“Teaching the history is absolutely vital”

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Mohammed Amin, prominent British businessperson and former chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, picked up the Iliad at the age of nine and thought: ‘sure, I can read that.’

He is known for sticking to his guns in the face of opposition, firstly from left-leaning muslims when he showed his support for the Conservative Party, and latterly from his conservative peers when he criticised the selection of Boris Johnson as party leader.

In conversation with blog editor Mary Ormerod they find middle ground on the importance of cognitive diversity for making good decisions, and the need to shake up the teaching of history.



Mary Ormerod: What has your experience been of studying history throughout your life?

Mohammed Amin: I’ve been interested in history all my life. I’m one of those people who’s interested in many things – the very first book I ever borrowed from a public library was a book on chemistry experiments. But I’ve always been interested in history…. I was really absorbed in Greek myths. As a teenager I read a lot of historical fiction and 4 and a half volumes of Winston Churchill’s six volume history of WWII.

At the age of 47 when I was at home for two months recuperating from an operation, one of my clients who knew my interest sent me a detailed history of the American Civil War … the first chapter gave you the fifty-year run up and you start to understand how divided the USA was between north and south, how divergent the cultures were, how divergent the economies were. When you read something like that, you realise the sheer impact and the devastation that the civil war had in the USA. You realise why in historical terms looking back over the last 220 years, which I think most British people don’t understand, if you were asked for a concise history of the United states, it should be: they rebelled against the British, they had a constitution, they had a civil war, and now it’s 2020. Everything else pales into insignificance compared with the American Civil War.


MO: Was it always that western, establishment view of history? Were you able to tap into other parts of history through family, or other parts of history that weren’t as popular in the mainstream historical canon?

MA: Not through my family, because as I said they weren’t educated and we grew up as a very nuclear family. But as a teenager, read Romila Thapar’s two volume Pelican History of India, a very heavy sort of tome, but I’ve always been interested in world history rather than just European history.

And you get a slightly different perspective on the world simply from the fact that you’re not white British yourself.

MO: What do you think about the campaigns to decolonise the UK history curriculum and bring that more into the mainstream of history education?

MA: Broadly I support them. I’m a trustee of a charity called Curriculum for Cohesion.

It’s led by Matthew Wilkinson who’s a very interesting person in his own right. He is the great grandson of the Lord Jellicoe who led the British fleet at Jutland, he was head boy at Eton, went to Trinity College Cambridge and he converted to Islam about the time he finished at Trinity. He’s been a Muslim for well over 20 years now.

He became a history teacher and, when the national curriculum was being revised in 2012, he came to me to say we need to get more input because there’s a massive absence of understanding about Islamic history in the national curriculum.

Absences are as important as presences. If you think back to your own education, it’s very easy to know what you were taught; it’s very easy to miss the importance of what you were not taught, because you weren’t taught it.

So revising the teaching of history to British school children as well as what gets into the media to reflect properly the history of the world and how the history of the world has impacted on the British Isles.

The fact that there has been some Afro-Caribbean presence in the UK for hundreds of years, that some of these people actually had some significance, if you look at the way that WWI was taught until very recently, it was as if it was just an all-white British army fighting in France. You ignore the fact that WWI had a lot of activity in Africa, in the Middle East, and that was important. And similarly, the fact that there were hundreds of thousands, in fact, millions of soldiers from elsewhere in the Empire and Commonwealth.

Come to WWII and we talk about Britain standing alone against Hitler – Britain never stood alone.

To focus very narrowly on white Britons is simply a falsified version of history and has the effect of distorting the way that we see the rest of the world today.

MO: Do you think that the continuation of that is laziness or an intentional agenda on the part of people in power to promote one narrative?

MA: A significant part of it historically is intentional. If we move to a slightly different topic for a moment, the contribution of Muslims to intellectual development, Arab Muslims in particular in the areas of medicine, science, optics etc.. Oxford and Cambridge have chairs of Arabic and have had for centuries because in those days learning was genuinely international and a lot of it used to come from Arabic speaking parts of the world. Christian churches, which are in competition with Islam as both are proselytising religions, have always had a vested interest in keeping shtum about Islam and its contributions as much as possible. It’s straight forward competition between two companies that are out to sell a product.

