‘A Study in Scarlett’, episode 5 of the Trojan Horse Affair podcast released by Serial and the New York Times, contained a reference that I wasn’t really able to stop thinking about. The hosts interview Steve and Sue Packer, two former teachers from Park View Academy (the school at the centre of the Trojan Horse scandal), who had spoken to the media – effectively acting as whistle-blowers against the school’s administration – and given evidence at hearings against their former colleagues, highlighting what they felt was an overt agenda to Islamise the school.
What struck me, in particular, was Steve Packer’s admission that he had also written a fictionalised account of the whole affair. It’s worth reproducing the transcript from the episode to fully understand how Steve Packer himself framed the novel:
This is my telling of the story of what happened to us at school.
I’ve written it as an Animal Farm type story.
So is this fiction?
Is it non-fiction?
How would you describe it?
It’s a difficult one.
It’s fiction, but it tells the story.”
The key, for me, is Steve Packer’s insistence that this was, “…the story of what happened to us at school” and, further, that, “…it tells the story.” What Packer was admitting to, was that, while being told through a fictional device, this book represented his understanding of the events that had taken place.
I am a fan of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and so I was immediately interested in reading the book to gain an understanding of how Steve Packer framed the events at Park View Academy in his own mind. On searching for the book online, the self-published e-book had been delisted from Amazon. This happened after its existence was made public by the podcast.
Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of the book from other sources, and was able to read it, live tweeting my thoughts as I went through the text. From the prologue, it seemed clear that Packer is very much steeped in a narrative of liberal Islamophobia, one which decries overt sentiments of racism, yet takes issue with the way in which Muslims practice their faith. The problem isn’t the cultures of being Muslim, but rather Islam in the way they practice it. From the second page of the novel, Packer writes:
“It was because we wanted, as a society, to be tolerant and open-minded that we allowed the intolerant, dogmatic and fanatical to flourish.” (Packer, 2)
Part of an ever-entrenching European political discourse on the place of Muslims and Islam has very much been framed of their being intolerant of tolerance. The central concern on the Muslim question in this discourse, as Mudde argues, seeks to show how their own values would allow Muslims to behave in a manner that would enable them to live unquestioned within wider society. Packer frames his novel in the binary of liberal values of enlightened rationalist animals, against dogmatic religious ones. He worries that tolerance towards the dogma of the religious will change the very nature of their society (Packer, 5).
The world Packer presents is largely split into two sets of animals, those that are poultry and those with cloven hooves. The poultry seemingly represent British, or at least a European culture, while the cloven hooved are seemingly representative of Muslims. He explains that the majority of the farm society – Daybreak Farm – on which the poultry live are chickens, with a few other birds as minorities. The key feature of the farm, is the tolerance with which they all live alongside one another. Steve Packer and Sue Packer are represented through the chickens Croaker and Scarlett respectively. While the rest of the poultry believe in the deity Gallus, Croaker and Scarlett are presented as independent and critical thinkers, chickens who are able to use their rational senses to realise that there is no such thing as a deity-controlled world (Packer, 20).
The tolerance of Daybreak Farm is interrupted by the sudden arrival of the cloven-hooved animals. Bizarrely, Packer uses two separate sets of animals to make a distinction between genders – unlike the chickens who remain one species. Packer presents Muslim men as bearded goats, and Muslim women as sheep (one can only imagine that the metaphor of Muslim women as sheep was too powerful for him to keep Muslims as a single species). The goats and sheep are effectively presented as refugees, coming from farms that were ruined, to the happiness and tolerance of Daybreak Farm:
“We’ve had to travel a long way to get here. We’ve all come from the same farm, which was in the high hills many miles to the west. Conditions there were harsh, it rained a lot and the winters were very tough. Last winter many of our friends died when they were trapped in a blizzard and they all froze to death. In the end, the fanner decided to close down the farm, so we were moved here. On the journey, the truck stopped at one point and the goats joined us.” (Packer, 41)
There are all sorts of indicators that the goats and sheep are a stand-in for Muslims. For example, they follow the cycle of the moon over the sun in relation to their religious devotion to the deity Magnus – one that is similar to Gallus, but seems to be far more controlling over every aspect of the cloven-footed animals’ lives. Packer attempts to separate Croaker and Scarlett from the other poultry who are disconcerted by the arrival of these new animals – he wants to let the reader know that he’s not against immigration per se – but rather the way that these animals express themselves (Packer, 45).
Croaker is shown to be happy at the arrival or the new creatures, but when the goats take against the alpacas who are also on the farm, he is concerned that he cannot criticise the belief system of the goats out of fear of being seen as xenophobic. This circles back to one of the central anxieties that Croaker expresses from the very prologue, that by calling out the faith of the goats, he will be seen as a xenophobic.
This narrative has been peddled for a long time in Europe by those who have been central to the perpetuation of Islamophobia within the mainstream media. The views that Packer is presenting are not dissimilar to that of the right-wing commentator Melanie Philips who wrote in The Times that ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’, a view that has become mainstream through amplification in the media. The reality is that no religion is as routinely criticised as Islam within the public space. The most explicit example of this appears on page 79, when Packer coins the unoriginal term clovenophobia – by doing so, he is directly relating his concerns to the same ones raised by Philips and others.
