John Ware does hatchet job on Muslim schools
Last night, BBC1 broadcast a Panorama programme presented by John Ware, purporting to expose “extremism” being promoted through private Islamic schools in the UK, both full-time schools and Saudi-run weekend ones. He starts off by showing al-Furqan girls’ school in Birmingham, which makes a big thing of teaching its pupils to understand and respect other religions, but apparently other schools don’t make such an effort. He was unable to find the slightest bit of evidence that any of the schools, other than the Saudi-backed ones which were using Arabic-language textbooks, were teaching anything of an extremist nature, so he resorted to picking a few sentences off fatwa websites loosely linked to the schools, or to statements by scholars who had spoken at school fundraising dinners. (More: Zaufishan, Osama Saeed.)
His first target was a girls’ secondary school in Leicester, which is run by the Leicester Jamia mosque which also runs the Darul Iftaa website. Among the shock-horror things he finds at this school is that the niqaab is a compulsory part of the uniform from age 11. Unusual, but not illegal. He finds the content of the Darul Iftaa site to be “pretty hardline”, among them that women should stay in their homes unless it is necessary, that Muslim lawyers should not help Muslims fleeing Shari’ah punishments to get asylum, and that music is a “direct ploy by the non-Muslims”, to which Ware adds “to undermine Islam” (which is not in the original). I would not concur that music is any sort of ploy or conspiracy; it is a normal part of western culture (and pretty much every other culture, actually) and the purpose of it is largely for some people to enjoy themselves and others to make money. However, the impermissibility of musical instruments is a mainstream position in Muslim law, and if there is a punishment in a Sacred Law, it should follow that helping people evade it is also unlawful, and similar provisions exist in non-sacred laws, actually. None of this consitutes extremism, even if some might find it distasteful.
He mentions that the website uses the term “kuffar”, which it does on six out of several hundred pages, almost always in the context of “imitating the kuffar” in clothing and hairstyle. In this, the website contradicts itself, on one page telling women that they should not style their hair in a manner that resembles non-Muslim women’s hair, but on another saying that it refers to dress deliberately intended to resemble non-Muslims or which is particular to other religions. In none of them is the word used in a derogatory fashion; rather, it is used in its correct Arabic form to mean non-believers, as the verb “kafara” in Arabic means not to believe something, which in itself carries no moral judgement. Ware then interviews Usama Hasan who alleges that the term “kuffar” as used in the Qur’an refers to people who were persecuting Muslims, as if any other use was to take it out of context. He clearly has a very limited knowledge of the Arabic language, because although some of those who did not believe in Islam at the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) persecuted the Muslims, not all did, and the classical Arabic textbooks of Islamic law invariably identify non-Muslims collectively using the term kuffar.
He then criticised an Ofsted report for saying that the school taught girls to “appreciate diversity” while the fatwa bank linked to it supposedly did the opposite, but Ofsted would have noticed what was being taught in the school and if such material was in the school’s textbooks, they surely would have noticed. The programme then runs through a selection of statements culled from various Islamic schools, among them “Our children are being exposed to a culture that is in opposition to everything Islam stands for”, as if this was a condemnation of the whole of western culture, when it most likely refers to the excesses of popular culture. He quotes a statement that “birthdays … are all practices of disbelievers and immoral people”, as if this came from a site linked to a school; it actually comes from Darul Ifta Birmingham, whose website gives no indication of any link to a school. (However, the bit about “disbelievers and immoral people has very recently been removed from the article — it is available in the Google cache as I write — here is a screenshot — but not on the existing page.) Following these statements, there is a sequence of images with a backing that includes the sound of gunfire, when none of the statements he quoted have any reference to violence.
