Is it really fair to accuse the British education system of failing British Muslims?

Cantab Allan Hennessy claimed on the BBC that British Muslims join ISIS due to unemployment and poor education – so, have you heard the one about the alleged Homerton jihadist?

Britain cambridge university islamic society isis Muslim

In Erin Moore’s book That’s Not English, she reveals a study that claims the average British person will say sorry on average 1.9 million times in their lifetime.

We apologise for everything. We apologise when we step on somebody’s foot and we apologise when somebody else steps on our foot. We apologise when somebody else spills his or her drink and we apologise when we sneeze. 

All little things, of course, but it contributes to our national psyche. It is often endearing – one of those quirks of British culture – but there are times we are a little too polite, a little too fluffy and a little too weak to ask the questions that matter most in society. 

In the months that followed the Paris terrorist atrocities, that suspicion has never felt more pertinent.

So here is something Britain should not be made to apologise for: we should not apologise every time a Muslim toddles off to Syria to submit to the homophobic and misogynistic death cult ISIS. 

On Thursday night you may have watched a segment featuring Cambridge student Allan Hennessy on the BBC’s late-night political show This Week

Cambridge student Hennessy goes head-to-head with Andrew Neil on the BBC

Cambridge student Hennessy goes head-to-head with Andrew Neil on the BBC.

Hennessy grew up on the same estate as Jihadi John, the London-schoolboy-turned-ISIS-executioner, and he tries to explore the roots of radicalisation among Islamic communities. He wrote a similar piece in The Independent entitled – “I went to the same mosque as Jihadi John – if I hadn’t got into Cambridge, I could have turned to radical Islam”.

As he breezed around his Mozart estate – or a “ghetto”, as he coined it – Hennessy mused: “Unemployment, poor education and far too many Muslims in British prisons creates a feeling of persecution.”

This followed his alarming claim in The Independent that he, as a Cambridge student, is “part of a handful of young British Muslims who the education system hasn’t let down”. He added that if he had not gained GCSEs and A-Levels, he could have been the one to walk “into the Stade de France with a bomber vest strapped to [his] chest”.

Allan made a previous BBC appearance following his Independent piece last term

Allan made a previous BBC appearance following his Independent piece last term.

Really, Allan? Is this truly a fair representation of the British experience for our Islamic population in 2016?

Let’s not be scared to say this: Britain is not a terrible place to be a Muslim. Most Muslims admit to this. In 2012, a study by the Muslim Council of Britain revealed that 84% of British Muslims self-declared their health to be very good, compared to 81.2% of the general population.

Did you know, also, that, as of 2012, there were a higher percentage of the UK’s Buddhist population in British prisons (0.67%) than there were of the UK’s Muslim population (0.42%)?

And so to Allan’s distressing claim that our education system fails too many Muslims. Well, this survey showed that 24% of Islamic population enjoys a degree level education, compared to 27% of the entire population. This is not failure. Work to do, perhaps, but failure?

And if the roots of radicalisation centre on a lack of access, despondency and desolation, just how do we explain the case of the alleged Jihadist sympathiser who attended Homerton College? Yes, really.

You may not know the story of Iimaan Ismail. Iimaan Ismail studied at Cambridge. Indeed, she was Vice-President of the Islamic Society here. Like you and I, she will have had cakes at Fitzbillies and she even wrote one column for The Tab in 2011.

She was 22 when she disappeared in October 2014. Her husband Nur Hassan had fled to Syria and a police source allegedly told national newspapers that she had showed “wilful blindness” over her husband’s extremism.

Her Facebook profile displaying her marriage to the suspected Jihadist

Her Facebook profile displaying her marriage to the suspected Jihadist.

Ismail was arrested but reportedly vanished upon release. Her husband is banned from returning the UK. When The Tab contacted the police this week, there was no update on her whereabouts but it was hardly a glowing endorsement. 

“We are unable to comment on individuals who may or may not have travelled to Syria,” a GMP spokesperson said.

So here we have a case of a young Muslim girl who achieved two A*s and an A at A Level, secured a Cambridge 2:i and rapidly marched onto the career ladder as a teacher in Manchester. Is she another victim of the damned British education failing our Muslim population? I think not.

Indeed, as presenter Andrew Neil pointed out on This Week, a recent investigation revealed that out of 18 British Muslims recently implicated in terrorist attacks, eight had degrees in engineering or IT, four had degrees in science, pharmacy or maths and one more had a degree in humanities. So there is scant evidence to support Allan’s theory that unemployment, poor education and too many imprisoned Muslims are the motivation behind joining ISIS.

Certainly, I can understand why our Muslim communities feel under threat. Hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by 70% in the past year alone and studies show there is a correlation between ISIS attacks and a backlash against British Muslims. 115 anti-Muslim attacks were reported in the seven days after the Paris attacks. Prejudice extends beyond violence. It is the suspicion towards Muslim children in British schools (where under the PREVENT programme, teachers are now specifically trained to spot the signs of extremism among the pupils). It is the accusatory look that a Muslim may receive on public transport. It is the headlines that ludicrously claim that one in five in British Muslims have sympathy for the Jihadi headbangers when in fact only 0.02% of our Islamic population have joined ISIS in the Middle East. 

In November, The Sun produced this inflammatory front page

In November, The Sun produced this inflammatory front page.

Yet it is possible to have sympathy in this regard for British Muslims while also questioning the accepted wisdom. Radicalisation is not the preserve of the impoverished or illiterate but instead of highly educated and in some cases affluent Muslims.

ISIS know this – it is why radical Islamists are having such an influence at universities and why on Friday they were revealed to have spoken at thirteen student events across the country last term alone.

So maybe it is not so simple. Maybe we need to look harder.  Maybe it is not all the fault of the British education system. Maybe we should not apologise.

Maybe we should instead ask why claims like these – which reinforce an “us and them” mentality – are so easily accepted by Cambridge students. 

Should we, in Britain, really be ashamed of the way we treat our Muslim people? In the UK, British Muslims have the freedom to enjoy our wonderful NHS, a free education system and to practise their religion without the kind of subjugation that their brethren are subjected to under totalitarian regimes in the Middle East. 

In Syria recently, a man in Raqqa was thrown from the top of a seven-story tower because he was gay. When the fall didn’t kill him, he was stoned to death instead. 

How can it be that anybody in the British education system feels a greater connection with these monsters than the British culture that is so welcoming? This is what we must strive to understand. I do not have the answers but I struggle to accept that our progressive society should be accused in this manner. 

For many of us, we might as well be talking about what is at the bottom of the ocean when it comes to radical Islam. The dreadful truth is that over a decade on from 7/7, we still have little idea as to what attracts this minority of British Muslims to leave their friends, family, education and civilisation behind and submit to extremism. 

But to grasp this, we must look beyond the clichés, empower right-minded Muslims as part of the solution and discover what can be done to remedy these feelings of hatred towards British society.

It is time to stop saying sorry, stop shirking the discussions that could make a difference and find some answers.