Saturday, April 26, 2008

Educating Muslim children

Why are Muslim schools oversubscribed? Why is there a demand for them from so many Muslim parents? People who are against Muslim schools have to first of all answer these questions especially within the context of a choice-dominated public sector agenda. The anti-Muslim argument is that Muslim schools are a form of protectionism that harm community cohesion. This led to the rather absurd suggestion after the riots of 2001 that Muslim schools were the cause of the problem (most of the rioters were from local comprehensives). Well, protectionism is as much a part of Muslim schools as it is a part of Christian or Jewish schools. The Muslim case is that Muslim schools are necessary because Muslim children feel confidant within them and they grow up therefore as confident citizens ready to participate in society.

But I have not been convinced by the argument for Muslim schools and remain doubtful as to whether we should invest so much of our energy into building more schools. Muslim schools, the good ones, tend to be normal primary schools or secondaries but with Quran classes, an assembly and an admissions policy. Well, the admissions policy is is effectively de facto in place for many state-run schools anyway, so that leaves assemblies and Quran classes. This leads me on to madressas. Many children, if not the majority of Muslim children, spend most of their time in a state run school and then between one and three hours every evening in a madressa. This has become the norm for education in the Muslim community. But education is one of the areas in which we are weakest. The results show that though a sizeable proportion are doing well, the majority are underperforming. Are these two issues related? This is controversial because many people from the education sector suggest that the madressas are the cause for Muslim underachievement. This is a part of the parents blaming the teachers and the teachers blaming the parents culture. The madressas also need to face some hard truths. How many children return to the mosque after 11? The majority disappear, though they spent in the main two hours every day for five days a week for four years there. And how much of this teaching equipped them for the identity issues that they will face as teenagers within a modern British culture? I think there needs to be a serious re-think here about the madressa system.

But back to the question of Muslim schools themselves. Those who advocate against Muslim schools still have to deal with the fear that Muslim parents have against some non-Muslim teachers. This is not unfounded. I have been shouted at, told to leave my parents (twice) and insulted whilst receiving my education. During the Rushdie affair, I was told that one non-Muslim from an educational establishment was overheard in a conversation saying: ‘Why can’t we just take these kids away from their parents?’ Quite. Anti-Muslim prejudice amongst teachers is well-known. This is why the recent suggestion by the National Union of Teachers to incorporate Muslim instruction into normal schooling hours is such a positive suggestion. If Muslims could get onto the school governing boards and acquire senior positions in school management (such that ownership is shared) then incorporating instruction (i.e. something resembling the madressa) into normal schooling hours sounds like a fantastic idea. The madressa model may need to be changed in order to do this, but it may help Muslim achievement in two ways. Firstly, Muslim identity becomes part of the norm (not separated off) and secondly the children will have more time to be children i.e. to play. Muslim schools at the most cater for a few hundred children but Muslim demographics mean that we need to provide educational solutions for the thousands. This suggestion by the NUT seems to offer a far more practical solution.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Counter-productive counter-terrorism

Speak to your brother with respect, care and love,

And he might listen,

Tell him how bad he is, and how great you are,

Well, then,

Don’t be surprised if he walks away

Stronger in his belief

Than he was before.

Speak about your brother to others,

About how bad he is…

And you expect him to change?

When he finds out

That you have been speaking about him

To others, the saint that he is…

Or that you want him to be.

Remember, he is your brother,

Not a saint.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Does Bradford need a mayor?

Or Bradford's political future - part two

A question to ask here is what kind of change is required in Bradford for it to move on some of the major issues that we face: namely education and employment. This is where changes to local government are relevant. One of the options being presented to local government is to change the decision making structure. At present, Bradford has 90 councillors and the executive is made up of councillors from the leading party (which in this case is the Conservative party because it is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – Labour has the most councillors in Bradford but not enough to command a majority) and the Council Leader is appointed by the lead party. The nature of Bradford as a metropolitan district has meant that it has proverbially hung in the balance between the rural and suburban Tories and the inner-city Labour party. Local elections occur every year and so the political structure is forever fragile. This remains the case today. What this means is that the politics of the city is too fraught for there to be any major movement on some of the central issues. With employment a serious concern and a rising youth population, this means that without leadership we could end up meandering into a troubled place.

The options being presented by DCLG are either to keep the present structure or to move towards a mayoral model like in London. Bradford currently has a mayor but this is a symbolic role. The new set-up would make the mayor directly elected for a 4 year term. The next question is what are the big issues or the political issues for a place like Bradford? Is there any real difference in local policies between the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour? With the convergence towards centrist politics on a national stage on many local democracy issues, I would hazard a guess that locally party politics is less important than at the national stage. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Bradford is not a political place. I think the one major political issue that could emerge in a direct mayoral election is the issue of multiculturalism. I can’t see potential mayors arguing over the size of adult services (that’s social services for adults) but I can see mayoral candidates arguing over the issue of multiculturalism (the US presidential election and the London mayoral elections are examples of this). It’s possible that a far right candidate could emerge and perhaps it would be useful to have an open debate about it but there certainly could be an opportunity for the far right to make its case. There would need to be some unity candidates that offered a vision for a united and prosperous city. I can see the beginnings of such a language emerging at present across the parties (excluding Anne Cryer). So this is something that needs to be considered.

