic to reject the conclusion that Muslim ethos schools should be allowed.

 2) OK! I’d simply say I’d disagree with your assessment here.

3) I think we’d agree here except perhaps in the wisdom of highlighting the Muslim opinions. He is highlighting simply fragments of positions and claiming that they are examples of atypical opinions held by extremists. If he thinks they are typical of the community, he should say so and alter his argument accordingly.

4) Evidence? I explained in my earlier post why I thought the report’s evidential base was flawed. Why do you disagree?

Another aspect to this is that a number of prominent public voices who a) are not Muslim and b) have personal experience of the schools disagree with the findings. For example, Lee Donaghy has consistently rejected the analysis of an Islamicist takeover which, as assistant principal of Park View, he’d be well placed to recognize. Father Oliver Cross –an Anglican Priest- is a governor of  Regent’s Park school. Again, he has been vocal in his opposition to the analysis of an Islamist takeover. There is simply no testing the evidence by voices such as these.

5) By ‘anecdotal evidence’ I simply mean the use of personal stories as evidence. The problem with such evidence –particularly as used in the report- is that it is not critically tested. In particular: a) anecdotes need to be tested for truth and b) they need to be tested for typicality.

For example. Here’s an anecdote about smoking: ‘My father smoked all his life and never had a problem with it. So smoking’s fine.’ a) It’s false. My father died of heart disease doubtless in part due to smoking. b) Even if it were true, it would prove nothing about general tendencies: my father could have been fine even if every other smoker dropped dead of smoking.

There is a lack of critical testing of these anecdotes in the report. There are alternative anecdotes that are not really considered. There is no attempt to find more reliable evidence (such as parental surveys). There are conceptual problems with the report (ie a lack of precision about the meaning of ‘Islamist’).

You say we have to trust the integrity of Clarke. You say that ‘the report is not intended to be a balanced presentation of conflicting evidence, but a set of recommendations informed by a large body of evidence and illustrated by examples’. The evidence I’ve argued (and to a large part you’ve accepted) is flawed. If it is just to be taken as a set of judgments illustrated (but not evidenced) by anecdote, I see no reason to accept it on trust: as Catholics, we should be extremely sensitive to the way that unsympathetic and ignorant outsiders are treating our religion, and I see strong reasons for thinking that much the same is going on here.

6) Not much hangs on this, but I’d say that it’s not so much a difficult read as a badly argued one. It’s clear but not convincing.


As a general point, as I’ve argued above, for both reasons of practicality and principle, I think we should be allowing (even encouraging) Muslim ethos schools. If such schools existed, I’d expect them to be much like the sort of schools under review. So I think the real question here is not so much has there been anything underhand about how the schools were established, but rather are they the sort of schools that should be established. That’s the long term question here, and Clarke and his report are singularly ill-equipped to tackle it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trojan Horse schools and the Clarke report

                                       New school transport, Birmingham style...?

The Clarke report into the 'Trojan Horse' Birmingham schools is really a pretty shoddy thing. (Full PDF here.)

The main problem with it is that it's a prosecutor's narrative: Clarke has a clear sense of what he believes has happened, and picks the evidence to support that narrative. If you think that truth in assessing complex interpersonal exchanges (ie rows in schools) or complex philosophical issues (ie the place of a culture and religion in schools) is susceptible to neat accounts from one perspective, you might be fine with the report. If you suspect that one man's judgment, particularly with the skill set of a former policeman concerned with terrorism, might well need to be tested before being accepted, then you'll want to dig a bit more deeply.

Here are some specific problems with it:

1) It doesn't take seriously the argument that the schools are simply reflecting parental culture.

The main narrative of the report is that schools were taken over by an organized body of activists trying to impose 'a particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam' (p13). Although it notes that it is claimed that such a 'hardline strand' is simply reflecting the Muslim culture of the majority of parents, it doesn't really take that claim seriously. But the reasons for this rejection of the claim are less clear. In particular, despite saying

On the contrary, while the majority of parents welcome the good academic results that some of these schools produce, they do not demand that their children adhere to
conservative religious behaviour at school. Indeed, I received evidence that
this would be supported by only a minority of parents. (p12)

there is no explanation of what such evidence consists in other than a few anonymous opinions. Indeed, Clarke gives at least two reasons for thinking that the evidence for his claim is likely to be extremely weak:

a) he didn't interview or survey parents:

I deliberately did not visit schools; nor did I seek to interview children or their families as I felt this could run counter to my intention not to add to the anxiety that young people and their families must inevitably be feeling (p8)

b) he refuses even to countenance the likelihood that Muslims attitudes will not be the same as those of a metropolitan elite:

Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of the Park View Education Trust told me in an
interview that he believed that Monzoor Hussain reflected the educational attitudes and aspirations of the community. This cannot be right, since it would be absurd and deeply offensive to argue that the Muslim communities of East Birmingham share the intolerant views put forward by those who contributed to the ‘Park View Brotherhood’, and which were
largely left unchallenged by Mr Hussain. (p74) [My emphasis. I'll say more about the substance of the 'intolerant views' below.]

2) It is extraordinarily vague about what is wrong with the 'particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam'. 

The specific charges levelled against the schools are often vague and impressionistic. They are often anecdotal (eg one problem in one school is taken as representing all schools).

