Denis MacEoin’s rake job

Denis MacEoin, a serial Islamophobic letter-writer and think-tank hack, has published another report attacking Muslim schools. The sneering tone of the report might be gauged from the title: Music, Chess and Other Sins (PDF available here); the report was written without even attempting to gain access to the schools, based entirely on information the authors gained from the schools’ websites and other websites linked off them, as well as written and spoken material by people linked (often rather tenuously) with the schools. The derision must be returned on them, because it demonstrates dishonesty (I would not have thought ignorance was the reason for these errors) about western culture as well as Islamic.

The problems with this report fall into a number of broad categories:

  1. The schools are judged on the basis of inadequate information
  2. The author gives a false impression of western culture
  3. The author gives too much importance to loose connections
  4. The author is prejudiced by his contempt for Islam and Muslim culture
  5. The author gives too much weight to his own opinions, and is indifferent to Muslim concerns

Of these, the fifth is probably most important, but the most glaring inadequacy is the first, and this is what I intend to tackle first, insha Allah.

Inadequate information

As already stated, the “researchers” made no attempt to gain access to the schools themselves, relying only on information they could find on the internet. As stated on page xiv (page 14 of the PDF):

We realized from the outset that we would not be able to obtain textbooks of our choice or spend time as observers in classrooms. First, there was the sheer scale of what observation would entail, secondly the fact that, as with Ofsted inspections, schools would be on their best behaviour during visits. That was not, we believed, the best methodology for getting more in‐depth information, including information on the schools’ connections.

The researchers did not, of course, have much chance of obtaining access to any Muslim school, because the schools would have been briefed in advance that this was a hostile organisation, assuming they were honest about their intentions, of course (not a given with these people). There is something of “don’t confuse me with the facts” about this as well: had they been confronted with happy and well-looked-after children in well-run schools where achievement was good, even if the curricula were narrower than elsewhere, it would have detracted from their harping on the schools’ “connections” somewhat. Muslim parents may desire private Muslim schools for their children for much the same reason as other parents who can afford it choose private schools: smaller class sizes and a smaller general school community, with standards of discipline they find lacking in the available mainstream schools. They may also find the mainstream curriculum inadequate, particularly the emphasis on Key Stage exams in year 6.

There is nothing in this report about the actual educational achievements, in terms of GCSE and A-level results, although there is an attack on the exclusion of some arts subjects in Islamic schools. However, some do teach Islamic arts, such as calligraphy.

Misleading impression of western culture

How important is chess really to western culture? It is not indigenous (the word, by various intermediaries, originates from Hindi via Persian and Spanish) and while there is a chess-playing scene with some reasonably famous players, they are usually not superstars, at least not in the west given that the most famous of them are Russian (the current World Champion is a Tamil from India), and the best-known western chess player of modern times was Bobby Fischer. For the benefit of my Muslim readers for whom this man might not be a household name, Fischer was an American grandmaster briefly famous for beating a Russian grandmaster called Boris Spassky in 1972, but disappeared from view, slipped right down the league, and became best known as a bigot. He ended up renouncing his American citizenship after his home country tried to extradite him for visiting Yugoslavia at a time when that country (the rump Yugoslavia consisting of Serbia and Montenegro) was under international sanction due to the massacres the government was supporting in Bosnia, just to play another big chess game against Spassky. Chess is a minor recreational activity in the west, and a sport of interest to a small minority.

As it happens, many scholars consider chess to be forbidden (I have read that there is some dispute over which game the word used in the hadeeth actually refers to). How far apart would such a ruling set Muslims from others? Not very far, in my experience. I have never been confronted with the issue of whether to play chess or tell someone it’s against my religion.

Then there is the waxing lyrical about classical music (pp.32-3, or 52-3 of the PDF):

It means that no child attending an all‐Muslim school of this nature will ever visit an art gallery, attend a concert of classical or non‐classical music, experience the transcendence of listening to a great operatic tenor perform, pass an evening mesmerized by a production of Romeo and Juliet, performed by the National Ballet. Nor will a gifted Muslim girl become a ballerina or a boy dream of conducting an orchestra. These are all matters of great weight. They represent some of the greatest achievements of Western civilization. To deny young Muslims access to the finest things in our culture, for what are the most puritanical of reasons, is to undermine the very foundation on which our education system is built. It must be reasonable to secure for children a rich engagement with Western culture so that they can become real citizens and not just visitors who do not speak our cultural language.