Also, a question needs to be asked about whether a mayoral candidate or candidates are actually available in Bradford? Can the Muslim community offer a candidate? Can the political parties offer candidates? If the candidates are not available, then is it any good to pursue a system which will rely on strong candidates?

Finally, people who decry Muslim representation point to the effectiveness of the biraderi system in getting people in to councillor positions. It is certainly possible that the biraderi system could be used to help elect councillors within a mayoral system but there is another way of single-handedly wiping out their effectiveness: if councillors were elected towards a Bradford assembly through proportional representation system as in London, then the Biraderis would be much weakened. It’s much easier to organise for 2,000 votes in one ward than it is for 50,000 across the district. So if Bradford is to face the major political challenges that lie on its doorstep, then it may have to consider changing its political system.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bradford's political future - part one

Local democracy is undergoing considerable change at present. Labour have set out their case through ‘Strong and Prosperous Communities’. This shift in emphasis is a move away from centralisation. When Labour came into power, they decided that in order to achieve on the major deliverable agendas, they required strong government. This meant more power for 10 Downing Street and less for the respective departments. Targets were set across health and education in order to encourage improvement in public service delivery. However, much of this delivery has been dependent upon the performance of local organisations like councils and health trusts and an integral part of this local set-up has been the role of the councillor who is supposed to provide local leadership and scrutiny.

Bradford has about 90 councillors, and about 20 of them are Muslims. This is interesting in that Muslims have achieved more representation through direct democracy than through the council structure itself. However, there have been and obviously are several major criticisms of the councillors. Some are currently accused of postal vote fraud. But the bigger crime to me is their lack of involvement in the city itself whether in the form of leadership or scrutiny. This has meant that in the absence of a credible local Muslim leadership, there has emerged a vacuum which has allowed many unsavoury things to pass. What this has practically meant is that some of us have taken on the role of ex-officio councillors, though no-one knows this and neither do we. We have informed people about public policies, directed them about how they can improve their civic involvement and called for scrutiny where necessary. This is because the current system isn’t working.

The government recognised that this was an important issue and so set up a Councillors Commission which reported back to the DCLG a few months ago. I’ve been trying to encourage others to consider taking up the role of councillor in Bradford but most have been reluctant. This is because they have doubts about how the system runs at present and also because they are unsure of which party to join.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Funding and the Muslim third sector - part two

Now here comes the Preventing Extremism funding. The government has just announced that the Preventing Extremism fund is to be increased to 70 million over the next three years and this means an increase of up to threefold. There are two contradictory problems that face us here. The first is that as interventions go, this intervention of 70 million into the Muslim voluntary sector over the next three years is a massive intervention – and we should definitely be monitoring it. It is a deliberate act of intervention into the collective Muslim will.

The first point to recognise is that Muslims are not the only ones who are seeking this money. Organisations such as Inter Faith Forums are also seeking this money and unfortunately not everyone who seeks this money is doing so with benevolent motives, as I have found out. This whole process needs to be monitored from the Muslim community perspective.

The second point is that the money is tainted. The experience of some projects already funded suggests as such. Even if one has good ideas and they are well-implemented and achieve some of their objectives, the fact that the money comes from the government’s counter-terrorism budget damages the credibility of the project and those associated with it.

The third point is that the money and power of government can sometimes be demanding. If the project being funded cannot withstand the dictates of government for fear of loss of funding or simply a lack of independent spirit then it can be forced to accept aspects to its project which may damage the project or its delivery – this is especially since the civil servants working on this seem to be fresh and therefore quite ignorant of the consequences of their strategies. Again, there are examples of this.

All of which returns us to the fact that remains which is that many groups will be selected for funding through this funding stream. The alternative would be to mainstream concerns on Muslim disadvantage within the major departments.

Instead, my considered suggestions are:

a) to monitor the projects being selected and delivered

This can be done by finding out which officer at your government office is responsible for this and then which officer at your local council is responsible for this and asking questions of them. If the answers are not forthcoming, you can consider the use of freedom of information requests.

b) to consider applying while remaining independent

I would suggest focusing on Imam training in cultural literacy, volunteering as sadaqah and mentoring of youth at risk of offending.

It is probably useful to have some critical tension between points a and b.

