Spectator article criticises reaction to ban on primary school girls wearing headscarves

A January article from the Spectator discusses the emergence of two distinct Muslim cultures in Britain. Cohen writes of the reaction to St Stephen’s primary school in Newham banning the wearing of the headscarf for girls under the age of eight[1].

Parents, mosque leaders, “and activists whopped up by the clerical agitators in MEND”, an anti-Islamophobia organisation, reacted angrily to the ban, tapping “into a wave of religious reaction that is barely noticed in mainstream society”, he writes. Subsequently, Newham councillors expressed their concern with the ban, and the Department of Education refused to get involved, saying that uniform is a matter for individual schools[2].

Cohen writes, “I could go off on a rant about the sexist and racist double standards of British society. I could say that if a liberal Church of England school were forced to bend the knee to Christian fundamentalists we would never hear the end of it”, implicitly criticising the nature of organisations who opposed the ban[3].

He goes on, “But I would rather end with a warning than a philippic. People at the school I have spoken to are close to giving up. Like many liberal Muslims I know, they wonder what the point of all their efforts has been. No one will defend them when religious reactionaries come hammering at their door. With honourable exceptions, liberals and conservatives, Corbynites and Tories, back away or, more often, choose the side of clerics”[4].

Cohen concludes that there are subsequently two Muslim cultures emerging in Britain: “Muslims who make a success of their lives are withdrawing now. They are learning the hard way that it is dangerous to try to help the communities they came from, educate children and fight misogyny”[5].

As they back off, they reportedly “leave behind an impoverished Muslim working class confined in its ghettos. Their isolation suits religious extremists well and … it suits middle-class white society too. No smart girls from St Stephen’s will be challenging their children for jobs and university places. The education system will keep them down: out of sight and, most assuredly, out of mind”[6].

Cohen’s reaction to this issue has interesting ties to a number of other issues currently concerning the Muslim community in the UK.

In an effort to prevent extremism in schools, in recent months, Ofsted has discussed questioning girls wearing the headscarf in primary schools, a move which has received criticism for unfairly targeting the Muslim community (see https://www.euro-islam.info/2018/01/09/ofsted-criticised-decision-question-primary-school-girls-wearing-hijab/ and https://www.euro-islam.info/2018/02/13/ofsteds-mission-tackle-extremism-british-schools-criticised-unfairly-targeting-muslim-community/).

The UK Government’s approach to tackling of extremism as a whole has also been the subject of criticism from the Muslim community among others. Recently, Sara Khan’s appointment as the chief of the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism (CEE) has been condemned for alienating other significant Muslim voices and arguments from the conversation surrounding counter-extremism (see https://www.euro-islam.info/2018/02/21/sara-khans-appointment-chief-commission-countering-extremism-stands-alienate-british-muslim-community/).

In addition, Cohen’s framing of those, such as community leaders and the organisation Mend, criticising the St Stephen’s ban as fundamentalist links to a statement made by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in January about the misrepresentation of Muslims who engage in public life. The MCB stated that Muslims “are held to a different yardstick” when engaging with the public arena, and in comparison with their non-Muslim counterparts, are treated with suspicion and over-regulation in comparison (see https://www.euro-islam.info/2018/02/22/muslim-council-britain-criticises-misrepresentation-media-part-larger-trend-affecting-muslim-community/).

[1] Cohen, 2018.

[2] Cohen, 2018.

[3] Cohen, 2018.

[4] Cohen, 2018.

[5] Cohen, 2018.

[6] Cohen, 2018.

Share Button


Cohen, N. (2018) ‘Two Muslim cultures are emerging in Britain’. [online] 22 January. https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2018/01/two-muslim-cultures-are-emerging-in-britain-2/. [Accessed 6 March 2018].