He then attacks Shaikh Riyadh-ul-Haq, an imam in Birmingham trained at the Dar-ul-Uloom in Bury, Lancashire, showing him making various speeches, one of them apparently condemning western wars as “terrorism” and a “crusade” (GW Bush’s own word), giving a speech in which he relates two verses of the opening chapter of the Qur’an (referring to those on whose Allah’s wrath descended, and those who went astray, as referring respectively to Jews and Christians — the standard scholarly interpretation, in fact), and telling listeners not to “befriend the kuffar” and “align yourselves with the kuffar”, the last phrase indicating that this refers to allegiance rather than to personal friendships or to any command to hate non-Muslims. Ware demanded to know why the Tooting Islamic Centre (known locally as Bank of Baroda, which shares the building, to distinguish it from another nearby mosque in a side street) had allowed him to address Friday prayers while the students at the school associated with the mosque would be in attendance; the school, rather than just telling him to clear off, made excuses that the mosque was not the same as the school (even though they share the same building and several of the same trustees) and that he had not said anything inflammatory in front of the children.
Why would a mosque invite Shaikh Riyadh-ul-Haq to address Friday prayers anyway? The reason is that, however distasteful Ware may find some of his views, he is one of the most sought-after speakers in the Deobandi community throughout the UK; he is a “household name” and most of the children who heard him speak would have heard his lectures on tape or attended a few of them. While I do not personally like his manner of lecturing, there is a lot of useful content, including powerful defences of traditional Islamic belief and law and some of his harsher lectures (such as “The Status of the Hijaab”) have been withdrawn over the years. Ware is then shown interviewing Michael Gove and suggests that “it is a free country, we believe in free speech; I mean, you can’t really do anything to stop schools inviting people like Riyadh-ul-Haq if they want to, can you?” Gove responds, “You’re absolutely right, but it seems to me that anyone who’s running a school has a responsibility and a duty to ensure that they don’t allow that school to be linked with those who have extremist or anti-integrationist views”.
The problem here is that, if freedom does not include the right to tell people things they (or others who might be listening) do not want to hear, it means absolutely nothing. There is a big difference between “extremist” views, which might include encouraging Muslims to hate non-Muslims, and “anti-integrationist” ones which might encourage Muslims to socialise and marry among themselves, which might not sound ideal to some people, but is not necessarily a recipe for mistrust, let alone violence. In my experience, the Deobandi communities (particularly in London) are much better integrated than some of the strictly orthodox Jewish ones, which do not come in for anything like this level of scrutiny and there has been no violence there (except some directed at the Jews by various racists, and this has also been part of the recent Muslim experience). This is less true of Muslim communities in other parts of the UK, but they still meet others at work.
Ware then quotes a statement from the al-Risaala school trust’s management that says that their schools (in Tooting and Balham) are “fully committed to community cohesion”, and opines, “the dangers of not being committed are profound”, cutting to footage of the Oldham riots in 2001. Ware interviewed Prof. Ted Cantle, author of the report into the riots which concluded that they were caused by segregation of Asians from whites, not only in where they lived but in where they worked and went to school and with whom they socialised. However, the segregated schools for Asians were not faith schools at all, but simply run-down state comprehensives which happened to be located in a predominantly Asian area. What is to say that the young men who rioted were mosque regulars? It is well-known that there is a criminal class among Asians in many parts of the UK who reguarly appear in the news as drug dealers or pimps (as with this story in today’s BBC news). If they have been listening to Shaikh Riyadh-ul-Haq, it is unlikely that he has had much impact on them. I would add that many white, middle-class (non-Muslim) parents would not even think of sending their own children to some of the white-dominated schools in those towns, so it is a bit hypocritical for Ware to demand their integration with any other group.
He visited one school which had been 100% Asian in 2001, but was now “only” 89% Asian, with a headmaster who had grown up under Apartheid in South Africa, who claimed that he saw “similar patterns of residential segregation” in northern England. He said that “it would be a real shame if we were to sink into a voluntary form of Apartheid”. However, Apartheid and segregation refer to legally enforced regimes of separation in which a dominant racial group excludes others and pens them in (usually to inferior or even slummy housing) by law. None of that has ever happened in the UK and there is no danger of it happening, so the use of these terms to describe separate communities of working-class whites and Asians in some northern towns is irresponsible scaremongering. It is impossible to “sleepwalk into segregation” or “sink into voluntary Apartheid”. Both are imposed from above, and northern England is not northern Ireland, let alone South Africa or 1950s Mississippi. It was not faith schools that brought about any of these realities; it was politics and racism.