But perhaps with all of this funding, we return to the subject of one of my previous posts. Muslims are not short of money, alhamdulillah. There is no reason why we cannot adopt a stance of financial independence on at least some of our core concerns. We could then at least make sure that we are not dependent upon funding from government for what are important projects, and decide to take on partnership working with government on a project by project basis.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Funding and the Muslim third sector - part one

There used to be a time when people used to do things for free. I remember it well. Sacrifices were made, spirits were high and we did things because we believed it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. Today, this is no longer the case. Today, much of it is about funding, and how sad it is that it is about funding.

I was involved in what can be loosely termed ‘Islamic work’ from the late eighties through to the late nineties, after which I took some time out to complete a thesis on Muslim identity politics and reconsider my own Islamic ‘alignment’. When I returned to the Islamic scene, one of the first things that I noticed in the change in culture was that there was a new word doing the rounds: funding. Everyone was interested in one thing: funding. When I suggested an idea, people would ask: ‘Do you think when we could get funding for it?’ or say ‘That’s a good idea, should be able to get some funding for it’. I began to become quite frustrated with this attitude, because the key question of Islamic organisations was not whether they were fit for purpose, rather it was: are they fit for funding?

This change is obviously related to the policy context. The early nineties were a time when there wasn’t much finding about and by the late nineties New Labour policies had begun to impact on government departments and resource distribution. European funding streams were in full flow at about this time as well.

New Labour has two basic approaches to social problems which can be summed up as ‘what works’ and ‘if there’s a problem, throw money at it’. New Labour has done so in health, education, employment etc. through various initiatives aimed to improve conditions in many urban areas sometimes through concentrated efforts such as health or education action zones and sometimes through general policies that are implemented through local councils or strategic partnerships such as neighbourhood renewal. This has meant that there has been millions of pounds ploughed into many cities and Bradford has benefited also. Trident, Regen 2000, Manningham SRB, Royds – there are various initiatives which were undertaken as part of regeneration projects. Many of the people who were previously involved in Islamic work or thereabouts became involved in such initiatives and the results have been mixed. Some projects have yielded strong results, others have floundered, while others have squandered public money.

There has always been one key structural problem in the delivery of this ‘throw money at it’ agenda – whether it was about Sure Start, education initiatives, regeneration initiatives and even community cohesion and this was about leadership. The assumption was that the money was enough to solve the problem, but these problems required more: they required leadership, good analysis and partnership working. However, many of these initiatives that were required to involve local communities would usually be led by outsiders – people who had the cvs to match the person specification required to lead such a project – the local community was unable to provide such candidates because they had simply not had the experience, sometimes for reasons of cultural exclusion. It would take a couple of years for the management to get a good handle on the problem and then a year or two more to get some partnership working with the community by which time it was time to assess the project or in some cases to close it down. Progress on some key deprivation-related issues has therefore been slow. The problem with all of the funding up to this point (and up to a point) was that the Muslim community never really got a handle on it, it has been a case of many opportunities lost.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Forced data on forced marriage

There's been a bit of debate about forced marriages in Bradford recently. Hold on to your hats.

The government is consulting on various aspects of the Forced Marriage Act at present. The Daily Mail reported on 11 March that more than 3,000 Asian children were missing from school and 'forced into Asian marriages' (sic). The article states the following:

'The study followed revelations last week that 33 girls were missing from schools in Bradford despite extensive efforts to locate them, amid fears that they were pressured into marriages abroad'.

This follows on a from a previous Daily Mail article which reported on Kevin Brennan's (who is Children's Minister) presentation to the Home Affairs Select Committee which is currently running an enquiry into Domestic Violence. Last week, representatives from Bradford Council and Education Bradford were asked to appear before the committee. They explained to the committee that the figures if broken down by ethnicity and gender meant that that there are major concerns about the numbers supplied by the Children's Minister. The uncorrected transcript (you have to scroll down) makes for fascinating reading. The committee heard that of the 33 pupils mentioned, there were no secondary school Asian girls and one secondary school Asian boy on the missing register. There is now an investigation underway into how information that supports prejudice against a community has made its way into the media. Philip Balmforth, the police's support worker, is currently being investigated by West Yorkshire Police. Previously, there have been suggestions that there are between 170 and 400 cases of forced marriage per year in Bradford. Though the Home Affairs Select Committee heard that there has actually been one a year for the last three years. My only question is (apart from what the heck is going on?), whatever strategy the government adopts, how useful will it be without the community on board?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Liberalism and conservatism part two

This brings me to an argument that is going on within the community at present about how the community should reach out from its centre. If, as I am suggesting, there is a moral conservatism at the core of religious self-discovery, then a challenge emerges as to how to take that argument out to others. Public advocacy of moral conservatism is not the easiest way to make friends and influence people, and so, many have decided to liberalise in order to reach out to others while remaining true to their core message. The media makes much of this struggle. And no doubt it has been successful. The question is what to do next? Does winning numbers make it right - within the current context of the culture war? Do we need to be careful against unnecessary chauvinism?

