Competing discourses of the Trojan Horse affair

Kamran Khan

In the first episode of the Trojan Horse Affair podcast by NYT/ Serial, Hamza Syed asks, ‘Why, up to this point, has no one cared about who wrote this letter and where this letter came from?’ This is the focus of the podcast series.  We still refer to this series of events as ‘The Trojan Horse Affair/Hoax’ yet we know there was no plot. In a sense, the letter is everything and nothing at the same time. Evidentially it proves very little, almost nothing yet narratively it is everything and more.

What is clear from the podcast series is that the events covered and those thereafter rely more on particular narratives which have to be defended and maintained than evidence is itself.  If it was about evidence, there would be more follow up about a credible theory over who wrote the letter and to seek justice for teachers and teaching assistants affected by this letter.  If it was about the weight of evidence, members of parliament would be seeking investigations to scrutinise how things could be done better, to seek redress so that our education system is never ever one letter away from being disrupted.

The power of narratives is always present. The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on discourses, specifically competing discourses, can offers ways of analysing ’the affair’.  I will focus on three areas where he can guide us. First, I will outline the dependence on the ‘selective authority’ of the letter itself. Then, I will focus on the atmosphere and environment in which such discourses are lent credibility. Finally, I will argue how the authority of established discourses can be disrupted through what Bakhtin refers to as ‘internally persuasive discourses’.

The selective authority of the letter

It may be easy to think of the affair as a series of narratives, all clashing with each other, with authoritative discourses as the most powerful. Within the affair, there are three main documents which are especially important.  There is the letter itself. This is what precipitated the series of events in the first place. The other two documents are the subsequent Kershaw report for Birmingham City Council and the Clarke report for the Department for Education  The latter two reports are what Mikhail Bakhtin refers to as ‘authoritative discourses’. They are essentially discourses which are imbued with power and authority, held above other discourses.

Of course, the strength of the reports is directly related to the original letter. What the podcast does, is to question the authority of the discourses based on the letter.  Here things become murky in as much as these discourses very quickly become  ‘selectively authoritative.’ That is to say, they are powerful enough to have real consequences, yet malleable enough that they can be dismissed as irrelevant.  We know the letter was believed to be a hoax, even by those who acted upon it, yet its underlying claims of a ‘five step plan’ to takeover schools were held to be true.

Even to this day, the Trojan Horse letter is involved even though there was no Trojan Horse plot as detailed within it. At one point in episode three, former leader of Birmingham City Council, Albert Bore, states, ‘These steps were having the desired effect in a number of schools’ in relation to the five step plan for a takeover outlined in the letter. The Kershaw Report, for example, outlined how each of the five steps in the takeover applied to the schools he reviewed.

In seeking the author of the letter, Hamza Syed and Brian Reed effectively shake the authority and credibility of the letter as a source for raising alarms about an Islamic takeover. Framing the hoax as deriving from an employment dispute is very different to understanding it as providing evidence of a credible Islamic plot. In fact, the narrative would change entirely. However, the Clarke report, which Syed and Reed investigated as problematic, and the Kershaw report lend credence to the letter by consolidating the power of the letter.

This is significant since the Casey Review 2016 about integration and the Counter-Extremism Strategy in 2015 re-affirm the legitimacy and findings of the Clarke report and Kershaw report. Thus, we are stuck in a cycle of re-affirmations produced in official reports, each building on the other. This is why allowing space for the letter to remain semi-credible and ‘selectively authoritative’ works. It was used as a basis for a significant re-direction of security and education policy in England (and the UK, more widely), yet it is also held to be not credible in itself, while its provenance is considered irrelevant.

What always remains intact is a narrative that there was enough suspicion, evidence and wrongdoing to fundamentally change policy. Yet as Syed notes in episode 1,

“[Investigators] had found no plot called Operation Trojan Horse. They had seen no signs that anyone had been radicalized, no evidence of violence or planned violence. They didn’t bring any terror charges against anyone working at the schools they’d looked into. But despite all of that, despite finding no plot, investigators still concluded that something terrible was happening in Birmingham schools. The letter helped them uncover that Muslims had influenced the schools in a dangerous way.”


For some, these allegations of a takeover and extremism were revelatory which could be believed or not, but for others, they were already confirmatory. The hoax confirmed the most deeply held anxieties and appealed to the prejudices of some. It was effectively a green light for many to say: ‘we were right, these Muslims are a problem’. The allegations about the schools found fertile grounds for suspicion.

