‘Britishness’, the ‘war on terror’ and education | Farzana Shain

(First published in Education for Liberation, 2010 ( December) pp 20-23)


In September 2010, fierce debate erupted in Europe following the publication of ex banker, and finance senator, Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich (Germany Does away with Itself). The book focuses on the impact of ‘Muslim’ (specifically Turkish) immigration on German nationhood, suggesting that the declining economic power of Germany is inextricably linked to the presence in that country, of a Muslim ‘underclass’. Sarrazin suggests that this Muslim population is under educated, overly dependent on welfare, overly fertile and prone to crime. Moreover, he specifically states that it is the ‘Muslimness’ or the cultural and religious practices of various immigrant communities (North Africans in France, Turks in Holland, Belgium and Germany and  Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain) that makes them responsible of their marginality  in each of those countries rather than the  economic disadvantage they face as a result of the declining manufacturing base in those countries.

Sarrazin’s  book provoked controversy and he was forced to step down from his post but not without political endorsement of his views. The German Chancellor Merkel, capitalised on  Sarrazin’s  populist arguments in October 2010,  when she declared that multiculturalism in Germany had ‘utterly failed’ and that Turkish immigrants in Germany needed to make more effort to integrate into a ‘German way of life’. German language classes were proposed as a first step to this integration.

These points and solutions echo those made by then, Home Secretary, David  Blunkett about British  Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the  aftermath of the 2001 disturbances in the northern towns. Blunkett referred to need for these communities to abandon cultural practices such as arranged marriages and to integrate into a mythic ‘British way of life’. Indeed, since 2001, British Governments have engaged via the community cohesion agenda, in an ambitious project of redefining Britishness around notions of ‘active citizenship’, ‘rights and responsibilities’ and paid work.  Muslims, asylum seekers and generally those not in paid employment  have been located as outside the nation and its interests. Through the language of the ‘war on terror’ Muslims have been constructed as not only ‘unbritish’ but also a threat to the British nation.

I focus on some of the educational implications of this re-writing of citizenship through appeals to ‘britishness’ and the ‘war on terror’. The ‘war on terror’, itself a justification for an imperial project for a ‘new American century’, has had significant implications for education in Britain that need to be debated and discussed.

The ‘war on terror’ and suspect communities

In Britain, the increasing scrutiny of Muslims began in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair in 1989, but concerns about the supposed radicalisation of Muslims spiralled after 2001 and especially since the July 2005 London transport bombings.  Muslims have come to be identified strongly as a new ‘enemy within’.  In the early days of the  ‘war on terror’, ‘extremists’ were constructed in opposition to the vast majority of ‘law abiding’ and ‘peaceful’ Muslims. However,  immediately after the  London bombings in July 2005,  and even before it had been established that the suicide bombers were Muslims, Prime Minister Tony Blair unambiguously made a link between the bombings and Muslims saying,  ‘I welcome the statement put by the Muslim Council who know that those people acted in the name of Islam’. These sentiments were echoed in counterterrorism strategy which, since 2005 made direct links between terror and Islam.

After the 2005 bombings, John Denham, then Home Office Minister, went further to suggest that ‘few terrorist movements have lasted long enough without a supportive community’. A  supportive community did not necessarily condone violence  but saw ‘terrorists as sharing their world view part of the struggle to which they belong’.  Hazel Blears in a lecture at the LSE in February 2009, spelled out in more detail who these people might be in a supportive community,  notably. ‘the stay-at-home mum, the taxi driver, the neighbour, the dinner lady..the student – all of those whose decisions and actions contribute towards making an environment in which extremism can flourish or falter’.  In other words, any ordinary Muslim, even when not directly involved, could potentially provide support for terrorism. This construction of Muslims as   ‘suspect’ has legitimated a pre-emptive and increasingly coercive and punitive state approach to Muslim communities justified through notions of   ‘security’ . In July 2010, for example, hidden cameras were finally removed from two ‘Muslim’ areas of Birmingham after pressure from residents. Forty four of these cameras were hidden, adding further fuel to the sense that British Muslim communities as suspicious.

