Friday 27 May 2011

Taliban tactics in Tower Hamlets

I’m not sure why I’ve been so affected by the story of Gary Smith, the east London RE teacher who was assaulted by four Islamic extremists because they disapproved of him teaching religion to Muslim girls. Perhaps it was the sheer ferocity of the attack, in which a Stanley knife, an iron rod and a block of cement were used, and which left Smith with a fractured skull and a permanently scarred face.

Maybe I was taken aback by the unexceptional nature of what this ordinary schoolteacher did to arouse such naked violence. It’s not entirely clear precisely what Azad Hussain, Akmol Hussein, Simon Alam and Sheikh Rashid found objectionable about Smith’s teaching: whether it was the fact that he presumed to talk about Islam when he’s not himself a Muslim, or that he was teaching religion in an open-minded way rather than in the form of indoctrination (one of the accused railed against him for ‘putting thoughts in people’s minds’), or simply that he was exposing young women to the same kind of curriculum that’s available to young men. Whichever it was, none of these things is unusual in the British education system, and Gary Smith was only doing what thousands of teachers up and down the country do every day.

Maybe it’s that sense of familiarity, the feeling that Gary Smith was viciously assaulted for doing the kind of things that I’ve done myself – that sickening sense that it could have been me – that’s got to me. After all, I used to work in the East End - not in schools, but in colleges and community education projects, with young men and women from a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Back then (in the ‘80s), it never occurred to me to censor what I taught for ‘religious’ reasons, or out of fear of some kind of jihadist blowback.

I felt another kind of familiarity, too, as I read the shocking reports of the attack on Gary Smith. The thugs who were convicted of the assault came from places - Shadwell, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel - that have a deep resonance for me. These were the places where my Georgian and Victorian ancestors lived, where they were born, baptised, married, and worked – as shoemakers, carpenters, labourers, clerks. Indeed, one of my great great grandfathers had a boot and shoe shop in Burdett Road, Mile End, where the attack took place. Many of my forebears were members of a religious minority, too – they were Baptists and Methodists, drawn to these London suburbs because they were tolerant of Dissenters – but I can’t imagine them beating up those who disagreed with their particular versions of Christianity.

Then again, perhaps this event stood out because of its striking similarity with another story that I read this week - about the murder by the Taliban of an Afghan headmaster, simply because he had the effrontery to teach girls in his school. The two accounts had much in common: there was the same warped sense of religious self-righteousness, the same absolute denial of equal rights to women and girls, the same murderous violence in the name of religion.  Suddenly those Daily Mail scare stories about the ‘London Taliban’ didn’t seem so off the wall.

Finally, I suppose I was left perplexed about what would – and should – be the response of liberals to this kind of incident. I imagine if there’d been an attack of similar ferocity by four EDL or BNP thugs, against a local imam or mosque instructor, say, then we would have seen (quite rightly) liberals and anti-racists mobilising and marching through the area in solidarity. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything of the kind in support of Gary Smith. Where is the outcry from the teaching unions against this assault on one of their number, simply for doing his job? Has anyone planned a march through Tower Hamlets in support of freedom of expression or the educational rights of young women?

Perhaps I’m expecting too much, and maybe I’m getting overly emotional about a rare and isolated incident. But then I read that, in the same part of east London, religiously-inspired anti-gay posters and threats against homosexuals are on the rise, as are the pressures on young women to ‘cover up’, and advertising hoardings have been routinely vandalised. I don’t live in the area, and I can no longer claim to know it well, and for all I know most teachers, gays, and women in Tower Hamlets still feel safe to go about their normal business, express their sexuality, and wear what they want, without fear of what happened to Gary Smith.

But if not, then it’s something the left ought to take seriously. It’s a good thing that liberals and anti-fascists line up with ordinary Muslims to protest against the intolerance of the EDL. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons the EDL is able to gain traction is because of what people perceive, maybe unfairly, as the silence and habit of looking-the-other-way from the liberal establishment in the face of militant Islam. Let’s not forget that those who tried to silence Gary Smith, and those who threaten others because of their ideas, their gender or their sexuality, are fascists too - clerical fascists - and anti-fascists should as vehement and determined in condemning and campaigning against them as we are in opposing the EDL and the BNP.


This article is of related interest, though I don't agree with the author that it's all the fault of Labour, or that it's a symptom of the decline of Christianity.


Eve Garrard said...

Bravo, Martin - this is exactly right. It's appalling that there are significant parts of the Left that aren't prepared to voice support of the rights of girls to receive the same teaching as boys. Are they only concerned about equality when the girls are white? It's hard to see what could possibly justify this thunderous silence.

Martin said...

Thanks, Eve. My worry now is that poor Gary Smith could become a cause celebre for the likes of the EDL - when he ought to be a hero of the NUT and organisations like Liberty. Liberal-left campaigners are good at highlghting restrictions on freedom when they're the fault of by governments - less good at drawing attention to the attacks on freedom by non-state actors. Witness recent debates about the French burqa ban, in which liberals focused on the supposed illiberalism of the state in banning the veil, but said nothing about the actions / threats of 'community leaders' against women who preferred not to wear it.