It seems that Packer is aware of the wider discourse from right-wing think tanks and other media on the ‘threat’ of Islamic groups being entryists into UK politics – a discourse particularly focused onthe Muslim Brotherhood. Packer is again quite unoriginal in presenting the formation of The Goathood, who use entryist tactics to take over the farm. This narrative presents the idea of Muslims having and obtaining political power that will change the landscape of British society – akin to the narratives of white replacement theorists that have been an inspiration for attacks against Muslims, Black communities and other racially minoritised groups.
The intolerant views of the goats aside, Packer’s book rests on two problems. The first is that the goats attempt to use the tolerance of the wider society in order to impose their own version of religion on the animals at Daybreak Farm. The other is that the sheep are being denied their own freedom by being under the control of the goats, and the doctrine of Magnus. The chief architect of all this is the goat Blister – who seems to be a stand-in figure for Tahir Alam, the governor of Park View Academy. Blister uses the system of governance and tolerance to connive his way into positions of authority:
“He would have to bide his time, take it slowly, be patient. He would also need to be careful, clever, manipulative, scheming.” (Packer, 53)
The novel takes more sinister turns as Blister’s machinations take over the farm more fully – animals go missing and the voices are all shut down (Packer, 78). The novel goes into the realm of extreme dystopia, but perhaps speaks more to Packer’s own anxieties about Islam than it does about anything that was actually taking place at Park View Academy. Ultimately, as evidenced by the collapsed case against the teachers at Park View, the accusation of manipulation did not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, no teacher was charged with extremism, only with ‘undue religious influence’.
When it comes to the power of the state, Packer institutes the figure of Farmer Cobb. He is a benign force who doesn’t really understand what is happening on his farm and is happy for things to just swim along as they are, regardless of what is really taking place (Packer, 82). Even during an inspection of Daybreak Farm by the Ministry of Animal Development, the farm is given a glowing appraisal as no one really want to speak about what is going on, and would rather present a good picture of their daily life (Packer, 84).
This view, as a reference to the way that the government does not investigate Muslims, is not only wrong, but egregiously so. Muslims are constantly surveilled and made the subjects of all manner of investigations, and Steve Packer’s presentation can only be described as that of a conspiracy theorist.
Ultimately, Steve Packer exposes his own views as being bigoted against Islam, as he sets out the problems he has with the belief system of the Magnus religion, referencing a Day of Judgement and Afterlife in terms that are very similar to that of the eschatology of Islam (Packer, 109).
In the podcast, the Packers, explained that they were only concerned about a very narrow interpretation of Islamic practices being implemented in the school. The passages in the novel indicate that they had a problem with a predominant Muslim view on the afterlife. Further though, one might argue that Stephen Packer is more than bigoted, as he indicates his own belief system which poses as rational thinking, but replicates the narratives of white replacement theories – his conspiratorial thinking validate his fears.
To what extent was this motivated by a personal grudge, especially as we learn from the podcast that Sue Packer’s letters to those within the education sector highlighted an acting vice principal who was passed over for a promotion – that vice principal was her husband Steve Packer. Was there an element of the Packers settling scores through raising an alarm? This does seem to be replicated within the pages of the novel, except without the element of any potential personal grudge indicated.
When Sue Packer is questioned by Brian Reed on her claims about the operation of Shariah law, she exposes her limited knowledge at the time of writing her alarmist letter:
“This was an anonymous letter that I did after having the allegations made against me. I certainly wasn’t being treated properly.I wasn’t being treated fairly. And obviously, I was just doing some research into Sharia law.”
There is a great deal wrong with the book and the way that it presents the Trojan Horse hoax, but in reality this novel does the work of revealing Packer’s bigoted views. One can only wonder what it must have been like for his Muslim colleagues, students and their families to have to work alongside a husband and wife couple at the school who saw them – not as people who were uplifting their communities – but as dangerous individuals who were trying to change the face of British society.
With the entire fallout of the Trojan Horse hoax letter, Steve Packer is not only aware of the impact that his testimony against his former colleagues had at the Park View Academy, but on Muslims across the country:
“The events that occurred at Daybreak Farm continued to be discussed by animals across the whole country. They opened up a whole debate, not just about how farms were being run, but about the whole concept of tolerance and respect for diversity across all aspects of life. Questions were asked about who should really speak on behalf of groups of animals and to what extent doctrine should rule their lives. The Ministry even introduced the concept of ‘Animal Values’.” (Packer, 247)
The emphasis on ‘British values’ as part of the UK government’s Prevent strategy has resulted in tens of thousands of Muslims being unfairly targeted for their beliefs and practice of Islam. Even now in 2022, Muslim students are being told by police officers to regulate their belief system due to what the state now determines as its own central values. This is one of the consequences that has flowed from the bigoted actions of the Packers, a consequence that will forever hold them in infamy.
Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons, LLM), specializing in International Law and Islamic Law. He completed his Ph.D. in International Conflict Analysis from the University of Kent. He is the Research Director at the advocacy group CAGE, and since 2003 has specialized in investigating the impact of counterterrorism practices worldwide. He has published a wide range of NGO reports, academic journals and articles. He has written the book Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance (Hurst, Columbia UP, 2009); a chapter in What is Islamophobia? (Pluto Press, Chicago UP, 2017); and A Virtue of Disobedience (Unbound, 2019). He is the editor of the book I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security (Manchester UP, 2020). Since 2010, he has been advising legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Header Image Credit: Asim Qureshi
TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:
Qureshi, Asim 2022. ‘Islamophobia at Daybreak: a critical reading of Stephen Packer’s fictional account of the Trojan Horse affair’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2022.02.0007