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The Trojan Horse affair; an official’s version

John Holmwood

The claim that ‘hard-line Islamist’ governors and teachers were taking over schools in Birmingham (and elsewhere) emerged in early 2014. The story was actively promoted in the media, fuelled by leaks from the different investigations that were put in place by official bodies. Eight years later and few journalists have sought to revisit the affair, not even in the aftermath of the Serial/ New York Times Trojan Horse podcast. The latter provided a detailed examination of the affair and the letter that instigated it over eight episodes. However, no British journalist working in the mainstream media has sought to re-examine the affair in the light of the holes in the official narrative that the podcast revealed.

Instead, the response has been to reiterate the ‘findings’ of a number of different inquiries – for example, by Ofsted, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), the Clarke Report and the Kershaw Report. They all arrived at similar conclusions and, so, the ‘facts’, it is held, are not in dispute. Moreover, the convergence among the different inspections and inquiries, is, itself, also confirmation that something was seriously amiss.

This official version of the affair is central to a recent book on its aftermath, The Birmingham Book: Lessons in urban education leadership and policy from the Trojan Horse affair, edited by one of the key figures in a number of the inquiries, Colin Diamond. Although not responding to the podcast directly –  he is reported elsewhere as calling it ‘one-sided’ and ‘unethical’ – the book covers the main events, albeit with an eye on the future beyond the affair and the lessons learned.

The ‘facts’ that he and most other commentators believe to be confirmed, however, derive from uncorroborated claims by ‘whistleblowers’. These were leaked to the media by the Department for Education (DfE), and, to a lesser extent, by Birmingham City Council (BCC). They were later set out in the Clarke and Kershaw reports, both published in July 2014, where it was argued that they formed a pattern. However, no specific allegation was tested in these reports. The implication was that, even if some of the claims could not be corroborated, sufficient of them would remain to prove the case against the teachers and governors. Paragraph 6.6 of the Clarke Report, for example, lists 20 allegations against Park View School, together with the laconic observation that, “it is only fair to point out the Trust disputed most, if not all, of the … allegations.” As we shall see, the various inquiries were also not independent of each other.

The affair unravels

I will begin with the part of the Trojan Horse affair that Colin Diamond and mainstream media commentators do not discuss. This is what happened after the Clarke and Kershaw reports were published. Clarke proposed that professional misconduct hearings should be pursued against those involved. Cases were not begun against teachers and senior leaders associated with Park View Education Trust (PVET) until September 2015 and against teachers at Oldknow in November 2015. They were the first time that the allegations were properly formulated and the evidence to support the charges put forward. This was well over a year after the claims against the teachers were publicised and after major changes to the government’s counter extremism strategy, Prevent, were introduced following the affair (the consequences of the affair in a new Prevent duty on schools and other providers of public services plays little part in Diamond’s book).

Many of the lurid claims that formed the media narratives – of both conservative and liberal commentators, alike – did not make the ‘cut’. Moreover, the overarching charge that was laid against the teachers had nothing to do with ‘extremism’, but involved, ‘agreeing with others to the inclusion of an undue amount of religious influence in the education of pupils’ (as it was put in the NCTL Hearing against the senior leaders at PVET).

The cases dragged on for over eighteen months and in May 2017, the main case against the senior leaders collapsed and other actions were discontinued. The reason was malpractice by lawyers acting for the government who had failed to disclose evidence relevant to the defence. There was some outrage expressed in the media that the teachers had ‘got off’. There was no examination of the implications of the collapse from the perspective of the veracity of the claims made against them, nor of the nature of the charges that had been put forward against them.

Yet from the first headlines about the affair in March 2014, its scale and scope had been slowly unravelling. It had started with 21 Ofsted investigations, 2 EFA investigations and 2 official reports, but had come to focus on just 4 schools. Media reports at the height of the affair anticipated as many as 100 teachers being charged with professional misconduct. In the event, 6 hearings were planned, involving just 12 teachers.

One hearing involving 2 teachers failed to get to the starting line; then there were 10. One hearing involving 2 teachers provided a guilty verdict, which was quashed at the High Court for procedural irregularities associated with non-disclosure of evidence; then there were 8. Another hearing ended with a not proven verdict, and  one other found the teacher guilty of minor irregularities meriting no further action; now there were 6.

The most significant of the cases involved 5 senior leaders at PVET (those charged included the white, atheist female head teacher and senior executive at the Trust, and a Sikh teacher). The collapse of this case left just 1 person, the acting head teacher at Oldknow who had joined the school in April 2013. He was found guilty. His case had been brought later than the others (in November 2015), but it concluded before the High Court quashed the first case, precipitating the concerns about the non-disclosure of evidence. By the time that the full extent of the misconduct by the government’s lawyers had become evident, he was out of time for an appeal.

The slow unravelling of the cases against the teachers might have stimulated media interest, but it did not. The Panel’s judgement in the senior teachers’ case was also noteworthy. The defence had moved that the hearing be discontinued on the grounds that the case against the senior leaders had not been made out. The Panel was disinclined to accept this argument, but it also had to consider the implications of the newly disclosed evidence. It is important to note, as did the Panel, that the new evidence could have been included within the hearing. Although disclosed at a very late stage, it happened while the hearing was still underway and so could have been tested by extending the hearing (as had already occurred on several occasions). The Panel refused to discontinue on the grounds put forward by the defence, only to do so abruptly because of serious ‘impropriety’ by the government lawyers.

