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Originally published Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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Schools at center of debate on life of British Muslims

An anonymous letter claiming a Muslim takeover of public schools in Birmingham, England, inspired an investigation and has been largely disproved. But there were enough problems discovered that the issue has remained in the public eye. Public attitudes about Muslims have also come into play.


The Associated Press

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BIRMINGHAM, England — When the three government inspectors came to Park View School to look for evidence of a purported takeover by Islamists, one of them joked about the many beards among the teachers there. They looked at the loudspeakers, the ablution rooms and the prayer mats in the gym behind the volleyball net. And, according to accounts by school officials and students, the inspectors asked teenage girls in white hijabs:

“Is anyone forcing you to cover up?”

“Aren’t you hot in those long skirts?”

“What are you taught about menstrual cycles?”

Park View, a public high school in a heavily Muslim part of Birmingham that was once judged one of the worst in Britain, now sends nearly eight out of 10 of its students on to higher education. It is many times oversubscribed, and as recently as March, inspectors told the school it had again received top marks.

But 10 days later, as headlines about the takeover plot of Birmingham schools spread, the inspectors were back again.

This time, they came to a very different conclusion: The school was “inadequate,” they wrote in a report published this month. The children there were not prepared for life in multicultural Britain and were not protected from “extremism,” the report stated.

An anonymous letter containing the accusations is now widely believed to be a fake, and most of the allegations of a takeover plot that followed in the news media — forced prayers, gender-segregated classes and militant clerics preaching at school assemblies — have largely failed to stand up to scrutiny.

But the reaction to it has become the latest flashpoint in a tortured debate about how to reconcile Islam and Britishness.

The inspections of 21 schools in Birmingham after the widespread publication of the anonymous letter documented enough concerns to keep the issue in the news and the government on guard: Some teachers appeared to actively discourage girls from speaking to boys, and one school offered class trips to Mecca subsidized with taxpayers’ money. One teacher, apparently afraid to be seen talking with the inspectors, asked to meet them in a supermarket parking lot.

At Park View, too, inspectors said, some members of the staff were afraid to speak up. They criticized that boys and girls were taught separately in religious-education and pupil-development classes, and they said the provision of sexual education was insufficient.

There was, the inspectors concluded, “a culture of fear and intimidation” in the schools.

“Drain the swamp”

But in Birmingham, where more than 20 percent of inhabitants are Muslim, many residents said they are the ones being intimidated. They pointed to the response of the education secretary, Michael Gove, who said he wanted to “drain the swamp” of extremism and appointed a former counterterrorism chief to investigate. They noted that Prime Minister David Cameron has instructed all schools to start teaching “British values” in the fall.

The message to the community is clear, said Har­deep Saini, executive principal of Park View: “Conservative Muslims are extremists, and their schools are un-British.”

When it comes to Muslims, said Chris Allen of Birmingham University, open suspicion now passes the test of respectability.

“It has become quite acceptable to blur the line between devout Muslims and extremists, and from there it’s only a short mental jump to militancy,” said Allen, author of “Islamophobia,” a book about anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain.

Untangling religiousness from extremism has proved especially tricky in a country that, unlike the United States, has never drawn a clear line between the state and religion: The queen is both head of state and head of the Anglican Church. Public schools, while nondenominational, traditionally offer the opportunity for collective Christian worship.

Park View, where 98 percent of students are from a Muslim background, has won special dispensation to hold Islamic assemblies instead. The school allows for lunchtime prayer and shortens the school day during Ramadan. Headscarves are an optional part of the school uniform, but at least 4 in 5 girls wear them. On Fridays, loudspeakers broadcast the call to prayer, which is led by a student.

“It’s true, we try to accommodate the students’ religion,” said Monzoor Hussain, the acting head teacher of the school, which specializes in math and science. More than half the teachers and the chairman of the school board are Muslims.

“Is there a plot?” Hussain asked. “Yes, the plot has always been to reverse the underperformance of Muslim children in this country and allow them to be both: Muslim and British.”

“What I want people to understand,” he said, “is that what we have achieved is not despite making allowances for the Muslim faith, but because of it. Parents trust us and children can be themselves.”

Teacher’s balancing act

There is, he said, a constant tug of war about how much religion is too much. When some students asked to use the loudspeakers in the schoolyard for a Friday call to prayer and requested ablution rooms to wash their feet before praying, they got their way. But when parents demanded that the school ban all music, they did not.

Last year Hussain disciplined a teacher who told students they had to pray.

Once, a girl came to him because her family wanted to marry her off against her will. She bared a forearm covered in cuts, evidence of her desperation. After he spoke to the girl’s parents, they allowed her to finish school. She is now studying law, he said.

Time and time again, Hussain has told fathers who insist that their daughters have to wear the head scarf that it is the girls’ choice. One female student, pressured by her father to wear it outside of school, takes it off during school hours.

What worries Hussain most is that the current attention will erode parents’ trust and students’ confidence. Some students have seen their summer internships canceled.

At the mosque down the road, Tehmoor Qaisar said he shares some of the government’s concerns.

“Who knows what’s really going on inside the school,” said Qaisar, who teaches the Quran to some children from Park View after school. “I agree with the government when it investigates serious allegations of radicalization.”

But, he added, “What I don’t agree with is the tone.” Alienate young Muslims, and they will start listening to the wrong people, he said.

“Not everyone with a beard is a terrorist,” Qaisar said, stroking his own neatly trimmed facial hair.



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