The "Memo from Birmingham" in Monday's New York Times, "Reading, Writing and Allegations," by reporter Katrin Bennhold, partially whitewashed the problem of Islamic separatism and possible tolerance for extremism at a high school in Birmingham, England.
Bennhold, playing lightly over allegations against Park View School, strove to make a recent UK government investigation sound ludicrous and prejudiced.
When the three government inspectors came to Park View School to look for evidence of a purported takeover by Islamists, one of them joked about the many “beards” among the teachers there. They looked at the loudspeakers, the ablution rooms and the prayer mats in the gym behind the volleyball net. And, according to accounts by school officials and students, the inspectors asked teenage girls in white hijabs:
“Is anyone forcing you to cover up?”
“Aren’t you hot in those long skirts?”
“What are you taught about menstrual cycles?”
Park View, a public high school in a heavily Muslim part of Birmingham that was once judged one of the worst in Britain, now sends nearly eight out of 10 of its students into higher education. It is many times oversubscribed, and as recently as March, inspectors told the school it had again received top marks.
But 10 days later, as headlines about the takeover plot of Birmingham schools spread, the inspectors were back again. This time, they came to a very different conclusion: The school was “inadequate,” they wrote in a report published this month. The children there were not prepared for life in multicultural Britain and were not protected from “extremism,” the report stated.
An anonymous letter containing the accusations is now widely believed to be a fake, and most of the allegations of a takeover plot that followed in the news media -- forced prayers, gender-segregated classes and militant clerics preaching at school assemblies -- have largely failed to stand up to scrutiny.
The text box also gave the school the benefit of the doubt: "Intense scrutiny for a school that sends 8 in 10 students into higher education."
Not until the middle does Bennhold reveal reasons for concern, such as a "culture of fear and intimidation" at the school, a detail which would seem to belong somewhere higher than paragraph 12.
....the inspections of 21 schools in Birmingham after the widespread publication of the anonymous letter documented enough concerns to keep the issue in the news and the government on guard: Some teachers appeared to actively discourage girls from speaking to boys, and one school offered class trips to Mecca subsidized with taxpayers’ money. One teacher, apparently afraid to be seen talking with the inspectors, asked to meet them in a supermarket parking lot.
At Park View, too, inspectors said, some members of the staff were afraid to speak up. They criticized that boys and girls were taught separately in religious education and pupil development classes, and they said the provision of sexual education was insufficient.
There was, the inspectors concluded, “a culture of fear and intimidation” in the schools.
But Bennhold immediately squashed that revelation:
But in Birmingham, where more than one in five inhabitants are Muslim, many residents said they are the ones being intimidated....
Bennold quoted the school's head teacher as a set-up to give the school some positive PR:
“Is there a plot?” [Monzoor] Hussain asked. “Yes, the plot has always been to reverse the underperformance of Muslim children in this country and allow them to be both: Muslim and British.”
There is considerable evidence of success on both counts. On one recent afternoon, two girls were simulating a sword fight with plastic rulers, reciting Shakespeare in an English lesson on the first floor. Next door, classwork on Jewish, Christian and Muslim birthing ceremonies decorated the back wall.
More causes for concern were buried in deep paragraphs amid bland recitation:
There is, he said, a constant tug of war about how much religion is too much. When some students asked to use the loudspeakers in the schoolyard for a Friday call to prayer and requested ablution rooms to wash their feet before praying, they got their way. But when parents demanded that the school ban all music, they did not. Last year Mr. Hussain disciplined a teacher who told students they had to pray.
After the reporter met a bearded man at a mosque who told her, "Not everyone with a beard is a terrorist," she regained her emotion, lamenting:
But stereotypes die hard.
In the schoolyard, a helicopter was circling overhead, forcing 15-year-old Hayad Hassan to raise her voice. “When I think of extremists, I can’t help it,” she said, “I also think of guys with beards.”
The lead to Stephen Castle's related June 10 New York Times story laid out the case with less coddling: "A report released on Monday concluded that pressure from fundamentalist Islamic school board governors had created a culture of 'fear and intimidation' among senior staff members in a number of British schools said to have been the targets of a campaign to impose Islamist views on parts of the educational system."
The Times has a history of whitewashing concerns over Islamic school curricula. In 2006 the paper ran a puff piece on a Muslim Center in Queens teaching young Muslims the Koran -- and nothing else -- for up to three years, while noting as an aside that "the school may be inadvertently running afoul of state law."
In 2007 the Times took it upon itself to defend a controversial principal of an Arabic-language school who was forced to resign after defending the use of "Intifada NYC" as a slogan on T-shirts, going so far as to blame more-conservative rival newspapers the New York Post and New York Sun for daring to cover the news.