From Saturday's Daily Telegraph
This week, I was told about a London primary school whose pupils are overwhelmingly Muslim. It isn’t having a nativity play. There was a plan to sing carols in a lesson, but parents banned their children from attending. Mixed swimming lessons will soon be a thing of the past. Canteen food has to be halal. “This is effectively a faith school – a Muslim one,” says a teacher.
Maybe so, but a visit to the school’s website reveals that the school also has an official religion: multiculturalism. Two of the major festivals in the year are a “Red Card to Racism” sports tournament and Black History Month. And here there’s no conflict. No Islamic father has pulled his little girl out of a black history celebration, even if she isn’t actually black. (Many of the pupils are Muslims from Kosovo.)
I’m fascinated by the relationship between British Islam and public sector multiculturalism. We’ve got into the habit of thinking of the multi-culti brigade as fervent secularists. So they are – where Christianity is concerned. But they feel strangely at home in the company of Muslims whose beliefs are ferociously conservative.
How odd, you might think, that an ideology emanating from Sixties American campuses fits so comfortably with one that emerged from medieval Arabia. I’d assumed that the initiative was taken by liberals who patronise Muslims while turning a blind eye to their social attitudes. But that was before I discovered the Islamic Diversity Centre (IDC).
The IDC is based in Newcastle upon Tyne and calls itself “the only authentic source for knowledge on Islam in the North East”. Although it seems to be a small group, its website is beautifully engineered by an upmarket design agency. However, it’s the extent of its institutional reach that really impresses. IDC offers an “Introduction to Islam School Workshop” whose “trained facilitators… teach schoolchildren the beauty of Islam”. Staff from Catholic schools, among others, offer testimonials. There are also courses for NHS professionals and anyone in the field of equal opportunities. “The goal is to break down the stereotypes surrounding the Muslim community,” we’re told.
Hmm. That depends which stereotypes we’re talking about. It’s true that the IDC rejects Islamist violence and rhetoric. On the other hand, try clicking through to the profiles of team members. While there are photographs of the men, every woman is represented by an identical headshot showing a pair of eyes peeking out of a niqab.
This is seriously conservative Islam, in other words. Its courses aim to inform, not convert – but at weekends, IDC staff can be found proselytising vigorously on street corners. They run a New Muslim Support Centre “to meet the needs of the burgeoning numbers of Muslim converts in the North East”. Significantly, it also acts as a “Diversity and Equality Centre”.
Islam has a long history of accommodating itself to its host culture without watering down its tenets. In 21st-century Britain, that means pressing the Islamophobia button, and pressing it hard.
Would conservative Christians be allowed to extol the beauty of the Gospel in secular primary schools and hospitals? Don’t be silly. The public sector knows which stereotypes it’s happy to challenge and those it would rather leave undisturbed.
The IDC is a “non-judgmental place”, according to its advertisements. No doubt that’s true – so long as you don’t count the stuff on its website about the unrighteous burning forever in “the fire of hell”. But somehow I doubt that the subject crops up in diversity workshops.