Ukip has a Muslim problem, which is fine if they’re not particularly concerned about courting the Muslim vote, but not fine if it leads to the formulation of policies which are not only illiberal, but illegal.
Cambridge councillor Lisa Duffy is one of the contenders to replace Nigel Farage as leader of Ukip, and her solution to halt the spread of radical Islam is to close all Muslim schools – a “total ban”, no less. Without counting how many British Islamists were actually educated in British Muslim schools (how many, exactly?), her “positive vision” for British Islam is uncompromising: “I will be calling for the Government to close British Islamic faith schools,” she told the Express, adding: “That doesn’t mean I am picking on British Islam..”
But, of course, that’s exactly what it means, for that’s exactly how it will be perceived, because that exactly what it is. You either close all schools of a religious foundation, which would be educationally equitable and religiously non-discriminatory; or you close all faith schools not of Judaeo-Christian foundation, which would be congruent with our national history and arguably more consistent with the inculcation of ‘British values’. But what you can’t do in a liberal democracy which enshrines the prohibition of religious discrimination in law, and which exalts freedom of religion as a human right and an attribute of enlightenment, is to prohibit adherents of Islam from establishing their taxpayer-funded schools while Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Seventh Day Adventists are free to establish theirs.
And the ‘taxpayer-funded’ bit is important, because (presumably) Lisa Duffy isn’t proposing to close all private Muslim schools. Or is she? In her “total ban” enthusiasm to mitigate social conflict in an era of pluralism and cultural change, is she proposing to engender hostility in the realm of education by “picking on British Islam” in the private sphere as well as the public sphere? And what, exactly, does she mean by ‘British Islam’? Is it simply a kinder way of saying ‘British Muslims’; the -ism being an easier target than the people?
The English education system has always been characterised by its diversity and the involvement of various Christian denominations – in particular Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist. The 1993 Education Act took account of changing religious affiliations and ethnic diversity, opening the way for new state-supported grant-maintained schools to be established that reflect particular religious or philosophical beliefs. Existing faith-based private schools were able to apply to become re-established as grant-maintained schools.
The demand for more diversity in faith-based education was a natural consequence of immigration, mainly from India, Pakistan, Kenya and the Caribbean. British Muslims are diverse in their origins: the majority hail from Pakistan or Bangladesh, but significant numbers immigrated from India, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and various other countries of the Middle East. There is no single ‘Muslim community’ in Britain, but a range of Muslim communities of different cultural backgrounds and diverse religious expression, established mainly in Birmingham, Blackburn, Bradford, Coventry, Dewsbury, Leicester, London and Manchester.
If Orthodox Jews are free to educate their children in accordance with their religious precepts, why shouldn’t Muslims? If Muslims are free to build their mosques and open their shops, why should they not also be free to establish their schools? How, exactly, does Lisa Duffy propose to prohibit Muslim parents from home-schooling their children, since that option might be far preferable to enforced attendance at the local ‘bog standard comprehensive”? How does Lisa Duffy propose to amend charity legislation to prohibit Islamic educational trusts? What, exactly, does she propose to do about the existing academy/free-school funding agreements between Muslim schools and the Secretary of State for Education? Is she proposing to tear up these contracts, spend years and £millions defending her policy against multiple justifiable legal challenges and judicial reviews?
The 1993 Education Act heralded an era of “choice and diversity” in the state education system in England and Wales. It was a quasi-market approach, designed to establish greater fairness by meeting religious demands and denominational need. With increasing choice and diversity come all manner of tensions, divisions and mutual exclusions, but you either believe that it is the primary role of parents to educate their children, facilitated by the state, or you believe that such a prerogative belongs to the state, and for parents to comply with the government’s essential mission. For a Ukip leadership contender to lean towards educational statism and the limiting of market choice represents a diminution of religious liberty and a control on the functioning of the market. What manner of independence is this putative leader of the UK Independence Party proposing? What sort of freedom is it which binds one group on the grounds of their religious belief?
Has Lisa Duffy not considered that the so-called ‘Trojan Horse‘ affair in Birmingham, in which certain robust Muslim governors and teachers were intent on imposing a particularly vigorous view of Islam on children, did not involve Muslim faith schools at all? Incremental Islamisation and the inculcation of extremism are rarely a result of overt faith declaration: they more often depend on strategies of subversion, occupation and gradual marginalisation. Lisa Duffy might do better to consider that it is precisely because so many Muslim schools are now financed by the taxpayer that the Secretary of State has every right to inspect, monitor, advise, direct or intervene to close when he or she considers it necessary to do so. Therein lies the best insurance against spiritual coercion and the spread of Islamism.