In reality, the number of western youths who actually attend these events, let alone perform in them, is very small. These arts have been on the decline for decades, because of lack of interest, lack of innovation (Nixon in China is not generally regarded as the equal of Turandot or Don Giovanni, is it?), and lack of funding. Classical music venues, as well as theatres, are often subsidised or receive National Lottery grants, and some public subsidies are controversial (there is a theatre here in Kingston, the Rose, whose public support is far from unanimously supported by local politicians). I agree that the Royal College of Music is hardly the most “satanic” of all the institutions that promote music, but the art form is dying. I should point out that what is forbidden, by a majority of scholars of Islam, is the playing of musical instruments, not singing, however harmoniously, and that painting of human or animal forms for decoration alone is also prohibited, which means that visiting an art gallery is not prohibited as there is plenty of other types of art on display.

Loose connections

The report’s harping on the “connections” various figures have to Muslim schools in the UK reads like a Joe Kaufman witch hunt: this school’s website links to that website which says this and that; this school is linked to that organisation which includes this person who said this or that. Here is an example, referring to the Jamia al-Karam, an essentially Bareilawi boys’ school in Nottinghamshire:

One school, the Jamia Al‐Karam Secondary School, Retford, is closely linked to the Karam Scholars Association. Among the radicals belonging to this association is Shaykh Yusuf ‘Abd al‐Wahhab Abu Sneina, one of whose sermons contains the imprecation: ‘TV reports [show]… ugly massacres by the US and British invasion forces. This is a disgrace, God help our Muslim people in Iraq be victorious over the infidels… God destroy them all.’

The footnote leads to an obscure article entitled Palestine Loves Saddam, published on a website called Israel Resource Review, which is clearly sympathetic to Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. Clearly the researchers have done no original research, but have relied on an extremely hostile Israeli source, which they take at face value. The shaikh’s connection to Jamia al-Karam is that he appeared at an event run by the al-Karam organisation called Gateway to Divine Mercy; the members of the Al-Karam Scholars’ Association are listed further down the page that is the subject of MacEoin’s screenshot, and this shaikh is not listed among them. Even so, there is no suggestion that he said these things at the GDM event, or to children at al-Karam, or that al-Karam’s website provides any direct link to this content (and they provide no link to any organisation associated with Shaikh Abu Sneina), so its relevance, even if the quote is not fabricated, is difficult to fathom.

The report alleges that the website of Feversham College, a Muslim voluntary-aided school in Bradford, links to the Al Islam site run by the Saudi religious affairs ministry. The worst they can find to say about that is that it includes a section on Jihad which has a sub-section called “The superiority of Jihad and moslem warriors (Mujahideen)”. However, this and every other sub-section of the Al Islam jihad section — and in fact every sub-section of every section — consists solely of Qur’anic verses, not sermons or speeches by contemporary imams; it is part of a categorised collection of Qur’anic verses, not an archive of articles or sermons.

I would add that it is impossible to erect a cordon sanitaire to keep out any scholars or other public Muslim figures who hold views some westerners might find objectionable, because in many of their home countries, these views are normal (and in some, but not all, expressing the opposite view would lead to them losing their job and possibly being imprisoned); for example, the view that the land known as Israel belongs entirely to the Arabs and that fighting the state of Israel is a good thing. A more reasonable cordon would be against anybody known for encouraging or promoting terrorism against civilians, or mob violence as is known of in the Subcontinent.

