St Stephen’s primary school: D- for cultural sensitivity and common sense.


As the father of two children I’d like to start this blog post by congratulating the teaching staff of St Stephen’s; due to their hard work and dedication the school now finds itself ranked amongst the best in the country. Irrespective of colour or creed, it is surely the want of any parent for their child to receive the best possible education.

That being said, as a Muslim (hopefully that doesn’t sound too much like Maajid Nawaz), my desire for my offspring’s academic success exists alongside a heartfelt desire to impart to them the values and traditions of my faith. Tolerance and the embrace of diversity has been one of the defining hallmarks of post-War Great Britain and it is the reason why millions of all ethnicities and religious traditions actively chose to make this country their home. As someone intimately familiar with the area I would posit that likely nowhere is this kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity more vividly manifest than within the boundaries of Newham borough.

It is therefore, with a consummate sense of dismay (and not a little anger) that I have observed the events of the past week. Ex parent governor, Arif Qawi’s implacable hostility towards Muslim religious conservatism was a matter of open knowledge. His (now deleted) recent comments on social media proclaiming himself as head of a “crusade” against orthodox Islamic mores may prove shocking to some but came as no great surprise to me. His profanity laced tirade against the respected imam of a local madrassah betrayed not only his visceral aversion to normative Islamic beliefs but also an arrogant sense of entitlement to dictate the religious practises of St Stephen’s pupils. His confrontational attitude and abusiveness towards those he clearly deemed backwards “immigrants” demonstrated his complete unsuitability for the role of parent governor and his resignation could only be received as a positive development.

Were it the case that Mr Qawi acted in isolation that should have marked the end of this matter but regrettably it is apparent that he did not. Worryingly the evidence clearly implicates the incumbent headmistress, Neena Lall in his campaign to strip Muslim parents of their inalienable right to raise their children according to their religious sensibilities. The now reversed ban on the wearing of the hijab for under 8s was not communicated to parents through any official channel but instead emerged via a Sunday Times article with (unsurprisingly) absolutely no consultation conducted in its drafting. As if this shocking derogation from protocol wasn’t bad enough, the article itself was characterised by its sneering tone of condescension; its concluding paragraph redolent of orientalist tropes of liberating Muslim women from native primitiveness. It is pertinent to note that Ms Lall is currently a fellow director with Mr Qawi of Quantum Trust – a limited liability company registered with Companies House.

Given the preponderance of evidence implicating headmistress Lall in this discriminatory campaign, and given her failure to observe both proper procedure and the decorum her position demanded her resignation should have followed. Sadly, thus far it has not. For that matter neither has a public statement of apology so quite how some in the local community see this debacle as a “victory” escapes me. Somebody who evidently views Muslim children as victims of their parents’ regressive culture and in need of liberating is not someone who should be running a school with a high percentage of Muslim pupils. In light of Ms Lall’s unwillingness to step down it is now imperative that the Department for Education intervene.

The right of Orthodox Jewish parents to send their young boys to school wearing a kippah or of Sikh parents to adorn their boys with a topknot (at least one pupil at St Stephen’s wore one) has never been called into question; and rightly so, as the donning of such accoutrements does nothing to diminish one’s “Britishness”. The campaign to denude young Muslim girls of their hijab can only be regarded, therefore, as a form of direct discrimination. Health and safety pretexts echo the spurious justifications offered up three decades ago to try and prevent the adoption of religious headgear by Muslim schoolgirls. As to child sexualisation: surveys do indeed point to a growing problem across schools in England and Wales. It is one bred, however, of the ubiquity of (easily accessible) hardcore pornography accompanied by increasingly permissive sexual attitudes – ironically something which the hijab stands in direct contradiction to. But regardless, whether one agrees with the hijab and its putative purpose or not is not a discussion germane to this matter. The salient question is whether parents have the right to dress their children according to their religious sensibilities; the answer to this is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

Regrettably the behaviour of Mr Qawi and Ms Lall finds sanction from figures of authority, in fact from no less than the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman. Her stated intent to have Muslim schoolgirls interrogated on their religious preferences (including the hijab) during school inspections was effectively a green light to those headteachers and school governors who harboured hostility towards Islamic norms that now was a favourable time to strike. Such demeaning and discriminatory behaviour towards our community’s children can only heighten the sense of resentment and further entrench the distrust many Muslims feel towards the authorities. At a time of soaring hatred and bigotry towards Muslims reckless policies such as these carry the very real propensity to disrupt the social fabric of local communities. It gives the message that Islamophobic attitudes carry officialdom’s seal of approval.

It would be remiss to omit the interventions during this episode of so-called “liberal Muslim” activists and journalists and two in particular: Amina Lone and Iram Ramzan. The latter was the subject of my previous blog post. The former is a failed Labour parliamentary candidate (2015) who the party last year barred from re-standing for election as a councillor due to her poor attendance. Since her already floundering political career came to an abrupt halt she has managed to reinvent herself as an “activist” for the “liberal Muslim” cause ensuring thereby a flurry of media interest, especially from The Sunday Times. It seems that the only qualification required for a career in “liberal Muslim” activism (with its obligatory Sunday Times column space) is abject failure in anything else (and lest I be accused of misogyny probably the best exemplar of this happens to be Quilliam Managing Director, Adam Deen [Hakkan Cerrah]).

Muslim girls often come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging them to succeed should indeed be a priority for educationalists with a genuine interest in their empowerment. As the recent successes of numerous hijab clad Muslim students amply demonstrates, this small item of clothing is no impediment to academic achievement. It behoves the relevant authorities to call a halt to any further “crusades” and instead to work with genuine activists to achieve what should be a common goal. Successful integration doesn’t require acculturation. As I often tell my daughter – who incidentally doesn’t wear the hijab – strive hard to achieve your goals but not for anything or anyone should you ever compromise your identity.

May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad.

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