Similarly the people who are most unhappy about decolonising the curriculum are the ones who consciously want to paint a white British version of history for ideological reasons. Part of it is ignorance, but a lot of it is not. It’s deliberate.

MO: Is this linked to Islamophobia in the conservative party?

MA: Everything is linked at all times, it’s just the nature of the world. If somebody has a mindset which says that good things have only ever been achieved by people who are white British, they’re unlikely to be welcoming of ethnic minorities into a political party. It’s just the fact that things tend to be linked. It’s not a case of saying this is vast conspiracy. There is no conspiracy, it’s just a lot of people how have particular points of view who choose to promote it.

MO: What would break that cycle?

MA: Cycles break most strongly simply through demographic change. Old white racists don’t stop being racist, but they do die.

The younger generation is fundamentally different to the generation that went before. The younger generation is far better educated. I’m 70. When I was 18 about 7% of the population went to university. Now its 50%. And going to university genuinely does broaden the mind. That’s why there’s such a difference in voting behaviour and attitudes towards the European Union between younger people and old.

Secondly, there is far more international communication now than there used to be. It’s impossible these days, when China is the second largest economy and second most powerful country in the world, to think about an all-white version of geopolitics, for example.

MO: What do you think of the way antisemitism in the Labour Party is being handled?

MA: I read a book by David Rich, The Left’s Jewish Problem. He points out that, from 1980 onwards, the British and European Left had historically been very supportive of Israel. Certainly in the 1940s, for example, the British Labour Party was much more supportive of Israel than the Conservative Party. Gradually the British and European Left flipped around because they started to see Israel as a colonial power. That in turn has soured, so the Left started seeing Israel as hostile. In that situation it’s very easy for some people to start seeing British Jews, who are supportive of Israel, as hostile.

Jeremy Corbyn failed to get a grip on the issue, partly because he has such enormous blind spots himself. I don’t think he hates Jews but he’s very anti-Israeli and he simply failed to get a grip on it.

There is no doubt that the Labour Party’s political opponents wanted as much as possible to keep the focus on the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism for obvious political reasons. If you want the Labour Party to be perceived badly, and the Labour Party has an antisemitism problem, and if you’re a Conservative, you’re going to talk about that every day. If you go back and look at media interviews for the last couple of years, every time a Conservative politician was asked about the issue of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, they would instantly want to start talking about antisemitism in the Labour Party.

MO: Do Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the racism of which accusations have also levelled at mainstream politicians all stem from the same thing or are they separate issues?

MA: They’re all very different. One of the things which has been very different, is that the Labour Party’s problem with antisemitism went right to the top. Corbyn himself, the leadership around him.

I was asked by journalists on many occasions whether I thought the Conservative Party itself was anti-Muslim and I always gave them the clear answer, no, because the leadership of the Conservative Party is not anti-Muslim in my view. That was certainly the case under Cameron, Theresa May.

I’ve been asked many times whether Boris Johnson is anti-Muslim. The answer I always give them is that I have no reason to believe that he’s anti-Muslim, but he is perfectly happy to write articles that denigrated Muslim women if he thought it would help his positioning with Conservative Party members. I believe the article was written for a clear purpose, to show his far-right credentials in a way that gave him plenty of plausible deniability, because of course the article is actually saying we must not ban wearing the burqa. Do I believe he’s anti-Muslim? I have no reason to believe that, I just don’t have any evidence either way.

Johnson’s book called The Dream of Rome, a history of Rome, came out around about 2006. When it came out in paperback he added an extra chapter, essentially ‘then came the Muslims’ where he added on a bit about the rise of Islam. I was sent that chapter by a Guardian journalist to see if I wanted to make any comments about it. What struck me was that he just didn’t seem to know very much. It was quite clear that his research was based entirely on reading one book by a French historian of the 1930s who clearly had a fairly strong anti-Muslim agenda but also wasn’t necessarily very knowledgeable.