Contempt for Islam and Muslim culture

MacEoin’s sneering tone against Muslim culture as it is (as opposed to an idealised academic understanding of it) starts early on, with an “editor’s note” about transliterating Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Bangla words:

Although academics have well‐established systems for transliterating words from Islamic languages, Muslims themselves, be they humble imams or ulama (clerics), tend to ignore these. The result is a dreadful mishmash of forms, so that the same name can end up with several spellings (Muhammad, Mohammad, Mohammed, Mohamad; Husayn, Husain, Huseyn, Hussein, Hussain; Darul Uloom, Dar al‐‘Ulum etc). This is compounded by the fact that many schools display a less than perfect knowledge of Arabic, which is further compounded by bad English.

This is a huge generalisation; many Islamic books in English do in fact stick to a system of transliteration (if an often imperfect one, as sometimes they make no distinction between long and short Arabic vowels). However, these systems often take no account of the way letters, particularly vowels, are actually pronounced - the Arabic vowel transliterated as “i” is often pronounced “e” when short, for example. In addition, the alif in the Arabic definite article can be pronounced as any of the three Arabic vowels depending on what case the noun before it belonged to, hence the different spellings of terms like Darul-Uloom. In an academic text on Arabic language it might be acceptable to use a spelling in which an A was pronounced like a U (Dar al-‘Ulum) or an L like an S (‘Abd al-Salaam, pronounced ‘Abdus-Salaam), but in common English, it is not.

He also criticises a number of schools for linking to “fatwa banks” which contain material which would be inappropriate to show to a child (such as on page 49, or 69 of the PDF). This is a fairly useful example of the dangers of judging a school by its website, since the website is principally aimed at the parents, not the pupils, and if he had wanted to know if the children were themselves accessing this material, he should have done some proper research. As for the “bizarre material” they may contain, the scholars answer whatever questions the questioners throw at them, often without judging whether it is bizarre (or insincere) or not. Unless MacEoin has any evidence to the contrary, we might assume that Muslim parents and teachers exercise some judgement over which of these fatwas they actually show to pre-pubescent children.

The article also contains an attack on Deobandi rulings on the status of women, and while some of the objections are valid (for example, to the ruling emanating from South Africa that women who are raped while wearing immodest clothing share the responsibility for their attack — a common example of ignorance of how and why rape happens) and others are harsh and sometimes ill-founded, others are mainstream Islamic rulings, such as that a Muslim woman must only marry a Muslim man and that polygamy is permitted. This gives the distinct impression that Islam itself is MacEoin’s bugbear, not Muslim extremism or even separatism. In addition, the Jameah Girls’ Academy website which links to the “offensive” Darul-Iftaa consists of only the briefest description of what the school does; the idea that children could be corrupted by reading it and following the links is absurd, since it is not an educational resource; it is of very little interest other than to inform us that the school exists.

Over-reliance on opinion and indifference to Muslim concerns

Too much of this article consists of MacEoin’s opinions and invitations to the reader to share them. If we are to have religious schools in this country, we need to accept that they may be transmitting opinions which may be distasteful to some of us, but as long as they do not incite hostility that might lead to violence. It is not a valid objection that Exclusive Brethren schools, which belong to a sect far more exclusive than any sect of Islam and in which there are serious issues about the leadership’s control of members’ lives, are of less concern because their numbers are smaller or because in the case of Muslims, it “is allied to religious extremism”. This possibility is simply thrown out without any attempt at a figure of how many of those actually involved in religious extremism in the UK actually went to Islamic schools in the UK. The answer is probably few if any, particularly since, by his own admission, some 96% of Muslim children in the UK attend state schools (see page 7, or 27 of the PDF). Some Muslim parents actually prefer state schools; I have heard many complaints from families about the quality of education, hiring practices, and other conditions at some Muslim schools, both here and in other English-speaking countries. Again, none of this has been investigated by MacEoin and his “researchers”. It is far easier to put together an academic-looking report based on a “rake job” of information culled from the internet.

The report contains a lengthy discourse on what constitutes a moderate Muslim:

But there is much to be said for a more nuanced definition, one that emphasizes the positive. By this definition, a moderate Muslim would be one who considers and practises his or her faith in personal, spiritual, and sometimes mystical rather than political forms. Such a Muslim would be one who takes his religion seriously, but does not see it as a hindrance to full integration into British and Western society and culture. Integration is paramount if present divisions are not to harden into impermeable walls. A willingness, even an eagerness, to integrate with one’s fellow citizens has to be the sine qua non of all successful moderation.