Most of those who have become religious have done so through a morally conservative critique of the society around them. This has in many cases been tempered by an approach that feels uncomfortable with isolationism and righteousness. Simultaneously, Muslims have sought to engage with wider society, but this has meant reaching out beyond their ‘home constituencies’.

Thos who are attempting to engage are attempting to do so to a liberal recipient. This is because much of the critique comes from liberalism. So they are responding to the critique by engaging with it, this involves a liberalising of their own approach in order to meet others at some halfway point, but those with a conservative constitution find such manners of engagement difficult, paradoxical even. And this is the paradox that we face today: the transition from protest to engagement is occurring simultaneously through a liberalising mechanism. That many groups are seeking to engage, to break out of the rhetoric of the last ten years or so, but to do so requires a fundamental shift in approach which if acceptable sometimes has consequences and associations which cause discomfort. An example is Yusuf Islam who has recently released a new album which attempts to widen his reach but he has done through the use of musical instruments. Another example is Sami Yusuf. I think it can be avoided in many areas, but I don’t see how it can be avoided in its totality. Some who seek to block the whole strategy of engagement can only seem to think of such paradoxes.

I don’t know the answer to this, except that it has to be taken in a case-by-case scenario. We should recognise the difficulties as a necessary part of this transition, and assess the nature of each attempt at engagement. We should consider how such shifts in strategy change who we are and what we are about, specifically, how such changes affect our stance towards the Divine Command and wider society. That is, why are we Muslim and what does that mean today?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Liberalism and conservatism part one

Are Muslims essentially liberal or conservative? This question strikes at the heart of the some of the debates within the community at present. It is about our relation to wider society and our understanding of our own morality. At the outset, it should be made clear that British society is not monolithically liberal and Muslim culture is not monolithically conservative. But nevertheless, the debate rages.

So let’s begin with a few definitions. By liberal I wish to refer to two aspects of this liberalism – one is the appeal to individual rights as law and the second is liberalism as permissive culture, of course, the two are connected, in that it would have been difficult to have achieved some form of permissive culture without an appeal to the rights of the individual. Muslims don’t have much of a problem with rights of the individual under law as they employ such rhetoric or even the law itself in the war on terror. In fact, an appeal to certain foundational aspects of liberalism has formed the cornerstone of the Muslim and wider critique of the war on terror – the right to be free from the state, the right to travel and associate freely, the right to be free from abuse and torture etc. Permissive culture has been facilitated by ‘freedom from state interference’ arguments as well and this is where I think the first relation between liberalism and conservatism emerges.

A question could be asked, why is it that the second generation Muslim youth in Britain decided to take on religious identities while they were living in a permissive culture? Can it all be put down to international politics and ideology? Was ideology a sufficient motivator to be able to make people withdraw from a permissive society which has offered them all sorts of enjoyment and pleasure? Many media commentators and screenplay writers think so, and I think it is a failure of the imagination that they have failed to realise why so many went religious and so profoundly. It has to be deeper than that, and the answers come from a deep engagement with the core questions of life, meaning, spirituality and religion. Many Muslims observed the ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle around them and wondered why they should similar engage in such endeavours. Indeed, truth be told, many have taken part in such lifestyles for many years and then turned religious – some of the leaders even. That is, many of them have considered hedonistic lifestyles and decided that they wished to adopt a morally conservative approach to life instead. An intellectualised explanation of this can be accessed in the first hundred pages of Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’. Their conservatism is therefore oppositionally related to the permissive culture around them.

This conservativsm does not mean that they do not wish to take up the language of identity rights or individual rights, this has been very successfully achieved over the last decade or so. However, there is a tension in the relation towards permissive culture. Here I want to introduce a second problem. Permissive culture is easily understood by most readers, however, this does not mean that the culture within which we live is totally permissive, it is only selectively permissive, and very selectively at that. In fact, there are very few absolute libertarians about, most people hold to several strands of discipline in their lives and these are associated with their class positioning and life ambitions (for example around public service, health and education – again to do with notions of individualism). This is about the relation between morality, class and culture and as any student of British society knows, Britain is a very complicated place in this regard. Britain is not a society with one culture and one major disciplinary regime, it is society of many cultures and many regimes, mostly well-disciplined. So practicing Muslims may for example withhold in disagreement from certain aspects of British society – say drinking – but may also agree and argue for discipline around other aspects of British society – say pursuing education or the importance of reading and writing. The differences between what could be called Muslim conservatism and British permissivism are therefore not as stark and widespread as some anti-Muslim Iagos would like to suggest. Nevertheless, areas of difference do remain and they will need to be negotiated.