Perhaps the most contentious of recent government strategies has been the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) pathway of the Labour government’s Contest strategy.   PVE, one of four elements of the counter terrorism strategy, was officially defined by the communities and local government department as a strategy that aimed to ‘stop[ ] people becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism’ and  part of its strategy to build ‘strong and positive relationships between people of different backgrounds and a sense of belonging to a shared vision of the future’.  Over £140 million has been poured into the strategy and projects funded include partnerships between police, community and faith groups, mentoring for vulnerable ‘at risk’ students,  faith awareness weeks in colleges, English language and  CPD courses for Imams to teach them about the importance of issues such as child protection. Funding has been concentrated on areas with significant Muslim populations and ‘extremism’ redefined through PVE as specifically a problem of Islam. Other forms of extremism such and far right activism are mentioned,  but  government documents, the DCLG website and political speeches connected to the strategy have consistently taken the line that ‘the greatest threat at present from terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam’. PVE has also been supported by contentious militaristic language.   ‘Wining hearts and minds’ was the subtitle of the PVE action plan published by the CLG in 2007. This was a key slogan of the British in Afghanistan, coined in response to the heavy-handed tactics engaged in by US soldiers. Partners identified in the battle to ‘win hearts and minds’ include Muslim women who have been asked to engage in internal community surveillance. In 2009, the earlier notion of ‘support’ for extremism was further developed by John Denham into ‘tacit’ support when he suggested that even ‘silence can be interpreted as acquiescence or tacit acceptance’ for ‘extremism’.

The strategy therefore represents a mix of consent and coercion. The responsible active ‘good’ citizen is required to engage in internal community surveillance. As lambert and Spalek note, If they fail to challenge words and deeds that may be considered to offer support for terrorism suggesting that they are complicit in extremism themselves.  Teachers, college and university staff, alongside other professionals, have also been asked to be the ‘eyes the ears’ of security policing and to report signs of extremism in their students – even in primary schooling.

Teaching and the ‘war on terror’

Although the language of the ‘war on terror’ significantly declined with the appointment of the new Obama – Brown coalition in 2008[i], it continues to impact significantly on education. Yet, it is striking that at the same time as this increasingly coercive state approach – there has been little provision for the safeguarding of Muslim pupils who have been subjected to increased surveillance and harassment. There is a duty to promote community cohesion but ….

Citizenship Education has been a compulsory part of the curriculum for all 11-16 year olds in state maintained schools since 2002. The Ajegbo review of ‘diversity in the curriculum’ was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 bombings and fears about ‘home grown’ terrorism. The review, published by the DfES in 2007, added a fourth pillar, ‘ Identity and Diversity: Living Together’  to the existing strands of the citizenship curriculum. Yet, this review fails to make any mention of the ‘war on terror’ or contemporary racism in its suggested schemes of work.

Citizenship Education, from its inception, was seen as a possible arena for promoting anti-racist education. However, it has maintained the social control functions associated with the new right’s initial attempt to introduce it in the 1990s as a ‘cross curricular theme’.  Children are encouraged to be ‘good’ citizens and to engage with a narrow domestic notion politics but not to become ‘too political’.

As Cunningham and Lavellete have argued, the contradictions at the heart of citizenship Education curriculum were revealed when school students took to the streets to protest at the prospect of war in Iraq in March 2003. Rather than being seen as ‘active citizens’ who were exercising their rights to legitimate protest, they  were branded ‘irresponsible truants’. Some of those engaged in these  and other anti war protests were boys that  I interviewed as part of my research.  At the time of the research, 2003, citizenship education had just been introduced as a compulsory subject. The boys reported a spontaneous attempt to deal with ‘war on terror’ through a history lesson when two of them reported, ‘for a joke’ that they would join the Taliban. The history teacher’s abandonment of his prepared lesson plan, to discuss the issue was subsequently greatly appreciated by the boys who felt that teachers were otherwise prevented by the sensitivity of the issue,  from dealing directly with the ‘war on terror’.