So, a moderate is a Muslim who discards politics from his or her religion, and who “integrates”. The problem is who to integrate with, and how. No Muslim scholar would object to Muslims having cordial, polite and mutually helpful relations with their non-Muslim neighbours or colleagues; the problem is that some of these neighbours might have a culture which would be objectionable to anyone from outside, Muslims or otherwise, or that Muslims cannot participate in certain aspects of this culture. Given that many middle-class whites are apt to mock “chavs” or others they find culturally distasteful (or cultureless), why should they expect Muslims to find them any less so, or want to integrate with them either?

Furthermore:

Moderate Muslims are, according to their taste, as able as any of their fellow citizens to appreciate and take part in music, art, dance, theatre, film, television and literature. They see the police and the security services, not as foes, but as agencies for the protection of law‐abiding citizens. They may deplore much about Western society, from sexual excess to drug‐taking to gun crime — as do most of us — but they find much to praise, from democracy, civil liberties, free speech and human rights to anti‐discrimination laws and the generally high levels of toleration in society at large — things that are absent in almost all Muslim societies.

In short, “moderate Muslims” are culturally integrated with middle-class whites, despite often not having had the same educational opportunities or general life experience. The remarks about the police are especially telling, given that non-white people, especially men, tend to have a very different experience of the police from that of middle-class whites of any age. In fact, many religious Muslims would not have the “radical” objection to joining the police - that it involves enforcing man-made law - but many would see it as racist and would not envisage great promotional opportunities.

They will join the police force, the army, the navy and the RAF, and they will put their lives on the line for their country like those with whom they serve. For that they will earn the thanks of the British people, unlike those radical Muslims who call for and support a terrorist jihad on UK soil, or who openly despise every single feature of our common culture.

The objection to serving in the armed forces are much more serious and real for most Muslims than joining the police, for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: that the armed forces have been involved in operations many Muslims see as hostile to Islam, such as the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most would not object to serving with peace-keeping forces in Sierra Leone or Bosnia, but operations clearly expanding western control of Muslim countries, or which may be interpreted as revenge attacks on Muslims in return for terrorism in the west, are out of the question. The second is that the armed forces have a worse reputation for racism than the police, and being thousands of miles from home, or from land, surrounded by people who are hostile to them would terrify anyone. This is a problem for Muslims and for any non-white people, and however much the situation has improved over the last 20 years, if someone becomes a victim of racist victimisation in the armed forces, they cannot just leave.

MacEoin also pushes his own opinions regarding women’s dress codes:

The use of hijab for schoolgirls carries negative significance, as is clear from many of the websites accessed from schools in which women are condemned to a subservient existence mediated by the wearing of the veil. Putting girls of four and upwards into almost full hijab (covering everything except hands and face) amounts to treating them as potential objects of sexual desire before puberty, with persistent negative effects on self‐image. When it is combined with total segregation of the sexes, it makes it next to impossible for young Muslim women to function within anything but a segregated society, where they will never be treated as the equals of men. Every year, an incalculable number of Muslim teenagers and young women are lost to the wider world that informs their citizenship. Western school uniforms for girls are perfectly modest and make it much easier for Muslim girls and young women to socialize with non‐Muslims and integrate with British society. If an outright ban on the wearing of hijab seems politically sensitive, the problem should be tackled in a different way. However, the French example should be considered.

No Muslim authority makes it compulsory for girls four years old and upwards to wear full hijab. That comes at puberty. However, it is common for parents to get girls used to wearing hijab from an early age, so that it does not come as a shock when it becomes compulsory. Perhaps some schools include it as part of the uniform, but this would have nothing to do with any sexual significance. (Some hijabs are actually very pretty and feminine, and girls often want to dress like the “big girls” they know.) As for teenage girls, MacEoin’s opinion counts for nothing here: the dress code for females who have reached puberty is loose clothing, covering everything except the hands and face (and feet, according to some scholars). That is the bottom line, and almost no western school uniform meets this requirement. There are some schools which even require girls to wear short skirts as part of the uniform. An easy way of resolving this conflict is to simply do away with the uniforms; schools in many countries do well enough without them. It should also be noted that, if female emancipation is the aim, it is better to ensure that they receive education, with or without headscarves or even niqabs. With qualifications, some of them at least will decide, later on in life, to use them, or will be able to if they need to. Without them, and particularly if there is no second chance (and second chance education is a more difficult proposition, as courses have been getting more expensive since the 1980s), this is not an option.

