“And yet the work of reporting on the Clarke report, aka Britain’s official narrative of the case, was emptying. Sitting there surrounded by documents, I struggled to imagine what other group of people you could do this to in Britain and get away with it. Trying to come to terms with how worthless people must think we are, that they’ll be comfortable assembling an official report riddled with errors and mistruths, submitting it to parliament, sharing it with prominent journalists to write articles about, all with no expectation that people wouldn’t believe them.” Hamza Syed, Trojan Horse Affair, Serial/ NYT podcast
These are Hamza Syed’s reflections on the Clarke report, commissioned by the Department of Education to assess the allegations about Birmingham schools made in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter. Peter Clarke was the former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard and was selected by Michael Gove for this job. An anonymous letter informing Birmingham City Council about a plot to ‘Islamify’ schools was now in the hands and realm of counterterrorism, despite the overwhelming opinion (including of Clarke himself) that the letter was a hoax. You can hear Hamza’s frustration with the report but also the overall handling of the Trojan Horse scandal. And as he rightly says, what other group of people could you do this to in Britain and get away with it?
The Clarke report is just one of many reports which has dictated the relationship between Muslims and the state in an era of counterterrorism. The UK’s counterterrorism infrastructure depends on documents. To quote Hamza again, we are surrounded by documents. Documents which outline how Muslim communities have failed to integrate, reports that Muslims are driven by an ideological violence that potentially leads to terrorism, and guidance for schools and other public institutions on how to handle the issue of extremism and radicalisation, again largely perceived to be a Muslim problem. It’s often hard to keep track but the narrative is well established. Nevertheless, it took a podcast from Serial and the New York Times to sift through the countless documents and confirm the toxic relationship between Muslims in Britain and the state which continues to grip communities.
As you listen to the podcast, it’s clear that the truth did not matter to the authorities. It did not matter that the letter was a hoax, it did not matter that it wasn’t clear who wrote the letter and for what purposes. These schools were infested with power-driven individuals who would do anything to cling onto the power they had at the expense of staff considered more inferior to them. At the end of the day, it is the children who suffered from the fallout of the scandal and continue to do so, with many former students reluctant to put the names of their schools on their CVs due to any possible repercussions. Being a Muslim in these spaces associated you with potential extremism, whether you were a student or a staff member. Muslim staff members who were driven out of schools even before the Trojan Horse affair came to light refused to speak to Hamza or Brian, the other co-host of the podcast, for fears of what could happen. Their refusal to engage was to protect themselves from the brutal British media who were adamant that an Islamist inspired takeover of schools took place.
Of course with the rollout of the Prevent Duty since 2015, this had wider consequences for Muslims in the education sector. It was no longer confined to Birmingham. Officials within Prevent will cite that the Duty is about all forms of extremism, including the Far Right. The purpose is to show that those racialised as Muslims are certainly not being singled out by this measure which aims to safeguard individuals from the threat of terrorism, which again is legislated towards the mass. They will argue that it is about vulnerability rather than race.
I often think about Nadya Ali’s (2020: 580) piece on Prevent’s racialised borders, in which she argues that “Prevent operates through racialized understandings of radicalization and extremism that ‘border’ (van Houtum et al., 2005) Muslim populations as a suspect community representing a threat to white Britain, while individualizing the violence of white supremacists as the work of ‘lone wolves’”. This was certainly the issue in the Trojan Horse Affair, which collapsed Muslim identity in Britain to ‘Salafi’, ‘extremists’ and ‘Islamists’. Again, it didn’t matter that the allegations were disputed; it was merely the strong possibility that these educators could be all of the descriptors above, as influenced by political rhetoric and understandings of terrorism and extremism in a post-9/11 world.
I was a primary school teacher when the Trojan Horse affair was unfolding. As a recent hijab-wearing Muslim, I became conscious of my more visible Muslim identity. I was teaching 4 and 5 year olds at the time who were always so curious about my hijab and yet I would have to take several steps back as a ‘just in case’. This became a sort of insurance policy for Muslims who are teaching, working and learning in an era of pre-emptive policing. Ultimately I didn’t trust that I would be supported if a claim was made against me, especially considering how vague the term ‘extremism’ is. I’ve heard from many other Muslim practitioners who have acted in the same way, given how Muslims in public and private were demonised. This didn’t get any easier as time went by and it certainly was not an isolated incident.
Tarek Younis and Sushret Jadhav (2019) have documented how Prevent operates in the NHS, with specific attention given to how Muslim medical practictioners manage the policy. In their article, they found that Prevent training and Prevent in general depoliticised Muslim identity and disciplined Muslims to essentially ‘keep their mouths shut’. It did not matter if those Muslims in the Prevent training knew that they were being told falsehoods about their identity and beliefs. There are of course other Muslims who are willing to attest to the truth of these claims, that Islam is a violent religion, that there is an extremist problem in the community and so on.