For example, in a table of 'behaviours observed in schools' (p122) (and could someone point out to Clarke that (consistently) treating adults as 'behaving' certainly lays him open to charges of distancing 'us' from 'them': we act; they behave) there are two columns that are particularly relevant. 'Attempts to introduce a more Islamic character into schools' and 'Sympathy to extremist views'. Only two schools (out of the 14) showed even the possibility of the latter. 12 out of 14 showed the former. But why should that be surprising? There has been (from the 'opposing perspective') an attempt to raise standards by creating a culture within the school more in harmony with the children's religious and cultural needs. Why should this aim in principle (which is necessarily given the nature of the population from which the schools draw their pupils 'to introduce a more Islamic character' ) anything other than totally reasonable?

A more specific charge is made against 'the Park View Brotherhood':

I took possession of the contents of a social media discussion 
between a group of teachers at Park View School that for much of 2013 was 
called the ‘Park View Brotherhood’. It was initiated and administered by Mr 
Monzoor Hussain, the Acting Principal, and was joined by influential teachers 
within the school. The evidence from more than 3,000 messages spread over 
130 pages of transcript shows that this group either promoted or failed to 
challenge views that are grossly intolerant of beliefs and practices other than 
their own. (p11)

Now the views expressed (how often? 'The majority of the postings are innocuous and often mundane' (p58)) in this group show (allegedly) 

explicit homophobia; highly offensive comments about British service personnel; a stated ambition to increase segregation in the school; disparagement of strands of Islam; 
scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby and the 
Boston bombings; and a constant undercurrent of anti-Western, anti-American 
and anti-Israeli sentiment.(p56)

Readers will have to make of the (very few) possibly objectionable posts what they will. Some strike me as simply the sort of banter that you get in online groups (eg about women doing the cooking (p57)); others (eg about separation of girls and boys) an honest attempt to thrash out how to deal with the educational and cultural issues involved in educating boys and girls (p60 Exchange between teachers: 'It is important to teach boys and girls to know how to interact with opposite gender in a healthy manner/Equally important to create an environment that doesnt promote sexual promiscuity). The worst example is the posting of a picture of 'an offensive image of a lavatory roll imprinted with the Israeli flag' (p58). Not nice, but a) an isolated incident' b) welcome to online discussions on the Middle East; and c) welcome to a general anti-Israeli sentiment amongst Muslims. (Can we please prosecute any teacher who tweeted an off colour remark/photo about the Papacy?)

Much more important: no evidence whatsoever is shown that these privately expressed opinions carried over into the daily life of any school.

3) Death by anecdote.

The report is full of anecdotal evidence without any attempt to critique it or examine its evidential value.

The worst example of this is the account given by one headteacher of his troubled relationship with the governors. This takes up ten pages of the report (pp23-32) without any challenge from an alternative perspective. I've had some experience of governing body/headteacher clashes. I know (in a far less charged situation) what the headteacher would have said about the clash. I know what some of the governors said. Anyone who has worked in any organization will recognize quite how difficult such situations are to get a grip on. Certainly, a one sided presentation of a particular participant's views isn't the way to get to the truth.

4) General lack of sympathy with the governors' approach

Michael Gove was widely criticized by talking about the education establishment as 'The Blob'. But there certainly is a pervasive culture among many educational professionals that would be unsympathetic to a) parental influence on a school; b) religious influence on a school. The two opposing narratives in the Trojan Horse schools cases are: 1) Islamists were trying to take over the schools; 2) Concerned parents and activists were trying to take over the schools to improve standards by introducing a cultural and religious environment more in tune with parents' beliefs. Now the actual effects these two approaches would produce in the day to day life of a school might be quite similar on the face of it: it's the reasoning behind it (and the value of the changes) that would be a matter of dispute. The report relies much on the idea that 'no smoke without fire': whatever the individual facts, there is a pattern of Islamicization and criticism of that. But of course! If we take narrative 2), we'd expect  a pattern of increased Islamic 'behaviours' and a pattern of increased 'Blob' reactions. Clarke completely dodges this analysis simply because he is clearly out of sympathy with the attempt to improve standards by digging down deeply into the home culture. A particularly silly example:

. For example, in the teaching of modern foreign languages, pupils were
encouraged to study Arabic to reflect their background and provide
greater access to their religious and cultural heritage (despite the fact
that the majority of Muslim pupils in Park View School are from a South
Asian background). (p50)

So imagine the Catholic equivalent: pupils encouraged to learn Latin. Clarke ridiculing this because we're from a Northern European background.

Why am I going on about this? Because I think, perhaps more than anything we've seen in the past with Catholic schools (who, in many cases, have simply rolled over and swallowed the secular agenda) we're seeing here the culture war in schools in its full rawness. In essence, the parental right to educate children as they see fit and the religious right to pass on that religion in its fullness and depth are being challenged. Of course there are difficult issues here about ensuring (eg) children are fit for the wider society they live in and that civic peace is preserved. But the modern liberal desire to impose homogeneous opinions on a population (eg on homosexuality, on Israel) rather than finding ways for differences to live agonistically but peacefully with each other (which is to say politically) is going both to destroy the real academic gains that these schools seem to have made, and to ensure that Muslims are further marginalized in our society. (And for reasons that, once the present mess has died down, will be found to apply equally to Catholics and other groups that don't toe the line.)