He then criticises the Bridge Schools Inspectorate (BSI), an organisation of Muslims and evangelical Christians which inspects some faith schools (but not all, excluding for example the aforementioned al-Furqan in Birmingham), and gave an “outstanding” rating, in most respects, to a school called Apex Islamic School in Ilford. Ware then accused him of “giving a platform” to Haitham al-Haddad, who had given a “provocative” speech which included the words, “… always say that the conflict between Islam and the enemies of al-Islam is an ongoing conflict, and we should pay the price of this victory from our blood, and Muslims are ready to do so”. The beginning part of this sentence was not included in the clip, so we are left unaware of who always says or say this. Further investigation reveals that he was talking about the people of Gaza who fought with Hamas, so he was not encouraging, for example, British Muslims to go and fight, let alone launch a fight here, and no doubt he talks about many other topics in his sermons at al-Muntada in Fulham besides jihad and Palestine, and might find more appropriate matter for a school fund-raising dinner — which was his connection to the Apex school — than this. The BSI responded that it was not in their remit to vet speakers at a school’s fundraising dinners and that it was bizarre to suggest otherwise. It is also no right of Ware or his friends at Policy Exchange, one of whom he interviewed in regard to Haitham al-Haddad, to dictate who a school should be “linked” with. They have a responsibility not to promote hate or violence, and as long as children are not being exposed to such material during school time, they have fulfilled their responsibility.
He then moves onto the issue of weekend and part-time Islamic schools which exist outside the inspection system altogether, in particular “one network” which runs over 40 clubs and schools teaching more than 5,000 schools, with Saudi connections. Panorama’s spy (supposedly a Saudi, claiming to be seeking books for his sister) approached one school in an un-named provincial town for textbooks and was told they were ordered according to how many students enrolled, and that the textbooks came from London. He found the source in west London, and found rooms with stacks and shelves of books, and was told his sister would have to study the whole book, which turned out to be the Saudi national curriculum. The spy, whose voice was disguised, alleged that the book (aimed at 12 to 13-year-olds) read that Jews looked like monkeys and pigs, which cannot possibly be true — there is a story in the Qur’an about one group of Jews who broke the Sabbath using trickery and were turned into said creatures, but that’s not the same thing.
The rest of the material contains harsh words about non-Muslims (probably no harsher than what evangelical Christians might say about Muslims, or even other Christians, however), and diagrams illustrating amputations of the hand for theft — hardly necessary to be taught to teenagers. However, this material is in Arabic, the students are almost certainly mostly Saudis whose parents intend to take them home, and one expects that some of those involved have diplomatic immunity, much as when they break sex discrimination laws. The British government has always been remarkably lenient to the Saudis due to the reliance of our arms industry on contracts with their government. Whatever the government does about what British Muslim schools teach British Muslim children, it is unlikely to interfere in this.
As Osama Saeed points out in his critique, Ware has previously accused the controller of BBC1 (on which Panorama appears) of being “as shallow as a paddling pool” and said she should stop “patronising BBC1 viewers by assuming that a range of bolder subjects hold no interest for them”. As I have pointed out before, Panorama usually lasts only 30 minutes and in that amount of time, you cannot do much investigation, and you often end up with a shallow and sentimental human interest story like this one (, ), which fails to ask important question about such matters as the abuse and poor treatment of the person who was the subject of the programme (but I’ve done that, so paid, professional journalists like Jeremy Vine didn’t have to); but on this subject, they can appear to be doing “serious investigation” by employing a spy who then presents his findings incorrectly or dishonestly and getting briefings from a Tory think tank (Policy Exchange), and when they find no evidence whatsoever that Muslim schools are really “preaching hate” (possibly because they did not look, possibly because the schools — quite rightfully — refuse to let them in), they look for the “connections” and give them as evidence, regardless of how relevant, or otherwise, they are. Osama also makes the point that there are serious problems with the state of some Muslim schools and madrassas which were not even discussed in the programme, which went all out for sensationalism — again, par for the course with the 30-minute Panorama.
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