Picture credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The school as a battleground

Michaela defeat will not deter Islamist designs on schools

Nowadays we often hear talk of public sector workers being “at the front line” or sometimes “in the trenches”, as if they are soldiers fighting a war in the most exposed and dangerous positions. 

No doubt the metaphor is sometimes warranted given the violence and abuse emergency services, NHS staff and teachers can face. Progressive identity politics adds another layer to the feeling of conflict by treating institutions as places where relentless restorative practice is needed to eliminate discrimination and oppression — resulting in constant campaigns to enforce group-think and punish dissenters. For DEI commissars and those they oversee, it can appear that just by turning up for work in the morning they are indeed going to war.

In fact schools are appearing to us more and more to us as sites of conflict and sometimes violence (as in recent disturbing attacks on teachers in Wales and Scotland). The politics of identity is also a constant presence. And, attached to the progressive industrial complex yet separate from it, political Islam is having an increasing impact, skilfully using the language of human rights and discrimination to gain support, while pursuing its own agenda which is often very different to that of their liberal and left-wing allies.

The campaign against Michaela Community School and its headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh over their ban on massed prayers is just the most high-profile recent example of this alliance at work. The campaign showed a considerable level of sophistication, with the know-how to access £150,000 of taxpayer-funded legal aid to fight a legal case and boasting a schoolgirl as an anonymous victim figure to fight it. The case was only part of a wider trend which started with pressure on Muslim students to join prayers in the playground and escalated through social media pressure, accusations of Islamophobia, abuse of staff members plus death threats and a bomb hoax.

Far from dissociating themselves from such behaviour, many Muslim leaders and their allies have fallen in with the motivations behind it. London Central Mosque released a statement refusing to accept the eventual verdict in favour of Michaela, saying the decision was “a violation” of Muslim children’s “religious and human rights”.

In such responses Muslim community leaders typically present their political demands as inseparable from essential religious practice, thereby confounding the British liberal presumption that religion is a private matter, separate from the everyday work of institutions like schools (an inheritance of Christianity). The level of political activity Islamists generate, including the continuing massed protests against Israel and the West, more than six months after the Gaza-Israel conflict started, is unmatched from any other group in British society. It also regularly features criminality and a quasi-military approach to confrontation, with warnings of possible terrorist attacks

The example of Michaela is just one among many. In December, Barclay Primary School in East London decided to close early for Christmas “in light of escalating threats against staff and the school”, the school said. This followed a social media campaign and protests at the school after it sent a note to parents of eight children warning of potential disciplinary proceedings as a result “inappropriate comments . . . including extremist or divisive comments”, apparently in the context of pupils displaying pro-Palestine paraphernalia. 

The teacher remains in hiding and is unlikely to ever return home

Then there is the “Batley teacher” in West Yorkshire: a former head of religious studies who showed his class a cartoon of Mohammed in 2021 to provoke a discussion about blasphemy, to which activists responded with a week of protests and also apparently death threats. The teacher remains in hiding and is unlikely to ever return home, family members have said.

The so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham, going back to the early 1990s but only coming seriously to light in 2014, is a precursor. In this case, Islamist activists worked to impose what Peter Clarke, a former head of counterterrorism for the Metropolitan Police, called “an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” on a network of schools by taking over their governing bodies. Several investigations were carried out into this affair, one from Clarke, who relayed how a group named the Park View Brotherhood deployed “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action” to enforce an ethos which, he said, “claims to represent and ultimately seeks to control, all Muslims.”

This was broadly successful, with non-Muslim headteachers pressured and ultimately forced out of their positions in schools, allowing the ethos to be enforced.

The investigative journalist John Ware has written that the Park View Brotherhood were:

… inspired by a broad global Islamist movement that has morphed from the original Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood. That movement sees no distinction between Islam as a spiritual faith, a way of life and a political ideology. Some say that following the collapse of Communism, Islamism is history’s next big idea.

The Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most significant driving force for Islamism in Europe as well as the Middle East. Its founder, the Egyptian Hasan al-Banna, was himself a teacher. He believed that Muslims must grow their strength by rejecting Western modernity. Nevertheless, he adopted Western political techniques, studying the successes of Communist and fascist parties in 1930s Europe and applying them to building up the movement. He promoted a structure of small, self-contained cells that proved difficult for the Egyptian authorities to disrupt: and this secretive, clandestine approach persists today, restricting the visibility and transparency of Islamist activities far beyond the Middle East.

For these Islamists, schools, just like other public institutions, are indeed a front line. There is no dividing line for them between religious and secular as there is in Christian and now post-Christian traditions. This perhaps helps to explain why France, with its assertively secular tradition of laïcité, seems to have had an even a rougher time than Britain, not least through the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty following an internet campaign against a lesson he gave, calling him “a criminal”, a “thug” and a “paedophile” and demanding he be sacked. However schools in other European countries have been exposed to similar campaigns.

The fact that Islamists and their progressive allies are targeting Michaela, led by perhaps the strongest and certainly most high-profile headteacher in Britain, shows how emboldened they are. They are not going away: and government needs to come up with a strategy and tactics for dealing with them. 

However there are no good choices here for policymakers. The inherently progressive assumption that you can reach an arrangement that satisfies everyone is unrealistic in this case. The Islamists press until they get what they want. For the authorities and ultimately the rest of us, the choice is either submit or resist. And resistance means making yourself a target of unpleasantness, accusations, threats and also maybe violence. 

The wind is in the Islamists’ sails. Notwithstanding Michaela’s victory in court, our political direction of travel is obviously moving towards them and away from our secular, liberal traditions. They are currently buoyant, feeling that this is their moment, that their strategies are working: and it is difficult to argue. When the Labour government comes in presently, it will face significant pressure to pass a new Islamophobia law, pressure that it will find virtually impossible to resist. This law will likely be drafted by activists precisely to catch out the likes of Michaela, enabling activists to enforce Islamic forms of authority and justice on schools by treating resistance to them as “Islamophobia”. 

As such, it seems we will continue our slow march away from being a liberal society to one in which Islamic principles are embedded, in which Muslim presence justifies Islamic dominance. As al-Banna said of his approach, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

To counter these threats, we will need both strong hearts and a strong state. However our authorities are currently blessed with neither. They regularly kowtow to those who intimidate and pressure them. In our world, might is increasingly turning into right: on the streets, within our institutions and in the wider world. 

In Katherine Birbalsingh we have an example of someone with the commitment, energy and intelligence to resist. We are going to need people like her in much higher positions to fight the fights that remain ahead. 

However, under a Labour government, the likes of her being anywhere near power are slim. A rough road lies ahead.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover