Birmingham Citizens Fight Islamophobia: Hatred Is Not a ‘Core British Value’


Birmingham, a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic city of about one million in the United Kingdom, is reeling from the so-called Trojan Horse affair: a supposed clandestine agenda to radicalize schools that is described in an anonymous letter widely held to be a hoax. In an overwhelming show of opposition to government-driven Islamophobia, people from all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and social sectors crammed Birmingham’s Bordesley Community Centre on June 26, 2014 to discuss the affair.


Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and Prime Minister David Cameron have both used the hoax letter as a vehicle to promote so-called core British values. Although there is no suggestion that the letter has been manufactured by the government, it has turned out to be very convenient for its anti-Islam campaign. In particular, the government has granted the Education Secretary the power to shut down a school or dismiss its directors if he considers any member of this school to have undermined core British values. The great sadness is that this hatred is being showered on children, who cannot know what prejudice is until they begin to understand politicians. Some of the schools being targeted are institutes of education with a history of high achievement. Core British values, according to one government spokesperson, are supposed to be democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty, all held together by mutual respect and tolerance towards those of a different belief, faith or non-belief.  While the government’s own record of applying such altruistic principles is questionable, nowhere were such values demonstrated better than in the concerned and attentive community audience at Bordesley Centre.


The meeting was jointly chaired by a stalwart human rights advocate and former chair of Respect Party, Salma Yaqoob, a member of the Birmingham School board, and the Methodist Minister, Ray Gaston. The platform was graced by an array of speakers, some representing schools, some representing churches, secularists, educators, politicians, trade unionists, family members with children at schools at the center of the furor. Sir Tim Brighouse, a former education commissioner for Birmingham, spoke by video link, giving his support to the campaign. Professor Richard Hatcher of the Left Unity party impressed on the assembly that issues regarding the governance of certain schools should be addressed locally, and he criticized Birmingham Labor councilors for not being more proactive in this respect. Kevin Courtney, from the National Union of Teachers, said that he no longer regarded the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) Reports as being reliable guidelines for the quality of schools because, Lee Donaghy, the Assistant Principal of one of the schools at the center of Gove’s hit list via OFSTED, reported that the inspectors had found little wrong with his school at first but were sent back.


Fittingly, in this community campaign that runs under the slogan “Putting Birmingham School Kids First,” it was a young boy who stole the show. Little Ben Shes, a pupil at Greet School, with his eye-catching head of auburn hair, won all hearts and minds as he told the packed house how his fellow pupils should be allowed to wear what they want and eat what they want. He had to be lifted up by his mother, Helen Salmon, who herself had made it clear that Birmingham parents have no desire to be dictated to by Gove and Cameron. It was Ben’s unfaltering voice and polished delivery that lifted the hearts of everybody present who, to a person, got onto their feet in a standing ovation.


The other day, during half time in a World Cup match, when I went into a corner shop run by a Muslim Family near to where I live, I was surprised that one of the brothers, who had regularly watched the matches, was not watching the day’s match. “I have no interest in the World Cup now that England’s out,” he told me. This is a much more parochial attitude than even I have, but it pretty well sums up how the Muslim community in England thinks of itself as being no different from the rest of us.


Michael Gove, David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May appear to be united in their desire to create hatred against Islam, although they differ in their approaches. May strives on a daily basis to get Muslims deported or extradited under any pretext. For example, she was so delighted at her successful efforts to get Abu Qatada deported to Jordan that she forgot to try and establish whether Qatada was innocent or guilty. She could hardly conceal her joy at the victory of her vendetta and that of previous Home Secretaries against Qatada. Less than one year later, as people prepared for the “Putting Birmingham School Kids First” campaign, news came through that Abu Qatada had been found not guilty of terrorist-linked activity in Jordan.


Islamophobia has seen countless Muslims targeted by the security services. For example, Abubaker Deghayes from Brighton, whose brother, Omar, came back from Guantanamo Bay a broken man, and whose son died fighting in Syria, has had his house raided, and passport and laptop taken, under the pretext of an investigation into the young man’s death. Moazzam Begg is in prison once again, this time for investigating the security services’ complicity in torture. It was at this same Bordesley Centre that Begg’s father appealed on his son’s behalf, more than ten years ago, while Moazzam was in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.


In a demonstration of the community spirit that Michael Gove is trying to break, Father Oliver Coss, vicar at All Saints Church, Small Heath, and a school governor at Regents Park School, told the assembled group at the Community Center how, on Christmas Eve, women from the mosque across from his church, came to midnight mass and left gifts, as the wise men had done 2000 years before. If Gove continues to preach his transparent hatred of Islam, we, the united people of Birmingham, will do everything in our power to remove any of his unpopular interference from the governance of Birmingham’s inner city schools and remove him from government. The Birmingham community is more united than ever in returning this latest divisive hatred back to whence it sprung: Westminster.

Editor’s Notes: Photographs one, twp, six, and seven by Robert Stewart. Photographs four and five by John Sargent. Photographs three by BrianaC and photograph eight by Khue Cai.


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