Blame the Muslims: Some thoughts on the Michaela School Judgment, Part II

In this second piece about the Michaela School judgment in the UK in April, Arzu looks at the context it was made in.  She looks at how Islamophobic narratives employed by the UK government and parts of the media have also undermined the wider education sector affecting the majority of school children, and above all delegitimised the minority rights norms instituted after the Second World War to protect minorities.

How do we get to the Michaela moment in British society?  It is but one of many education related scandals.  In this case as with so many others, toxic narratives about Muslims become part of legal and policy language and praxis, here culminating in a High Court judgment siding with a school that banned Muslim prayers.

This thread from solicitor Zillur Rahman unpacks how the judgment failed many criteria used by the judge to come to his decision.  Often, as Rahman points out, evidence in support of contentions by the school were absent: much reliance was given to the opinion of the head teacher without trying to independently assess whether her claims were well-founded; certain factors e.g. the idea that the child in question could easily move school and therefore there was no hardship upon her caused by the ban seem to have been based, as Rahman states ‘their [the judge’s] own thoughts alone – how informed those thoughts were on this issue is unclear.’



What Tropes have done

Narratives supplant evidence.  This is a key part of the context of this judgment, which highlights once more how political and social conversations involving Islam and Muslims in the current moment are perpetuating and further systematising institutional racism. There are two key narratives (though plenty more have been employed surrounding the case of Michaela) which have played out in the case and in the commentary afterwards: Islam and Muslims opposing British values; and Muslims attempting to foist their beliefs through intimidation and violence onto others.


Both headteacher Katherine Birblasingh and Minister for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch have averred to the idea that the child who brought the case was trying to impose her values and indeed that a culture of intimidation (neither proven or evidenced in court) had arisen once she and other children had started praying in the playground.  Media commentary largely took its cues from this trope.


The idea of the inherently violent and anti-British values Muslim in need of state surveillance and regulation is exactly that which has seen the extraordinary cases of children at school pulled up under Prevent policies and laws for completely innocuous comments, often subjected to police questioning, from ages 4 upwards.


A deeper dive into different flashpoints over the last few decades is now going to form part of an essay for the next issue of The Long View, suffice to say that this media – political circus is not new in town.


Part of the point of this is distraction.  As Arun Kundnani eloquently states in an interview for the Counter Narratives to Islamophobia in the UK (2018) report:


“Islamophobia is ultimately a symptom of bigger, wider, deeper issues in British society. Islamophobia is not just ever about Muslims, it’s about a deep social crisis. But the experience of Islamophobia is also particular to Muslims and has its own particular feel and texture and history and experience and so forth, and so, the challenge in taking it on is to both enable a space where Muslims can articulate and define their own experience and their own response to Islamophobia in Britain while at the same time being able to link that particular story to the wider crisis that Islamophobia needs to be linked to. And that wider crisis will be to do with the whole structure of British society in the end and therefore implicates everyone in Britain.”

If we are busy looking at the Muslims, we are not looking at the wider crisis in education, health, law, society etc.

It is also a way of tackling dissent.  Whether it is outrage at The Satanic Verses, opposition to the Iraq War, or police harassment in Northern towns, Muslim communities – especially the grassroots –  have been key critics of the British establishment.  Further, some have even had the temerity to propose solutions of their own.  This latter – whether expressed in terms of full scale political revolution, or simply of utilising existing paper equalities and opportunities for a  better life – have been crushed in ways that have exposed the hollowness of claims of equal citizenship.

The key example of this in education is of course the Trojan Horse (Hoax) affair: a non-existent scandal, based on an acknowledged fabricated document.  It not only destroyed the incredible educational achievements of the schools in question, it firmly succeeded in distracting everyone from the deep crises in the educational sector around funding, deteriorating standards and (not so stealth) stealth privatisation of the sector.

As former London Schools Commissioner and chief education officer for Oxfordshire and Birmingham, Sir Tim Brighouse wrote about the affair:

“So great have been the recent cuts in local authority expenditure that Birmingham and many other local authorities have neither the resources nor sufficient senior and experienced staff to carry out their role effectively. Worse, the arrival of academies and free schools has created an open season for lay people and professionals keen to pursue their own eccentric ideas about schooling: and when trust or governor vacancies occur, some perpetuate the very English tradition of inviting friends to join them. When the community is white it doesn’t cause much comment. In mono-ethnic east Birmingham, however, it is seen as a Muslim plot to expose pupils to an undefined “extremism”.”

Thus Muslims undertaking what other (read white, English) parents undertake in order to better their children’s educational circumstances, is pathologized when undertaken by Muslims.  There is neither equality of opportunity here, or indeed any logic to the criticisms levelled at those involved in the affair – parents, teachers, governors and school leadership teams have done.  But then racism has no logic.


Why Minority Rights?

Along with these attacks comes the ever louder cry of majoritarian rhetoric.  When David Cameron announced the supposed failure  of ‘multiculturalism’ and promoting the idea of ‘muscular liberalism’ in the name of ‘community cohesion’ he started a straight line that has ended (or perhaps just paused) in the Michaela judgment.  In the name of the wider group / larger group the school / government can impose its values and on the whole, and crucially impose restrictions on those minoritized in the discourse.  Not even actual minorities but the minoritized: school intake in the Trojan Hoax schools was mainly Muslim, in Michaela Muslims make up half the schools intake.  Those schools would qualify for any and all of the opt outs, rights claims and demands that minority rights norms developed in the wake of the Holocaust provide.  The following paragraphs are adapted from something I co-wrote in 2006 on the issue of schooling, with lead authors Saied R. Ameli and Aliya Azam.

Those rights provide for the rights of parents to have educational choice: the right to minority education, and the rights of parents to choose the type of their child’s education are enshrined in international documents and norms, and all arguments to the contrary do not simply disregard those norms, but are prone to emulate or create the atmosphere of division, hatred and violence that those international norms were created to move away from. Put simply, the role of education in the interwar years and throughout the Nazi era in Europe habituated majority populations to the idea that those unlike them were not equal to them. This process was not nearly as crude as many may think, but the result of the institutionalisation of deeply held prejudices that operated at systemic levels within education systems to the detriment of minority pupils.

This detriment eventuated into violence, perpetrated not by the minority but by the majority. Characteristics of that process of systemisation was the invocation at policy level of the rights, importance and singularity of nation as defined by the elite and democratically elected legislatures of those nations. In other words, monocentric and ideologically rigid education systems necessarily violate the principles of individual, minority and ultimately societal human rights.

In a climate where fear of the other and their presumed inherent potential for violence exist, it is worth remembering that historically in Europe these presuppositions led to extreme violence against the minorities from whence threat was perceived and not vice-versa.

Yes, I did say that in 2006.  And yes, I am saying it again in 2024.  This is the context of the Michaela judgment.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher.  Find our more about her on this site.