Suppose you were a white supremacist who wanted to keep Muslim children down. Or suppose you were a Machiavellian middle-class parent, who wanted to handicap the competition your child would face when the race for university places began. In either case, you would be delighted by what is happening at St Stephen’s primary school in Newham.
Despite having an intake of poor children from Pakistani and African families, the head Neena Lall and chair of the governors Arif Qawi transformed it into one of the best state primaries in England. Now it is falling apart. Qawi resigned last week. Lall faces angry parents, mosque leaders, and activists whipped up by the clerical agitators in MEND, tonight. By all accounts she is in despair. She may bow to their demands to resign, or walk out of her own volition.
Qawi, a Muslim philanthropist, has been accused of being an ‘Islamophobe’. The dedicated teachers are now accused of being part of a plot to ostracise Muslims. MEND itself says that the ban imposed by this hardworking, little school in Upton Park suggests that ‘being Muslim and British are incompatible’.
Here’s what the monstrous school did. It wanted to ban girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab. Most strains of Islam don’t force girls to cover up. Qawi studied the Koran with Ken Livingstone’s friend the reactionary Egyptian cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi before rebelling against religious conservatism. He can beat any imam you chose to throw against him in theological argument without breaking into a sweat. For all his learning, however, the school’s policy had nothing to do with religion.
Five year-old girls in a hijab stood apart. Their gender identity, and the news they possessed some kind of dangerous allure (in the dirty minds of some of the men who would constrain them at least) were imposed while they were still little more than toddlers. The school is not anti-hijab. The deputy head has chosen to wear it in middle age. But, it argued, there was every difference between adult women making a decision of their own volition, and highly conservative religious authorities enforcing their dogmas on children. A girl who has no choice about sexual stereotyping is unlikely to grow up to sail through A-Levels and go on to a good job. St Stephen’s may be in the East End but it is just a few miles away from the wealth of central London and the City. The school was ambitious. It did not see why working-class girls should not aspire to work somewhere better than Aldi.
It thought, too, that the fasts of Ramadan were too much for children. They fell asleep or went into dizzy spells when they were meant to be studying. Its bans on the hijab and fasting on school premises were done to put the interests of the child first, as every saccharine-coated commentator on social affairs says schools must. But not, it seems, when the children are Muslim.
MEND and a local mosque went for the school. They tapped into a wave of religious reaction that is barely noticed in mainstream society. You should not view with equanimity the abandonment of a school. For it has been left on its own. Labour-controlled Newham Council found the choice between defending teachers and the education of children, and upsetting agitators and clerics who can shift block votes, no choice at all. A group of Labour councillors said that the ban would leave Muslims ‘victimised, intimidated and threatened when practicing their faith’. The Department for Education cannot be bothered to fight. They say that uniform is a matter for ‘individual schools,’ even though the case of St Stephen’s shows they are nothing of the sort.
I could go off on a rant about the sexist and racist double standards of British society. I could say that if a liberal Church of England school were forced to bend the knee to Christian fundamentalists we would never hear the end of it. But I would rather end with a warning than a philippic. People at the school I have spoken to are close to giving up. Like many liberal Muslims I know, they wonder what the point of all their efforts has been. No one will defend them when religious reactionaries come hammering at their door. With honourable exceptions, liberals and conservatives, Corbynites and Tories, back away or, more often, choose the side of clerics.
We are seeing the emergence of two Muslim cultures in Britain. Muslims who make a success of their lives are withdrawing now. They are learning the hard way that it is dangerous to try to help the communities they came from, educate children and fight misogyny. They know that, when they try, white society, which shouts #metoo and proclaims its opposition to every variety of prejudice, will leave them to swing in the wind.
As they back off, they leave behind an impoverished Muslim working class confined in its ghettos. Their isolation suits religious extremists well and, as I said at the beginning, it suits middle-class white society too. No smart girls from St Stephen’s will be challenging their children for jobs and university places. The education system will keep them down: out of sight and, most assuredly, out of mind.