[Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi (L) interviewing Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, at his offices in Whitehall, on June 26. Photo: Sara Asaria/The Muslim News]
London, (The Muslim News): Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has attempted to defend the Government’s controversial policy of tainting Birmingham schools with a brush of extremism and the use of a counter terrorism expert to investigate the Muslim majority schools.
In an exclusive interview with The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, Clegg also switched the blame of the ensuing Islamophobic frenzy as being caused by the media rather than Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who initiated the Government’s interference with the support of Prime Minister, David Cameron, on the basis of a known forged document.
“If there are people in British Muslim communities who are anxious, fearful or, worse still, feel a bit intimidated by the tenor of this debate, I want them to know that I believe, and I think most people do, that they have as much right to their British identity as anybody else,” Clegg said.
“The vast majority of British Muslims believe in tolerance, equality before the law and mutual respect between faiths as much as anybody else. And so I think at a time of heightened anxiety like this, it is crucial that we work with the vast majority of British Muslims who want to promote values of mutual tolerance and respect, rather than run the risk of everyone feeling that they’re being painted into a corner. I think that it is very unhelpful and very unfair if people feel that they’re being tarred with the same brush.”
Clegg said that he was very keen to make this point “loud and clear” even though he supported the Government going ahead with putting five Birmingham schools under special measure, lining up four for takeover and taking 11 others to task despite Ofsted inspectors finding no evidence of alleged extremism nor of extremists taking over the schools as claimed by the ‘Trojan Horse’ conspiracy.
As Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister has his own separate issues with his Conservative partners over education policy. In particular, he does not believe in the freedom given to academies that come under direct Government control, who have no requirement to follow the national curriculum nor employ qualified teachers
“It is of great frustration for me, that the recommendation to ensure that all schools deliver a core curriculum, hasn’t been supported by the Conservatives and this Government. And I think that parents should be entitled to expect that their sons and daughters are being taught by qualified teachers, or by teachers who are seeking a qualification and that all children, across our country, are taught a core body of knowledge. And I think that it is wrong of the Conservatives to block that.”
He agreed that this was not the fault of Muslims but of Government policy yet still denied that the Birmingham schools where Muslim pupils were in the majority were being singled out. “All schools, where there is a sudden deterioration or a sudden concern, are susceptible to Ofsted inspections,” he claimed. “There are many, many schools which don’t make the headlines, that aren’t covered by the media, where Ofsted go in and make aggressive recommendations of change.”
Like in a recent official statement, Clegg expressed his deep regret about the whole media frenzy. “There’s a real danger that people feel that a whole community is being typecast, that a whole community is being stereotyped and I think that that’s deeply unfair. Many, many, many British Muslims are as British as anybody else.”
“There’s a real risk, with the way in which this issue has been portrayed, the language that has been deployed, the somewhat shrill way in which this has been portrayed in the media, and this has made many British Muslims feel that they’re being stereotyped, that they’re being typecast and this is wrong.”
The way to redress the Islamophobic tone, he suggested, was to “make sure that people are treated fairly, is to speak up in favour of the values that actually unite us.”
The Deputy Prime Minister refused to answer why the former head of counter terrorism had been sent by the Government to investigate the schools other than saying the circumstances were known under which he had been asked to go.
He denied that the Government believed that Muslim students at the schools were potentially extremists.
“No-one on the Government thinks that the little children, who deserve a good education here, are terrorists.” But he added “If the perception is that people are being typecast, that people are being pushed into the same corner, that is unfair, it is wrong and I strongly believe that we need to treat people with respect and on the merits of the case.”
Challenged why the Government tends to treat Muslims differently to other citizens looking at them through the lens of extremism and terrorism, Clegg said, “Extremism takes different forms” and insisted that the last meeting of the extremism task force was “all about the rise of anti-Muslim extremism.”
“This Government has taken unprecedented steps to attack and bear down on the EDL. That’s not a form of violent Muslim extremism, in fact it’s a form of, in many respects, violent anti-Muslim extremism. I abhor violent extremism of all kinds and I think it’s incredibly important that wherever violence of extremism takes root, it is treated with the same uncompromising approach and that is what we’re doing in this Government.”