Turnaround: After First Mocking Concerns as Prejudice, NYT Takes Islamic Extremism in Schools Seriously

July 23rd, 2014 6:15 PM

New York Times international reporter Katrin Bennhold followed up her previous whitewashed story on Islamic extremism in schools in England with an update headlined "Report Cites ‘Aggressive’ Islamic Push in British City's Schools," which thankfully lacked the tone of mockery that marred her first report.

In June, Bennhold tried to make the UK government investigation sound ludicrous and prejudiced, summing up the situation with the regretful: "But stereotypes die hard." But a new British government investigation shows the situation in Birmingham, England even more disturbing than previously thought, as Bennhold confirmed in Wednesday's Times, albeit after some throat-clearing and hesitation.

First there was an anonymous letter outlining an Islamic takeover of British schools in Muslim neighborhoods ominously called Operation Trojan Horse. Then the letter was found to be riddled with inaccuracies and widely deemed to be a hoax.

Now a report by a former antiterrorism chief suggests that some of the concerns raised by the letter -- fake or not -- may in fact be real, the latest twist in a tortured debate about how to reconcile Islam and Britishness in a country that has one of Western Europe’s largest Muslim communities.

According to the report by Peter Clarke, the former head of Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism command, there was “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.”

Mr. Clarke said there was no evidence of actual radicalization, violence or encouragement of terrorism. But he told the BBC that “there’s clearly been a wish to introduce what has been described as a conservative religious agenda into those schools.”

Islamic hard-liners had gained influence on school boards, he said, “installing sympathetic head teachers or senior members of staff, appointing like-minded people to key positions, and seeking to remove head teachers who they do not feel to be sufficiently compliant with their agenda.”

Among the concerns highlighted in the report were calls to Friday Prayer broadcast over loudspeakers that were apparently stopped during a school inspection and complaints that female members of staff were not treated equally.

After noting that one of the controversial schools, Park View Academy, had improved its academic performance, Bennhold quoted school supporters who felt they were being used as a "football" in a culture war, but went on to spell out the causes for concern.

Particularly shocking, [Morgan] said, was evidence of a social media group, called the “Park View Brotherhood,” used by some staff members of Park View. According to Mr. Clarke’s report, the group’s online chats included explicit homophobia; offensive comments about British soldiers; a stated ambition to increase gender segregation in the school; and a constant undercurrent of anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. Untangling religiousness from extremism has proved especially tricky in a country that has never drawn a clear line between state and religion: The queen is both head of state and head of the Anglican Church. Public schools, while nondenominational, do not just tolerate the opportunity for collective worship, but require it.

As Newsbusters has previously noted, the Times tpyically downplays concerns over Islamic school curricula. In 2006 the paper ran a puff piece on a Muslim Center in New York City teaching young male Muslims the Koran -- and nothing else -- noting as a mild 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 in the city, forced to resign after defending the use of "Intifada NYC" as a T-shirt slogan, even blaming right-leaning rival newspapers the New York Post andNew York Sun for daring to cover the news.