If you had a very traditional British education at Eton, you learn a lot about Latin and Greek and Europe and the Classics. You’re still left with this massive absence of understanding the history of Muslims and Islam because it doesn’t get covered. If you read his chapter, it’s all about Islam and how it held Muslims back, oblivious to the fact that for the first 600 years of Muslim history they weren’t being held back.Iit was actually the most progressive civilisation on the planet at that time, before it then started to stagnate for reasons we can get into. But before you focus on the stagnation period and the backward period, look at the period when it wasn’t stagnating and it was very progressive.

MO: What about the policies of governments over the past couple of decades? Are the policies themselves Islamophobic?

MA: No. Again, if you look at the issue of terrorism which is understandably at the forefront of everybody’s mind, Tony Blair was always categorical in distinguishing between Islamist extremism and Islam, Gordon Brown didn’t talk about it very much because he was Prime Minister in the middle of the global financial crisis. David Cameron likewise always took great pains to distinguish between the two.

I got involved in the political space around about then. In fact the very first time I was ever on the national news was in 2011 when the BBC rang me up because Cameron made his speech at the Munich security conference about terrorism and I was one of the few or possibly the only Muslim they could find who was willing to speak up in favour of Cameron. I was deputy chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum at the time.

That’s something I ended up doing on quite a few occasions in subsequent years when Cameron ended up making speeches on Islamic terrorism, Muslim extremism etc. and the problem always was that Cameron never quite mastered how to get his message across in a way that sounded more sympathetic, so he never sounded sympathetic to Muslims although if you read what he was saying it was crystal clear that he was totally accepting of the role of Muslims in British life and Islam as a major world religion, while being opposed to the ideology that leads people to support Al Qaeda and extremism. But he wasn’t very effective at communicating it.

MO: How has the nature of public discourse changed in the past few years?

MA: Let’s leave aside complete outliers like Donald Trump. In general I think the quality of public discourse has declined, in particular because some politicians are now much more cavalier with the truth.

There was, historically, a pattern: you could disagree about what you wanted to do, and people had different opinions, but they were willing to agree on the facts, and it was very rare for politicians to lie outright except if it was a case for example of saying they did not have an affair when they were having an affair, but then they knew they were lying.

We now get a situation where leading politicians are much more cavalier about the truth. Let’s take a concrete example. Boris Johnson was asked during an interview he gave at JCB in the beginning of 2019 about what he’d said on Turkey joining the EU during the referendum and he categorically denied on camera that he’d ever said anything about it. Of course in hours there were clips all over the place about him having said exactly that. I don’t think he was consciously trying to deceive, he just didn’t seem to care about checking. He could have said ‘did I really say that?’, but in reality he must have known what he said in 2016 – people don’t forget if they’ve made the same speech on several occasions.

I don’t know how he thought he could get away with it, but he just doesn’t seem to care. That really is debasing public discourse.

MO: Is that linked at all to his lack of information when it came to the history of Islam?

MA: In Mr Johnson’s case, I haven’t met him, but my long-distance perception of him is that he’s pretty lazy in terms of acquiring knowledge. He says things because he thinks people want to hear them, rather than thinking through in an organised way what his policy should be and then sticking to it. That in my view is why he’s been so catastrophic in dealing with coronavirus, he doesn’t want to give people bad news. Compare him with Angela Merkel.

MO: How can we, at a grass roots level, train the next generation to do a better job at public discourse?

MA: On issues where people have very strong opinions, they need to learn to understand that there is an opposite point of view and they need to be able to engage with that opposite point of view in a fair amount of detail, even if ultimately they don’t necessarily accept it.

I talk quite regularly to Muslim audiences about the Israel Palestine conflict and the challenge I always face is not that these Muslims don’t agree with the Israeli perspective, it’s that they don’t seem to accept that Israel could even have a position or perspective, that there is any kind of argument.

That is such blinkered thinking that it’s very hard to challenge it and deal with it when people are in their 20s. But when you’ve got children at school and the scope to control what they do in a classroom, you can give them some practice.

For example, people should be forced to engage in debating competitions where they have to support a proposition which is the opposite of what they believe. If you are fanatically pro-choice you should be required to debate on the pro-life side of the argument because you need to learn that there are alternative points of view, to marshal those arguments, to marshal the facts.

Coming back to Israel Palestine right now, it’s quite easy when Gaza is surrounded, cut off, to say ‘aren’t these Israelis horrible’, as if to say everything bad was entirely bad on the Israeli side of the argument.

