Thirty years ago, as editor of the Salisbury Review, I began to receive short articles from a Bradford headmaster, relating the dilemmas faced by those attempting to provide an English education to the children of Asian immigrants. Ray Honeyford’s case was simple. Children born and raised in Britain must be integrated into British society. Schools and teachers therefore had a duty, not merely to impart the English language and the English curriculum, but to ensure that children understood and adhered to the basic principles of the surrounding society, including racial and religious tolerance, sexual equality and the habit of settling conflicts by compromise and not by force.
Honeyford complained of the damage done by the multicultural ‘experts’, whose sole aim seemed to be ghettoisation. He recounted his efforts to explain to parents that it was in fact against the law to take their children out of school for weeks on end during term time. As a result of these efforts, Muslim activists packed a meeting in his school in order to make loud and threatening protests. Honeyford wrote from a spirit of genuine concern for children whom he was trying to protect — girls who were being forced into marriage, boys who came to school already exhausted from their lessons in the madrasah, children who were being brought up to believe that they were living in an alien place to which they did not belong and to which they owed neither loyalty nor gratitude.
In the course of his reflections, Honeyford made some harsh criticisms of the Commission for Racial Equality, a quango run by the leftist militants of the day, which devoted vast resources to propagating the message that Britain is a racist society and that schools had the duty to impress this fact on their pupils. Honeyford had the true but eccentric conviction that Britain is, comparatively speaking, not a racist society at all, and that our habit of admitting new communities and providing them with the educational and social resources enjoyed by our indigenous population goes some way to proving this. The anti-white and anti-British pronouncements of the people who were trying to undermine his attempts to provide an equal education to all the children in his school were, to his mind, far more evidently racist than any feature of the curriculum that he was striving to impart. And by pointing this out, he naturally poked his finger into a hornet’s nest of self-vaunting resentment.
He wrote true things about religious intolerance and sectarian murder in Pakistan. He referred to the hysterical nature of politics in the Indian subcontinent. He was dismissive of the ‘professional’ Asian and West Indian intellectuals who had made a career out of ‘anti-racism’. And he was scathing about the intellectual status of ‘polytechnic sociology’. He neglected to remind himself that his local university — the University of Bradford — had departments of sociology and social work run by the very people whose ideology he deplored. Very soon his school was surrounded by a rent-a-mob of diseducated students, dingy professors and fired-up Islamists, chanting ‘Raycist’, and calling for his dismissal. The local education authority responded, and Ray Honeyford was dismissed.
That, as we know, was not the end of the story. Honeyford’s articles were written before the rise of radical Islam, and were concerned with the more general question of national identity. He was sounding a warning that was bound to be ignored, given the profoundly anti-patriotic character of the educational establishment of the time. Honeyford was defending a social order founded on secular law and national loyalty, rather than religion. The nation, its land, its law, its language and its culture are things that we share. Religion is a thing that divides us. The activists who were attempting to take over Honeyford’s school were aware of this, and wanted their children to identify themselves as Muslims living in Britain, rather than as British people who happen to be Muslims. The idea that their children might be integrated into our kafir society was anathema to them, and they saw the school to which they were legally obliged to send their children as a thing to be either subverted or destroyed.
Things have moved on. With the London bombings, the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’, and the British-born Islamists fighting in Syria, it has become impossible to ignore the warning that Honeyford sounded. But it is also necessary to put it in perspective. Our society, like other western societies, is governed by a secular law. This law is defined over a territory — the territory of the United Kingdom. This territory is ours, the place where we are, the home that we must defend. We acknowledge our fellow countrymen not as fellow believers but as neighbours. And although our country has been, and to a large extent remains, Christian in its outlook, its official faith is that of the ‘Church of England’, in which term the crucial word is not ‘Church’ but ‘England’. Even our religion has defined itself in national terms, being a sanctification of the land, its boundaries, its language and its law.
None of that is true of the historical experience of Sunni Muslims. Their law is not defined over territory, but applies everywhere. It is a religious and not a secular law, and therefore cannot be changed by human beings or in response to local requirements. It is expressed through a holy book written in an international language. In every respect Islam provides an experience of identity, and it is an identity at variance with the nation state. If we did not think this before, we ought surely to recognise it now, when we are seeing the results of our misguided attempt to create a nation state in Iraq.
This does not mean that Muslims cannot be responsible citizens of a secular order. Atatürk created such an order in Turkey, emphasising the land, its language, and its culture, imposing a secular law and dismissing the sharia as antiquated nonsense, irrelevant to every true Turkish patriot. In Iran and Kurdistan, national languages and historic claims to territory have likewise permitted the emergence of nation states, with Kurdistan likely to be the sole peaceful remnant of the former Iraq. But we should heed Honeyford’s warning, and recognise that what matters to Britain, as a secular nation state, is the extent to which the rising generation of Muslims can become British citizens first, and Muslims second, when it comes to defining their public duties.
Inevitably Muslims will find things that repel them in the mores of modern Britain. Unlike the rest of us, however, they have an alternative identity. I share their revulsion towards the Big Brother culture. But I know that I am British, and that this defines my primary loyalty and the ground of my submission to our law. Muslims have the possibility to define themselves against their country, rather than as part of it. That is what Islamists want to see, and it is the message that those fighters whom we ironically describe as ‘British’ will bring back to our country from their time spent in imposing Sunni Islam on the Shiites, Alawites, Druze and Christians of Syria.
People often ask where are the moderate Muslims, the ones who identify themselves as British, and who will speak up for our law, our institutions and our values. It is a good question. In Sunni Islam there is nobody appointed as spokesman for the faith. There are no equivalents of bishops, archbishops and Popes. And while the Church has existed as a corporate person in law from Roman times, there is no such thing in Islamic law as corporate personality, and a fortiori no such thing as the Mosque. The churches have featured in our history as distinct personalities, with views, aims and responsibilities of their own, while the mosque has existed in the background of Sunni life, a sacred place of meeting (‘jami’) but not an agent in law. Christianity is an institution, but Sunni Islam is an identity. And just as no individual is able to speak for England or France, but only as an Englishman or as a Frenchman, so no individual can speak for Sunni Islam. All the more reason for insisting, as Honeyford insisted to the children of his school, that when it comes to identity, it is nationality and not religion that counts.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 July 2014