‘Trojan Horse’ or a British Tradition?

Birmingham, Britain, 2014 — a scandal hit the headlines. A letter was leaked to the press which had been sent to the City Council detailing “Operation Trojan Horse,” a plot by a cabal of Muslim teachers and governors to take over and Islamicize state schools in Birmingham. A national outcry followed, and the government swept into action: the former head of Counter Terrorism Command led an investigation, and several people were banned from teaching.

But the letter, the police believed, was actually a hoax. Parliament’s all-party education select committee found “no evidence of extremism or radicalization” in the schools investigated apart from an isolated incident, and no “sustained plot.” A case brought against teachers accused of “undue religious influence” collapsed in 2017; it was revealed that government lawyers had been withholding evidence from the defense.

By then, the damage had already been done: careers had been ruined, high-achieving schools witnessed their exam results plummet, and the government, citing the “Trojan Horse” affair, significantly expanded its “counter-extremism” surveillance program, Prevent.

There have always been people who dispute the notion that anything sinister was happening in the schools involved; sociologists John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole, for example, wrote a book in 2018 demonstrating through rigorous analysis that there was neither extremism nor undue religious influence in them. But last month came a watershed moment, the New York Times released an 8-episode podcast series, The Trojan Horse Affair, which quickly became one of the most-listened-to podcasts on Spotify.

Documenting the investigative work of two reporters, Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, it tells how the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was told that the police considered the letter about the plot to be fake before he publicly spoke about “Trojan Horse” and launched an investigation. The podcast also points to who might have written the letter, forensically examines the allegations made against Muslim teachers, and features interviews with key figures involved.

Predictably, the podcast has caused quite a stir in Britain. In late February, an article appeared in “The Spectator,” a prestigious conservative publication, by (in his own words) “the most senior serving Muslim parliamentarian”, Khalid Mahmood — a Labour Member of Parliament for a Birmingham constituency. The article was tweeted by Michael Gove, who was exposed in the podcast. Its title, “What the New York Times gets wrong about the ‘Trojan Horse Affair,’’’ suggests the piece is sensational – a daring exposé of lies told in the podcast, perhaps, or a series of explosive revelations about extremism in Birmingham schools. Maybe, some might think from the title, it’s a myth-buster presenting new evidence exonerating Gove of the charge that he’d known the letter was bogus. Written by a Muslim politician in Birmingham, moreover, the article has a lot of weight to it.

But if you actually read it, you’ll see it’s very different from what the title suggests. The piece begins by describing the proceedings in Birmingham as an “activist takeover of schools”, an interesting description given that the takeover of schools was initiated by none other than the government’s Department for Education, which asked Park View, the outstanding school at the center of the scandal, to help improve other schools.

The podcast, Mahmood complains, aimed to prove that the letter was a hoax so that “trendy academics” could call the affair an example of “securitization.” He doesn’t mention that the podcast indeed shows not only that the letter was a hoax, but that the Education Secretary knew as much.

So far, the article has presented no exciting revelations, but most readers will be patient — a shocking takedown of the podcast’s findings might still be to come. Not in the next paragraph, though, which instead features Mahmood suggesting, absurdly, that the podcast “cannot deconstruct the detail” of the inquiries into Birmingham schools. In reality it painstakingly examines these inquiries and the allegations against the teachers. The reporters even interview Ian Kershaw, the man who led the Birmingham City Council’s investigation. “One should not overblow the Trojan Horse. Some people say scandal, it wasn’t big enough to be a scandal,” he told them.

Mahmood moves on to complain about himself being called a “Brown neocon” and Conservative Muslim politician Nusrat Ghani being accused of Islamophobia for tweeting that people in Birmingham “don’t want their kids taught terrorism conspiracy theories.” That was never an allegation, though, so it’s unclear where Ghani got the idea from.

The article plods further along. Mahmood mentions some individual issues: “vile homophobia and misogyny” in a teacher’s WhatsApp group chat (discussed in the podcast, and not evidence of undue Islamic influence in schools) and a failure of “child protection” (an allegation comprehensively addressed in Holmwood and O’Toole’s book). Still no refutation of the podcast’s findings.

Then, Mahmood begins castigating one of the reporters, Hamza Syed, for his “appalling” language in the podcast before producing the most extraordinary assertion in the article: the “challenge in Birmingham,” he proclaims, is that “a small number of activists are committed to developing an education system rooted in their own interpretation of Islam.” But the school’s Islamic ethos was within the law, and the case against the teachers (accused of “undue religious influence”) collapsed in 2017. Anyone could be forgiven for assuming that Mahmood simply stopped following the story in 2014 and has no idea how it progressed.

After some more complaining about an “activist milieu” and a suitably vague assertion that the podcast has emboldened “the worst elements” of Birmingham’s community, the article ends. As a piece of writing, it demonstrates just how utterly irrefutable the fact is that an outrageous injustice was done to governors, teachers, and schoolchildren in Birmingham. A politician has written an entire article, claiming in its title to show what the podcast got wrong about the Trojan Horse affair, without being able to point to anything it had got wrong.

Most significantly, the piece dramatically misrepresents the role of religion in British state schools, which are required by law to provide daily collective worship for pupils (many in Britain don’t know this). Park View school, at the heart of the scandal, had received permission from the City Council in 1996 to provide Islamic instead of Christian worship; 98.8% of its pupils were Muslim. In 2012 the Islamic ethos of the school was noted and endorsed by the government’s school inspectors. These facts didn’t appear in the ‘Clarke report’, which condemned the teachers and governors.

If you’re made aware of this context, Mahmood’s narrative appears completely farcical, if not outrageously misleading. The prayers and religious assemblies provided by the schools weren’t evidence of undue and problematic Islamic influence, but of Britain’s traditionally relaxed approach to religion’s place in the public sphere.

The Trojan Horse affair was a result of widespread suspicion towards Muslims, but also of secularization. In an increasingly irreligious Britain, the religious practices of Muslims trying to improve the educational outcomes of working-class children were targeted by people who disregarded the proper role of religion in British schooling. The Muslim teachers, smeared as wrongdoers, were not un-British “activists”; they were educationalists upholding a British tradition. Khalid Mahmood doesn’t seem to understand this.

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

About the Author: Imran M. is a student of History in Britain. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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