Threatening such spontaneous and critical attempts to deal with the impact of the ‘war on terror’ on education, is the creeping defence of empire by British governments, especially since 2005. Blair, in 2006 argued that ‘this country is a blessed nation. The British are special. The world knows it; in our innermost thoughts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.’.  Gordon Brown is also reported to have told Martha  Kearney’s BBC Newsnight production crew in 2005 that ‘we should be proud… of the empire’ and  that ‘the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over’ and that  ‘we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values’. By claiming that the empire had given Britain a greater global reach than any other country, Brown specifically linked imperialism with enduring British values of enterprise and internationalism.

The theme of Empire has also featured strongly in current Education Secretary Michael Gove’s agenda for the history curriculum. In May 2010, he approached the pro-empire TV historian, Niall Ferguson to help rewrite the history curriculum for English schools. As Seamus Milne reported in the Inependent in June, 2010, Ferguson has politically championed British colonialism, stating that ‘empire is more necessary in the 21st century than ever before’. Andrew Roberts, also approached by the conservatives, has spoken of the British empire as an ‘exemplary force for good’.

At the conservative party conference in October 2010, Professor Simon Schama was finally unveiled  by Gove as   advisor to government on the reshaping of the history curriculum. Schama’s appointment certainly looks promising  and Gove suggested that Schama’s involvement, would inspire pupils learn a ‘narrative of British history’. As we know, there is more than one narrative on ‘our island history’ but Gove has made it clear which narrative should be told through the curriculum. At the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, he said,  ‘one of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past. Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom’.

Appeals to Britishness and empire at this particular moment can be read in several ways.  Les Back and his colleagues writing in 2002,  suggested that New labour’s  cohesion policies attempted to reconcile an ‘aspiration for a model of neo-liberal economic growth based on a rhetoric of globalised economic forces with an attempt to protect the social integrity of the nation-state’.  Community cohesion policies can also be seen to engender a shift towards an assimilatory politics of ‘race’ relations. From another perspective, the creation of a narrative of britishness, through Britishness tests, citizenship ceremonies and School curriculum britishness is an attempt to instil national pride at time when Britain’s imperial power and status as a leading western economy is in significant decline. The forging of a renewed British identity can be read in this context as an ideological mechanism to deflect attention from this picture of nation in decline.

Patriotic appeals to britishness can also be read as engendering an illusion of a cohesive society at a time when disadvantage and class inequalities through cuts to public welfare, threaten to become stark. The coalition government are already picking up where Thatcherism left off, in terms of creating ideological divisions between different sections of the working class. Cameron made a direct appeal to a ‘British spirit’ during to the conservative party conference in October 2010 with the Union jack flag prominently displayed in the background as he told Britons, ‘ your country needs you’. However, the savage cuts to the welfare state are currently being justified through the language of  ‘choice’ and ‘fairness’ that  ideologically  target and differentiate as ‘unbritish’, those, for example, who have large families, welfare dependents, the long term unemployed.  Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,  defended cuts to child benefit largely through a discourse of choice, suggesting that larger families should take the consequences for their choices and accept reduced government support. It is only a matter a time before this talk of large families and excessive welfare dependence becomes racialised as it has in Germany.

Ultimately  though, the ‘inclusive politics’ currently being forged through strong appeals to britishness and its embedding in the curriculum, represents the ‘softer’ consensual face of  more coercive  state  measures designed to contain and manage not only ‘problem’ Muslims but any form of dissent at a time when class divisions are becoming stark.   The harsh sentences meted out to Gaza protestors in 2010, are a sign of things to come and the legitimate right to protest is being severely challenged though such punitive responses. This coercive, punitive state response is being justified through appeals to cohesion and britishness.

[i] after the failed bomb attacks in 2007, Gordon Brown is said to have developed new guidelines for ministers directing them to ‘drop’ the ‘war on terror’ language and ‘banning’ them from connecting Muslims with terrorist attacks due to concerns of undermining cohesion (Daily express 2007); David Milliband acknowledged in 2008, that the government’s use of the ‘war on terror’ terminology had been ‘a mistake’.




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