If you want to stop extremism in UK schools, try a little understanding first.

Politicians are muddled, hysterical, disconnected from wider truths, and still clueless about religious ideologies

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The Independent Online

A plague on both their houses. Michael Gove and Theresa May are playing dirty games and trying to discredit each other. Apparently these manoeuvres are preparatory bids for the Tory leadership. I don’t give a damn about overambitious political schemers. And nor should anyone else. We should, however, all be alarmed and livid that the two are fouling up public understanding and failing as senior government ministers.

The row is over several Birmingham schools which have allegedly been turned into conservative Islamic seminaries and infiltrated by “extremist” governors and teachers. A controversial Ofsted report due to be published today is already under fire. Its overseers did not detect any such plots or express serious concerns about these schools previously. Now, it seems, they will be critical of the atmosphere as well as the teaching at some named institutions.

Parents, pupils and the whole city have been unsettled by the political furore and further Ofsted visits. May – full of Thatcherite certainties these days – thinks Gove has done too little too late. So does Labour’s Tristram Hunt, who should beware of sounding so triumphant and smug. Autocratic Gove is incandescent.

But instead of bickering, these politicians should be safeguarding education; our children, our society, our futures. As a retired Asian school head said to me on Sunday: “I would not let them run my father’s small newspaper shop for two hours. They can’t be trusted and make things worse whenever they step in. It’s because they know nothing about multicultural Britain, its strong and weak points, what to do to make it work. They live in their own worlds. How many Muslim friends do any of them have? Do they even understand the problem they are trying to solve?”

No. They are muddled, hysterical, disconnected from wider truths, still clueless about religious ideologies and several key concepts. And yet they fire off opinions and haphazard words, revealing how ignorant they really are and how lazy their thinking.

Most journalists are even more so. The Left and Right have taken up entrenched positions on the “Muslim question”. For the former all criticism is “Islamaphobia” and the latter can only see us as the enemy within. Here then is a short lesson for politicians and members of my tribe. Terrorism, extremism, radicalism, political dissent, engagement with international conflicts, sharia, fundamentalism, self-segregation, Salafism/Wahhabism are not interchangeable nor inextricably linked.

Let’s take a state-funded school where drama, fiction and art are not taught. The state should intervene here because these rules, in effect, cut off possibilities for young Muslims. Full-body coverings are an affront because they define young women and girls as sexual menaces. Sharia is unacceptable because there should be one law for all. Our government should (but won’t) confront Saudi Arabia and Qatar which fund the  spread of hardline Islamic practice. Internet terrorism training is the most powerful corrupter of young Muslim minds. Mosque preachers have lost ground to those online. Politicians don’t even debate this evil. All these different challenges require considered and fair responses, not populist hyperactivity based on prejudice or extreme naivety.

Over the weekend I read and heard commentators for whom a head covering is a sign of “terrorist mindset” and young men going to fight in Syria are all preparing for the overthrow of western democracies (did George Orwell going off to fight Franco’s dictatorship make him a danger to Britain?). Callers to radio stations thought the Birmingham schools were training camps for suicide bombers. This is truly dangerous rubbish. We all, collectively, need to  find solutions for a number of real and present problems.

Some Muslim schools do indeed reject modernist values. A young boy, Ahmed  (not his real name) wrote to me from one  of these Birmingham schools. He is gay  and petrified.

“They say it is a white disease. They will kill me if they know. I cannot live any more. I was in a mixed school before and I was OK. But my parents moved me to this school and I am so alone here.”

In January a young Muslim girl emailed to say that she had been forced to wear a headscarf and cloak by her school and she feels trapped. State funds should not be paying for such mis-education. But then no other faith-based schools should be state funded either, because they are places of segregation and separation. Gove has pushed for these schools more than any previous Education Secretary. Here’s the result.

Meanwhile Theresa May has presided over some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in British history – including now a secret trial – and in doing so the Home Secretary has radicalised more Muslims than Abu Hamza ever managed. They take no responsibility of course. Being in cabinet means never having to say you are sorry.

The Ofsted report will no doubt raise howling protests from Muslim apologists and Muslim haters, from educators and politicos, supporters of the schools and their adversaries. My thoughts go out to the children, pawns in political and religious battles not of their making. Poor young things. They deserve better. 


Why we should treasure enduring sparkle of Dawn French

Sometimes someone is so monumentally talented, praise seems paltry or sycophantic. But still, I do hereby acclaim the singular and gifted Dawn French. Her TV shows are repeated over and over again on various channels. Time neither lessens their appeal nor dims her sparkle. Most amazingly,  Ms French just gets better and better.  

The comic actress, writer, novelist and Bafta fellow is touring Britain with a new stage show, an intimate monologue called  30 Million Minutes. Critics have been raving about her delivery and content, which is sharp and funny, as well as unexpectedly dark and “brutally unsparing”. On stage, she opens up, shares her pain and pleasures, talks openly about cancer, sex, her upbringing and relationships – all subjects the tabloids would have liked to have splashed on their front pages but rarely did.

And that is the second reason to admire her. She and her ex-husband, Lenny Henry (also a hero) managed to keep control of their lives. They kept their privacy in spite of fame and fortune. Those celebs who never stop whining about press and fan intrusion need to learn from these two.

I once sat next to her at a birthday dinner for a mutual friend. She was fine until I said I was a journalist. She turned away and barely spoke to me again. That wariness has kept her sane, I guess. But I want her to know, I love her work and dazzling smile and thank her for the joy she has brought us all, as well as her honesty and integrity.