A story in the Birmingham Mail of the comments made by the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque and Labour councillor Muhammad Afzal condemning anti-terror laws had garnered quite a bit of attention, for all the wrong reasons. The story had been plagiarised by The Telegraph (I’m keeping a close eye on you Lexi Finnigan) and completely misconstrued by Breitbart. Readers were quick on the offensive and the leader of Birmingham City Council swiftly announced his disagreements with Mr Afzal. Having wrote the article and attended the meeting in which he spoke, I feel a few things need clearing up.
Putting aside that The Telegraph plagiarised my article; I feel the editor(s) of the The Telegraph and especially Breitbart have taken the story out of it’s original context. They probably did this in order to gain as many views from it they can. They may have cut out what they felt was unnecessary regardless of meaning and context and went with an angle which almost sensationalised the news somewhat.
In a way it’s understandable why those editors might have done this; there are so many news sites to compete with and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage the reader’s attention. What was initially a story on the feedback from the meeting quickly turned into an exposé of the bold comments made by the chairman.
A lot of the background information explaining the counter-terror laws and its implementation in schools were not included in their take of the story and these were important to contextualise a lot of what Mr Afzal had said. Without them, a lot of meaning got lost and this lead to a lot of readers misunderstanding his stance on the notorious legislation.
Breitbart wrote in their version of the story that Mr Afzal denied 500 people have travelled to Syria because he believes there is no evidence. This is simply untrue. The councillor did not deny or agree with the statistic, he asked for the government to produce the evidence. And rightly so, it’s difficult to find online where this number had come from and Mr Afzal even suggested the government should publish details of those who have reportedly joined ISIL (Daesh).
Breitbart labelled the people travelling to Syria as ‘British Muslims’ which is a dangerous analogy to make, by creating a synonymous link between ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’. The vast majority of the Muslim population in the UK do not view radicalists as fellow Muslims, their religion does not condone the killing of another, and yet the media are telling readers the contrary.
In fact, the majority of victims killed by ISIL are Muslims. The councillor asked what kind of percentage is 500 against 3 million, and the answer is 0.017 per cent. Looking at it that way, it is understandable why the councillor had said what he did; why are British Muslims being collectively blamed for the actions of a tiny minority?
Created under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Prevent strategy is designed for public authorities to spot signs of people who are at risk of being drawn to far-right extremism and to refer them to the de-radicalisation programme Channel. It will now include Ofsted inspections and sanctions on out-of-school education settings such as madrassas; Islamic religious schools. Councillor Afzal believes this is a ploy by the government to shut down Islamic schools under the guise of an ‘inadequate’ grading.
Ofsted have been under fire for using a hostile approach in inspecting faith schools. In 2014, National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools (Najos) wrote to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan condemning the ways in which the inspections of Jewish schools were carried out; students were asked how they felt about using the internet and their thoughts on homosexuality.
It’s one thing to belittle someone for their religious beliefs and another to impose your own beliefs onto them, and with the rise of Islamophobia Mr Afzal believes madrassas will fall foul of this new law.
How are inspectors to measure extremism in faith schools? All of the monolithic religions reject homosexuality, pre-marital sex and even relationships are discouraged and apostasy is the unpardonable sin, but these are all accepted values of a liberal British society, will discontent be viewed as a sign of extremism?
Mr Afzal made reference to the ‘Trojan Horse’ inquiry in 2014 headed by the former Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Peter Clarke, which concluded there was no evidence of terrorism, radicalisation or violent extremism in Birmingham schools.
But Clarke also suggested that by reference to the definition of extremism in the Prevent strategy he found “clear evidence that there are a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, sympathise with or fail to challenge extremist views.”
A teacher from Birmingham who did not want to be named disagreed with this notion and believed extremist views are not being challenged because teachers and students are too afraid to do so.
He accused the government of using scaremongering tactics to get teachers to obey the new laws; a police officer who provided the training told the teachers that in case a terror attack were to happen their school field will be used as a makeshift mortuary, they were made to feel an attack is imminent.
This coupled with a two-hour training course on Where’s Wally the Terrorist is not a sufficient way to detect early signs of extremism amongst children. It puts a barrier between teachers and students, especially when they’re having to single out Muslim children in a mixed faith class and viewing them as a potential terrorist.
Looking at the comments and tweets on the story, a lot of people disagreed with Mr Afzal’s view that Prevent was ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ and questioned his ability to stand as Lord Mayor. Whilst one can understand only the reactionary types actually bother making a comment and the fact that there are a lot of trolls on the internet, it’s still worrying to find ‘ordinary’ (for want of a better word) people who felt this story warranted personal attacks on his character and on the Muslim population.
“What a tosser and were expected to have him as our next Mayor.”
“It isn’t a phobia when they say that they want to kill you.”
“I am sick and tired of hearing, seeing and reading about Islam, muslims, sharia, jihad and the rest of the dark ages nonsense. Maybe the rich West could commission islands somewhere where they could all go and live in their caliphate or whatever they want to call it and leave the rest of the civilised world alone.”
“SINCE WHEN HAS ISLAM BEING A RACE”? It is a religion not a race.” – This seemed to be a favourite among commentators, a Guardian article explained perfectly why discriminating against Islam can still be racist towards Muslims.
“The whole point of the article is this man’s stupidity and either ignorance, denial or deceit.”
No, that was not the point of the article. The point of the article was that over 100 people, Muslim AND non-Muslim, had attended the meeting at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their views on the Prevent programme, and almost everyone agreed with Mr Afzal. They support his views and are going to make efforts to boycott it. The leader of Birmingham City Council will be seeking urgent clarification from the councillor and there have been speculation over whether he will become the next Lord Mayor this May. With the backing of so many supporters and campaign groups like Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism, will the council deny there is a problem with Prevent?