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DIASPORA: ‘TOLERANCE ONLY ON OUR TERMS’

June 09, 2019

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Protests outside Parkfield Community School
Protests outside Parkfield Community School

Since the beginning of this year, several primary schools in Birmingham have been subjected to protests by mainly Muslim parents — a significant number of whom are of Pakistani heritage — concerning Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual plus (LGBT+) awareness in the curriculum. Such has been the vitriol from this prolonged campaign that many staff members have begun to lose weight and have had trouble sleeping because of stress.

It all started when Andrew Moffat, the assistant head teacher at Parkfield Community School, came up with the No Outsiders programme to teach children about the Equality Act 2010, diversity and British values. Through the use of storybooks, they covered issues such as race, religion, LGBT relationships, adoption and disability.

In January, a petition was raised by a parent of one of the students, claiming that these teachings were at odds with the Islamic faith. Talks between Moffat and some of the concerned parents were unsuccessful in resolving the issue. This led to heated protests outside the school as well as some pupils being kept at home.

Protests against an educational programme teaching tolerance in Birmingham’s schools have shed an unflattering light on regressive attitudes within the United Kingdom’s Muslim community

Despite No Outsiders and other similar programmes being paused not just at Parkfield, but also at multiple other schools across the city, the protests only picked up steam.

At the forefront of this movement is Amir Ahmed, who has coordinated protests outside at least seven schools, and Shakeel Afsar — son of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Council head Najib Afsar — who has led the protests outside Anderton Park Primary School. Neither of them has children attending the schools they are targeting, although Afsar did attend Anderton Park as a child.

Citing concerns about what the children in his community were being taught, Ahmed told the BBC, “We are a traditional community — we have traditional family values and morally we do not accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have.”

Afsar, too, has claimed he is taking action out of concern for the children being taught material that goes against the moral values he believes children should be raised with.

The protests have shed an unflattering light on what can be perceived to be regressive and homophobic attitudes that are prevalent amongst many in the Muslim community. It is nothing short of a tragedy that a vocal minority of bigots have caused immense damage to the image of British Muslims.

These protests are homophobic, regardless of what those taking part may claim. It is farcical to see parents, who wave placards that read “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and claim that gay relationships go against accepted norms and moral values, take offence to being called out for their homophobia.

Jess Phillips, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley, is quoted by the Guardian as saying, “It is hate-preaching. The protest has to be stopped. I feel like everyone is pussyfooting around a load of bigots. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the schools. These are people with a religious extremist agenda. They are holding schools under siege.”

Birmingham school protests over teacher running LGBT lessons
Birmingham school protests over teacher running LGBT lessons

Indeed, schools should be a sanctuary for children and not be disrupted by angry adults and bigots with loudspeakers harassing teachers and staff.

Speaking to the BBC, Rukhsana Hussain, a parent governor at Anderton Park and a former pupil there herself, said, “Imagine going to school for eight weeks and having to see people shouting and chanting and humiliating the head teacher. How is this going to affect our children psychologically?”

It is unfair to expect the staff to suffer daily abuse and disrespect for just trying to do their job. The protestors have no right to continuously disrupt the children’s schooling or prevent others from teaching or accessing knowledge. Local political leaders would be correct in asking for an exclusion zone around the schools so that the pupils can study in peace.

It is the responsibility of a school to educate children about the society they live in. That is all the No Outsiders programme was doing. With the amount of controversy and outrage surrounding it, you could be forgiven for thinking that very young children were being taught about gay sex. But in reality, the stories were only informing children that gay people exist, and that it was okay to be different. How intolerant does one have to be to take umbrage at this basic education?

Whatever one’s personal or religious beliefs may be, the Equality Act 2010 has made it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation. It is the same piece of legislation that also protects people from being discriminated on the basis of their religion or ethnicity.

Andrew Moffat of Parkfield Community School in Birmingham
Andrew Moffat of Parkfield Community School in Birmingham

Muslims and the LGBT+ community, much like other marginalised groups, have a shared experience when it comes to oppression and persecution, especially from the far right. Many schools and organisations have implemented courses that raise awareness of anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry — something the protestors would be supportive of. It is the height of hypocrisy to feel passionately about tackling racism or Islamophobia whilst actively engaging in homophobia.

The parents protesting outside the schools in Birmingham need to learn that you cannot assert your religious rights at the expense of other people. You cannot accept human rights and pluralistic values only when they benefit you, and then deny others the same courtesy.

The parents also need to understand that the world has moved on, at least in the West, and gay people are proud, equal, contributing members of society. In trying to forcefully remove any mention of the LGBT+ community and calling them immoral simply because their love life does not conform to their conservative worldview, the protestors are depriving them of their humanity. If we truly want to live in a more open and welcoming society then we need to be more tolerant and understanding of those who might be different.

Ironically, the protestors have also unwittingly played right into the hands of the far right and anti-Muslim bigots, who are going to exploit the situation as just another example of how, according to them, Islam and Muslims are incompatible with modern life and British values.

Thankfully, there are those in the Muslim community who are showing solidarity with the gay community. Many have come out to condemn the protests. The Birmingham Pride parade on May 25 was led by Muslims walking arm in arm with Andrew Moffat.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, also a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, has long been an ally of LGBT+ causes. According to PinkNews, in a letter to Pride in London, he wrote, “I believe young people should be able to learn about healthy relationships of all kinds at school, and that includes LGBT+ relationships. To do so is the very basis of our decency as a society.”

At the end of the day, this issue can only truly be resolved through a meaningful dialogue and understanding. But it would be extremely unfair for this resolution to come at the erosion of the basic rights of the LGBT+ community. If most of the parents can be convinced about the benefits of these educational programmes, the hardliners can be isolated. As Chief Constable Dave Thompson, of West Midlands Police, said, “In this holy month of Ramazan, and as we celebrate Pride in our city, I urge those involved and those who can influence these events to think again and consider how they can come together to discuss these strongly held views and bring this protest to an end.”

Mohammed Zaheer is a political commentator and a former Labour Party candidate based in the UK. He tweets @mzaheer88

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2019