All of this points to what Bakhtin refer to as ‘ideology’. These are the formations of worldviews that we possess, shaped by past discourses and conditioned by anticipating how words may be interpreted and accepted by others. In a sense, the hoax was years, decades and centuries in the making.  This feeling of anxiety can cloud judgments. This is not simply an instinct for danger but, according to Nicole Nguyen, shaped by ‘racial formations, cultural histories, and social memories [which] inform who and what are considered suspicious and trigger our “uh-oh feeling.” In effect, these ‘uh-oh feelings’ are based on the volume of representations, tropes and discourse about Muslims. It is often more comfortable to draw on the ‘uh-oh feeling’ these than to presume innocence and question why and how we see things the way that we do.

Former Park View teacher, Steve Packer captures this discomfort and anxiety in episode 5. He explains, ‘There are some things you can’t describe in solid facts. When you talk about the atmosphere in a place, when we talk about how oppressive it was, there was not necessarily anything tangible about that.’ Similarly, former Lord Mayor Albert Bore is at a similar loss. Brian Reed explains in episode 3, ‘But when we asked Albert Bore what from those investigations had shocked him, it was telling that apparently nothing was disturbing enough that it stayed with him. He could only point to how governors and staff in East Birmingham had created what he called, ominously, an atmosphere. When pressed, Albert Bore is unable to speak specifically of examples of extremism

BRIAN REED: You’re saying “certain matters” and “certain objectives.” What’s the inappropriate thing that was actually happening? Because words like “things” are a little vague.

ALBERT BORE Well, yeah, well, sure, they’re vague.

But if you read these reports, it’s quite clear that things were — things were happening which was against the run of what should be happening in that school.

Bore is able draw on the authority of the report rather than specific instances. In fairness, Bore eventually relents and points to single-sex Physical Education classes which he attributes to the Islamic ethos being introduced. However, contrary to what Bore states, gender segregation for PE is not at all unusual in British schools.

In a sense, perhaps this is the nature of how Bakhtin’s ideology/worldview conditions perceptions of Muslims.  Through such a lens, any display of outward Muslim identity can appear a sign of a takeover, a threat, extremism and ultimately a danger. It is these conditions and histories which shape why a Muslim child explaining they would give ‘alms to the oppressed’ is readily interpreted as ‘arms to the oppressed’ leading to a referral under Prevent.  The Trojan Horse affair is a microcosm of how suspicion and risk is distributed towards Muslims and tells us even more about the anxieties and prejudices of wider society.

Persuasive discourses

Ultimately, the podcast offers cautious hope. Perhaps most significant is that for some Muslims it has been cathartic. It provided an outlet of what many felt to be true yet lacked a coherent narrative about the hysteria at the time. The podcast has shaken the narratives that many had by drawing attention to the details of the case.  Most tellingly, what it achieved was in bringing in voices perhaps not heard beyond the ‘they are potential terrorist’ narratives.

Hearing students talk first hand about their experiences, as well as teachers, helped place the contexts they were working and living within. In episode 1, we hear from former students at Park View and even a former teacher speaks about the perceptions of local parents as ‘ignorant’ and failed by the educators at the school prior to its success. In episode 6 we also heard the effect the affair had on the teachers implicated in it. Their lives turned upside down by the hoax. Some were also subject to an employment tribunal. The weight of pressure was not alleviated by the collapse of the misconduct hearings and they remain affected to this day, personally, emotionally, financially and of course, professionally. This is a fact that far too many are comfortable with as a cost of this affair.

According to Bakhtin, the extent to which we are willing to listen to and be convinced by new discourses and voices as ‘internally persuasive’ can determine the extent to which authoritative discourses are accepted. Words belong partly to those who utter them and half to those interpreting them. This is the success of the podcast. It shakes the foundations of the established narratives and unflinchingly places a mirror to wider society to reflect how and why the hoax was so easily able to influence British politics, education and media.

The objective of the podcast was to find out who wrote the letter but perhaps a more apt question would be: why does no one care who wrote the letter? Perhaps the greatest success of the series was that it has made people care and underlined the structural forces at play in avoiding the issues that arose, particularly around the audit report and employment disputes. Rather than allowing the ‘selectively authoritative’ discourses to frame debates, other voices and discourses, Syed and Reed included, were allowed to interact with what were considered to be undisputable facts.

Now there are others willing to engage. Some will remain silent in order to maintain authority, some will smear in order to preserve the central narrative but some will challenge. At the end of it: who did write the letter?  And why are some more invested in maintaining the authority of the narrative than wanting to know the author and arriving one step closer to the truth? The next step perhaps is to demand the truth.

Kamran Khan is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen. He has been researching the intersections of language and security/securitisation for over 10 years. Twitter handle: @securityling

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Khan, Kamran 2022. ‘Competing discourses of the Trojan Horse Affair’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):