In Britain, the storm surrounding the attempted Islamist takeover of several public schools continues to play out, but much of the debate is becoming willfully side-tracked. I wrote about the case itself on Monday; since the story initially broke, a number of other spin-off debates have emerged. Not least among them has been a particularly fraught war of accusations at the top of Britain’s governing Conservative party. This, as it turns out, has had as much to do with internal rivalries for the party leadership as it has with a fundamental disagreement over the handling of the matter itself. Then there have been attempts by the left to stoke a debate about Islamophobia and another about Britain’s state-funded parochial schools—a real red herring given that the problem here had nothing to do with faith schools and exclusively concerned events at secular public schools. The preference of many in the media for focusing on these secondary debates is perhaps itself an indication of just how poisonous confronting radical Islam can be in Britain.
That said, the embarrassing and all-too-public fight that has broken out among government ministers has brought to the surface significant factional rivalries as well as some key disputes regarding Britain’s strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism. The fight involves two particularly charismatic and powerful figures within David Cameron’s cabinet: Home Secretary Teresa May and Education Minister Michael Gove. It is widely speculated that May is positioning herself as a potential successor to Cameron, while Gove is understood to be more closely allied with the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who has been suggested as another potential candidate for the leadership, although in truth neither May nor Osborne is particularly liked by the British public. Still, they haven’t acquired quite the reputation that Michael Gove has. His proactive and radically conservative education reforms have seen him wildly demonized by teachers unions and a large part of the British press. Gove’s efforts to roll back the follies of “child-centered learning,” to drive up standards through a traditional curriculum, and his latest policy advocating that “British values” be taught in school have won him admiration with a conservative hardcore, while provoking fierce criticism from many other quarters.
The latest dispute has erupted as both May and Gove’s offices sought to very publicly implicate one another for the failings that allowed hardline Muslims to seize control of the running of several schools in Birmingham. The criticism from Gove’s side appears to have been that the Home Office has been too focused on targeting terrorism at the expense of efforts to counter the culture of hardline Islam that breeds the terror threat in the first place. For her part, May accused the ministry of education of having failed to act upon warnings from 2010 that Islamist practices were being implemented in some of Birmingham’s state schools. Over the weekend the prime minister was forced to intervene, Gove was required to apologize, and May was obliged to fire one of her advisers.
It is unfortunate to see these two figures squabbling in this way. While May’s record is somewhat mixed, as home secretary she has shown a serious commitment to confronting both law and order issues and the threat from radical Islamic preachers, who she has gone to great lengths to have extradited where possible. Michael Gove is arguably even stauncher in his opposition to radical Islam. His 2006 book Celsius 7/7: How the West’s Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Yet More Fundamentalist Terror and What Has to Be Done Now is one of the few serious intellectual defenses of the war on terror to have come out of Britain.
It is hard to imagine that this fight is nearly as significant as the Conservative party’s more fundamental split over Europe, or between Cameron’s “modernizing” faction and the social conservatives in the party. Yet in addition to the pages and pages given over to that story, much of the media has kicked the real issues into the long grass, concentrating instead on arguments about parochial schools and Islamophobia. While the BBC has continued to express skepticism about the authenticity of the so called “Trojan Horse” letter that first sparked this episode, the findings of the government investigation have at least done something to demonstrate that the initial concerns were warranted. Now, however, those who were always hostile to the notion of state-funded parochial schools are seeking to use this scandal as another opportunity to advocate for their abolition. And of course Jewish faith schools have been a common point of reference, despite how relatively few of Britain’s faith schools are affiliated with the Jewish community. Yet whether one favors parochial schools or not, that debate is irrelevant here. The issue at hand concerns secular public schools, and presumably this whole affair could have happened in a Britain in which faith schools never existed.
The preoccupation with internal Conservative party wrangling, with arguments about Islamophobia, and the campaign pieces for and against faith schools all demonstrate just how spooked many British journalists are by the prospect of having to grapple with the actual facts of this case. Only a very few have actively done so. It would be a very great mistake to shy away from having a hard-headed discussion about the influence of Islamism in British public life and civil society by instead becoming side-tracked with these secondary debates.