You go to the centre of Hebron and you see how terrible it is and how badly the Israeli settlers are behaving in Hebron, and it’s very easy to have a mindset of Arabs as good, Israeli settlers as terrible.

If you understand first of all how important Hebron is from a religious perspective to Israelis, if you remind yourself that from a Jewish perspective what Muslims call the Ibrahimi mosque is, from a Jewish perspective, Muslims coming along and trying to claim their Patriarchs – from a Jewish perspective, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were theirs, not other people’s.

Muslims of course don’t see it that way. Abraham is mentioned in the Koran an enormous number of times. Even more, if you go back to history and you know what happened in 1929 with the Hebron massacre, you have a different perspective. Teaching the history is absolutely vital.

MO: Is there any overlap between working in business and finding yourself thinking about these subjects – do they affect your professional life?

MA: No. I spent one year as a schoolteacher and the rest of my career was spent as a trainee accountant and then as a practising tax adviser. And in the business world it’s entirely about what the client is up to, their commercial transactions, so there is no linkage whatsoever.

However, clients are also human beings and occasionally that becomes relevant. In this small firm I was training at, we had one company owned by a rich businessman who was Jewish and he had a ferocious reputation. I got on with him wonderfully – what helped me was the fact that I was a Muslim from an ethnic minority and somehow we connected better than he might have done with other people.

But for 22 years the head of taxes of an American multinational was my most important client and this guy was relatively intellectual, he read, he was liberal Jewish and we got on incredibly well. We had a lot of connection between us because of our intellectual interest. But that is the exception rather than the rule. In general the business world switches off from those things because they’re regarded as dangerous and probably rightly so.

MO: Did you ever feel discriminated against?

MA: Nope.

Well, I can give you one concrete illustration of real discrimination.

Back in the mid-2000s I became the tax partner in Manchester of an Irish owned company which was owned by one wealthy old Irish person and I remember the senior tax partner coming in to see me feeling very embarrassed because this old Irish guy had learned that his tax partner in the UK was a Muslim and he was very racist, he didn’t want to have a Pakistani tax partner.

What we wanted to do rather than making a big stand on the issue because frankly it was a valuable client, my junior was very bright and was likely to get promoted anyway, we agreed he would carry on running the job and I would remain the tax partner but disappear from the written record. I didn’t need to attend meetings; things wouldn’t need to be signed by me. That solved the problem.

You could argue it was a cop-out by PwC, but I was as supportive of the cop-out as anybody else because why risk losing the client relationship?

That’s the only example I can point to in my professional career.

There may have been cases pitching for work where you fail because you were discriminated against, but you never know. I’ve always believed it becomes far too easy an excuse for people to say ‘I was discriminated against’ so I’ve never thought of it as a potential reason for not winning something.

MO: What do you think about the investments being made in diversity in business?

MA: Kieran Poynter, the senior partner at PwC from 2000 – 2008, always used to make the same point, that diversity wasn’t just morally right, it was important from a business perspective.

First of all in term of winning work of clients, it was clear if we turned up to many clients with a team of old white men, we weren’t going to get the work.

Secondly, you’re cutting yourself off from an enormous amount of potential talent. You want the most talent people you can get, not just the most talented men, or the most talented white men. Once you’ve hired them and don’t promote them, you’re wasting the money you spent on training them.

And finally, this is something I’ve become more conscious of over time, there’s an enormous danger of group think. The more diverse the backgrounds and perspectives of people in a team, generally the better that team will make decisions.

That’s one of the areas where I’ve always helped because quite apart from being an ethnic minority, I just tend to think about things in a different way because of the person I am. That’s a contribution I bring to the teams that I’m part of. The team should be as diverse as possible, their opinions on the left-right spectrum, socialism and capitalism, religious beliefs, you name it. The greater the level of diversity, the better.

*This is an abridged version of the interview. The full recording can be watched below

Mary Ormerod is blog editor at Parallel Histories. Her day job is researcher and writer for RSG Consulting, a legal strategy consultancy based in London that founded the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers and Intelligent Business reports. She is a former student of history specialising in post-colonial discourse.