Conclusion

Music, Chess and Other Sins is a shoddy piece of work, a condemnation of Islamic schools of all persuasions - since Deobandi, Bareilawi and other schools are attacked in this report - based on the false premise that you can tell a man from the company he appears, from a distance or from third-hand information, to keep. A team of bloggers could have produced this report; looking through the footnotes, the vast majority of the references are to online content. They have also not been entirely honest about the nature of some of the websites, concealing the fact that they are in no way of interest to the children, removing any danger they might pose to the children, and about some of the linked websites. MacEoin warns against relying on Muslim inspectors when inspecting schools, effectively questioning their honesty, but takes the word of contributors to hostile Israeli websites at face value.

Furthermore, the report shows a contempt for religious freedom. Freedom means little if it is just freedom to keep your head down and do and say nothing anybody might find offensive. Religious freedom also means little if it stops at the entrances to places we visit every day, like schools or even workplaces. Gender equality also means nothing if it is brought into conflict with any other freedom, particularly if done so deliberately, as in the “French example” of which MacEoin advocates “consideration”.

Finally, the need for Muslim schools, and good ones, is a very real one in the eyes of many Muslim parents. A lot of them would not object to their children mingling with non-Muslims - they do it every day at work, after all - if it were not for some of what they witness, with serious problems with indiscipline and even violence, including some well-publicised lethal violence, in inner-city schools in particular. Nobody wants their children invited, let alone pressured, into joining what could turn into a criminal gang. Parents want the best for their children, and in general, the best means the most suited to them. Mainstream schools are usually the exact opposite — children of every description herded into one big institution, particularly at secondary level. From a religious point of view, they may well want to have the religious activities to which they send children to after-school classes to be included in the school curriculum, rather than having to be learned in the evening when they are tired, and when they may have homework to be doing as well.

It is not sufficient to extol the virtues of Muslims “integrating” with mainstream society, as if “mainstream society” is a uniform whole; not every Muslim community has an example of “mainstream” society with which to integrate, and some may have to make do with a depressed section of society with serious drug and crime problems, for example. Muslims are not the first religious group to demand state-funded faith schools: the established and Catholic churches did that decades earlier. We are not the first group to demand separate schooling: the rich, regardless of religion, have sent their children to private schools, usually single-sex boarding schools, for generations. The status of these schools is not in any serious dispute (one recalls the reaction when, in the mid-1990s, some Labour politician advocated abolishing the charitable status of private schools). The wealthy have the ability to make sure their children don’t have to rub shoulders with the “riff-raff”, so quite why someone as well-heeled as MacEoin (degrees from Trinity in Dublin, Edinburgh and King’s College, Cambridge) should deny a less well-off religious minority the same ability to influence what company its children keep at an impressionable age is not clear.

Lastly, religious schools are extremely unlikely to be contributors to terrorism, particularly if they are under the sway of genuine scholars of Islam, as all reputable scholars condemn extra-judicial and extra-martial killings, other than for self-defence, and deliberate attacks on non-combatants (the exceptions usually turn out to be obscure figures from the Saudi interior; even Wahhabis in the west deliver the opinions of mainstream Saudi scholars, not these marginal figures). A growth in decent Islamic schooling would act as a brake on this kind of activity, not only by transmitting the correct Islamic position on these issues but also by their mere existence, because pupils would know that this was a country in which some Islamic education was funded by the state; “sink” schools, in which adults cannot understand the vocabulary spoken by extremists and in which Muslim pupils have to contend with bullying, and the reduced opportunities boys (in particular) from these schools face in regions whose industries have declined or disappeared, are more likely to contribute to any tendency towards terrorism.

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