So it is not at all surprising that there is an issue with trust. Our ability to trust authorities and public narratives was hindered further for Muslims by the the raft of measures and policies aimed at curbing the so-called ‘Muslim threat’. Trusting our nearest and dearest was compromised by the Prevent Duty, as reported by Open Society, and other Government initiatives such as parents reporting their children for potential extremism, following the travels of Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to Syria. The reason why Hamza embarked on this podcast project was because he simply did not trust the official narrative. How could he, when he’s being told that the city he lived in was littered with Muslim extremists waiting to take down schools?
In Part 6 of the podcast, we hear how conflicted Hamza is as a journalist but more importantly a Muslim journalist when investigating this story. Hamza keeps saying ‘I never believe…’ and is adamant to change the narrative which shaped counterterrorism and education policy in the UK. Distrust is a common feeling for many Muslims encountering the security state as a result of the War on Terror. From Prevent in the UK to the detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, it is far easier to distrust, than it is to trust, officials. In the latter case, there were guards force feeding detainees through tubes in their nose in the name of ‘healthcare’. Muslim chaplains, like James Yee, were brought into Guantánamo to act as a sounding board for distressed detainees but he was then imprisoned for espionage, spying and aiding the enemy because the US administration believed he had ulterior motives. He was released after spending 70 days mostly in solitary confinement. Even working alongside the state does not entitle you to being trusted. As Muslims caught in the webs of the War on Terror, we both distrust and are not trusted.
After listening to the podcast, I picked up Rizwaan Sabir’s book called The Suspect. Sabir was arrested whilst an MA student at the University of Nottingham in 2008 for possessing an Al Qaeda training manual as part of his research. The police believed its intended purposes were for terrorism, hence his arrest under Section 58 of the terrorism law which ‘criminalises the collection of information that is said to be useful to somebody who is preparing or committing terrorism’ (Sabir, 2022: 53). Although Rizwaan could prove this was not the case, he said that ‘a Muslim did not have to do much wrong to be viewed with suspicion or classified as a terrorist and disappeared into the matrix of counterterrorism…the only thing that seemed to matter was my Muslimness and how that connected me to terrorism in the eyes of the police’ (2022: 30).
This made me think a lot about the Trojan Horse Affair and how in some ways, it’s an expected response of the War on Terror. The suspicion that Muslims are faced with invades our everyday spaces, from our universities to schools to our GP surgeries in the UK. If you are believed to be affiliated with an organisation deemed to be ‘controversial’ or ‘untrustworthy’ by the Government then that is enough to deem you as suspicious. As mentioned earlier, even former students of Park View were scared to include the name of the school on their CVs. As Brian says in one of the episodes, “they don’t want potential employers to know where they went to school. They actually keep it off their resumes”. Affiliation to an ‘untrustworthy’ organisation for Muslims is risky business.
In her book Tangled in Terror (2022), Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan recounts how the Henry Jackson Society felt her appearance on BBC Radio 4 was inappropriate because of her ‘affiliation’ to the organisation CAGE (2022: 149). Nothing ever came about but it was enough to show that Muslims are not free to work or engage in various work without scrutiny.
The Trojan Horse scandal (or hoax as many refer to it as) did not care much for the truth but what is true is that Islamophobia on the back of this affair continues to rage. Rather than see this affair as an isolated incident in Birmingham schools, it must be included in a broader conceptualisation of racism and policing. To deny these accounts, to deny that there is a problem with Islamophobia in society is to accept only one version of the truth, and that is that Muslims are not to be trusted.
But the Trojan Horse podcast did reassure listeners that there is space for truth and accountability, even if the ‘official’ narratives suggest otherwise. There is a desperate lack of transparency and accountability as the War on Terror continues to be experienced even 20 years on. Yet through our prodding and questioning, these official narratives – which have constructed Muslim communities as radical, risky and in need of securitisation – will start to unravel. Since the release of the podcast, I’ve noticed a revival in Muslim communities demanding justice for the wrongs of the Trojan Horse affair. From Twitter Spaces to social media posts, this is a community who have felt unheard because of their unfair dismissal and stigmatisation. There is a dire need to hear these voices, to listen to concerns and testimonies which speak against the narrative. And we too must help create and nurture those spaces.
Manzoor-Khan, S. 2022. Tangled in Terror. Pluto Press: UK
Sabir, R. 2022. The Suspect. Pluto Press: UK
Younis, T. and Jadhav, S. 2019. ‘Keeping Our Mouths Shut: The Fear and Racialized Self-Censorship of British Healthcare Professionals in PREVENT training’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 43: 404-42. DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-019-09629-6
Shereen Fernandez is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at LSE. She researches the impacts of counterterrorism and counter-extremism legislation on Muslims in Britain and is currently looking at the legal infrastructures of the War on Terror.
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Fernandez, Sheree 2022. ‘Truth and falsehoods in the Trojan Horse scandal’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):