Michael Gove has recently been under attack for his alleged decision to exclude American literary classics such as ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the GCSE English Literature syllabus. In response to these claims, Gove expressed his dismay at how such a “fictitious” story had been propagated by mass media without establishing the facts. To the exam boards who accused him of hating the books, Gove said, “I would have thought that making an assertion unsupported by evidence is the sort of thing exam boards would want to discourage” and to those who took to Twitter to air their grievances, Gove had this to say: “And without waiting to do anything as mundane as checking the facts, a host of culture warriors have taken to Twitter to denounce this literary isolationism.”
It’s rather strange but I find myself sympathising a little with Mr Gove on this particular issue. After all, British Muslims are used to being smeared in the public by politicians, the press and on social media over fictitious claims, or over issues taken completely out of context. However, there is a peculiar irony in all this, as one could assert that Michael Gove should listen to his own advice in “checking the facts”. Take his book ‘Celsius 7/7’ as an example, in which he writes about the threat of “fundamentalist terror” worldwide and how it is the fault of “Western appeasement”. The book was extremely controversial and heavily criticised, with Guardian accusing it of promoting a “jejune Cowboys-and-Indians world-view”. William Dalrymple was particularly vocal saying that “Gove’s book is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject”. Perhaps Gove too should have “checked the facts” before writing his book?
Or perhaps Mr Gove should have done his fact-checking before ordering snap investigations into a number of Muslim schools in Britain following the so-called ‘Trojan Horse plot’ of Muslims planning an elaborate takeover of schools in Britain? Perhaps in the first instance Mr Gove should have stopped and thought whether or not this so-called plot was actually originating from the British Muslim community by merely considering the name assigned to it; after all, how many Muslims even know about the battle of Troy? Indeed, some have made the point that Muslims have ignored the classics and ought to study them in order to broaden their horizons. On the other hand, it is interesting that one of the chapters in Gove’s book is entitled ‘The Trojan Horse’ in which he highlights the “failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word within Britain.” Surely it couldn’t be the case that the entire plot was something inspired by Gove’s writings, in order to legitimise the harassment of Muslim schools?
Let us examine the absurd nature of the plot: a piece of paper found by the wayside outlining the desire to increase religious influence in public schools is arbitrarily submitted to the local council in Birmingham, which consequently instigates four separate government inspections (one of which was led by a counter-terrorism officer) of a phenomenally overhauled secular academy school in a deprived area of Birmingham. Rather than celebrate the fact that a school that has a near-complete intake of ethnic minority students who come from an extremely deprived area of the UK and one where their parents’ culture has previously been an impediment to integration, social mobility and educational success, has now turned into a model example by achieving results well above the national average, the education Minister turned to vilely distorting the issue to being one which links religiosity to extremist violence. On the issue of the subsequent school inspections which were performed in a sinister fashion, Lee Donaghy, the assistant principal of Park View School said “Their selective search and use of evidence was clear to us. They picked on small things and things that would fit a narrative, and ignored things that would go against that narrative.” What is telling is Donaghy’s point that when the school was underperforming, nobody seemed to be particularly concerned about the school, yet now the school is achieving ‘outstanding’ results, concerns are abound.
What is equally odious is that beyond this slip of paper, Gove has succeeded in painting this secular school, which merely considers the religious backgrounds and needs of its students as being an Islamic faith school for which there is no evidence at all. Perhaps “checking the facts” would have been equally “mundane” in this instance.
Whilst it may be argued that Mr Gove’s actions are merely a means of ensuring that public institutions remain secular, his attitude towards schools of other faiths debunks this. A Government-backed, Jewish faith-based free school was given £3m of funding in Leeds with just eight pupils, where teaching staff had to be brought in from an academy to provide secular teaching. Perhaps our education secretary only has a problem with Muslims establishing their own schools?
The inconsistencies do not end there of course. Take for example the manner in which Ofsted inspectors conducted their investigations in all the implicated schools, including the independent (not state funded) Olive Tree primary school, where they persistently questioned primary children about their attitudes to homosexuality, with reports that Ofsted inspectors repeatedly ask similar questions of Muslim pupils elsewhere. Contrast this to happenings earlier this year, where a number of Catholic state-funded schools across the Lancashire region distributed a booklet to pupils discussing a boy dealing with homosexual attractions, that suggested, could stem from “an unhealthy relationship with his father, an inability to relate to other guys or even sexual abuse.” It went on to state that the homosexual act is “disordered” and was directed against “God’s natural purpose for sex – babies and bonding.” When the TUC wrote to Gove about what they believe to be a contravention of current equality legislation, he insisted: “the law did not extend to the school curriculum, and any materials used in sex or relationship education would not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the Act.” I do wonder whether Mr Gove will make a similar defense of the implicated Muslim Schools, when the Ofsted inspections will inevitably question their attitudes towards homosexuality.
There can be no doubt to any person in the know that Muslims are being increasingly vilified in Britain. Baronness Warsi first raised the issue by telling us Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-table test”. Even the senescent Yasmin Alibhai-Brown agreed. But now the discreet veneer of Muslim hatred has been discarded for the more nonchalant expression of clear animosity, channeled through fabrications, demonisation and Muslim-baiting. Even when there is a valid discussion to be had on a religious matter that challenges liberal sensibilities, it’s often dealt with as a criminal case with the tribunal of reason and objectivity completely discarded. If the aim of such belligerent attitudes is to encourage Muslims to ‘integrate’ into British life (the vast majority of us have anyway), then it is quite possible that it will have the opposite effect. If the aim is more sinister, perhaps to prevent Muslims and their descendants from being “elevated into privileged or special class” in a rather ‘Powell-esque’ manner, then we must all be concerned about the rise of xenophobia in Britain.