There was no media call for the lawyers to be charged with professional misconduct, no media examination of the specific charges that had been laid against the senior leaders, no examination of the evidence that had been put forward, or the arguments made in cross examination.[1] Instead, there was a simple default to the ‘facts’ supposedly already established by Clarke. Much of this is laid out in two episodes of the podcast (and in a book written by myself, together with Therese O’Toole, Countering Extremism in British Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair).

Cleaning the stable?

Colin Diamond was appointed in August 2015 as deputy to Sir Mike Tomlinson who had been made education commissioner for Birmingham. Three years later Diamond left to take up a post as Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Birmingham where he runs an MA in Educational Leadership. The book is the fruit of that experience. It purports to be an insider’s account of rebuilding school governance in Birmingham, but it is coy about subjecting the affair itself to retrospective analysis.

Instead, it is something of a ‘bricolage’ with school leaders associated with the MA programme supplying chapters, each introduced with an editorial commentary by Diamond. I will not address the chapters separately (which are of variable quality, including some that are very good), but how they are interpreted by Diamond. Overall, the flavour of the book is well-captured by the foreword from Professor Mick Waters: “reading this book, it is easy to imagine the screenplay for a film of the ‘feel good’ genre. The vignettes appear so often. With the right music, a cinema audience would be carried along with a story offering an emotional switchback” (page iii).

It is clear that Diamond sees himself as a hero in the story, but he is reticent about his role. He decries the ‘Islamophobia’ of Michael Gove and media reports and suggests that it is mistaken to see the affair as being about ‘extremism’.  Indeed, at one point in the book he also declares his opposition to the idea of ‘fundamental British values’  – he calls it a “latter-day exhumation of the Tebbit test incorporated into statute” (page 336). Yet, even if the duty on schools to promote fundamental British values was introduced after the Trojan Horse affair and seemingly in response to it, they were a central concern of the Clarke Report and the other inspections. They were cited in the banning order issued against Tahir Alam in September 2015, for “conduct which is aimed at undermining fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” Diamond seemingly affirms the veracity of the Clarke Report at the same time as distancing himself from its framing.

Much of what Diamond writes is self-justification after the fact, and it is not accompanied by any real reflection on his own role in the unfolding of the affair. According to him, ‘Trojan horse activities’ happened within the schools and needed to be stopped. Moreover, he believes that they were of long standing and have remained ever-present within the local community continuing to cause problems in the form of significant community pressures on school leaders –  for example, around LGBT issues (it doesn’t help that his introduction to a chapter on the parent protests of 2019 which discusses the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum at Parkfield school treats that curriculum as being about prospective changes in sex and relationships education; it wasn’t, the curriculum was designed to promote ‘fundamental British values’ under the new Prevent duty).

What is needed, Diamond argues, is strong leaders with good relations with local communities. Cometh the hour…

Trojan Horse, the prequel

Let’s rehearse how this all squares with his own role in theaffair as an official within the DfE drafted in to organise its response to the Trojan Horse allegations.

We know from evidence disclosed in the misconduct case brought against the senior leaders at PVET that the DfE’s Due Diligence and Counter-Extremism Unit (DDCE) were involved in the initial set of Ofsted inspections of 21 schools. They were also directly involved in the EFA inspections of PVET and Oldknow (these schools were the only ones where misconduct cases were brought against their teachers).

This preliminary focus on extremism in the planning of the inspections was denied by one of the inspectors in the hearings, but email messages prior to the inspections confirmed the active involvement of DDCE). Paragraph 124 of the Panel Hearing’s conclusions, for example, stated, “Had the emails which had recently been disclosed, and which had been shown to the Panel, been available at the time she gave evidence, the Panel considered it was reasonable to assume that, taking account of the thoroughness of the cross-examination, these emails would have been put to her to suggest that she had greater knowledge than she was prepared to admit with regard to the reasons for the inspections taking place.”

Prior to his appointment as deputy commissioner in Birmingham, Colin Diamond, on his own account, was the official at the DfE with responsibility for organising the EFA inspections. Like the inspector in her evidence to the misconduct hearing, he is also shy about the involvement of DDCE – “I was asked to pull together a team drawn from the department’s official educational adviser team (experienced school leaders and former Ofsted inspectors) who would work with Education Funding Agency staff to find out what was really going on in the PVET academies and in Oldknow Junior School following the Ofsted inspection judgements” (pages x-xi).

Diamond also fails to inform readers that the inspector involved in the two EFA investigations for which he was responsible – the one who was criticised in the Panel Hearing  conclusions – also went on to be educational adviser to Peter Clarke and drafted the sections on PVET and Oldknow in that report. So much for the idea that the different inspections and inquiries were dealing with findings arrived at separately. Moreover, they were all curated through the DDCE. Indeed, Mr Justice Philipps specifically commented (para 37) on the role of the head of the DDCE in amending the wording of the Panel judgement when quashing the case against the two teachers.

Diamond presents then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, as ‘paranoid’ about Islam. He refers to events a year earlier at Al-Madinah, a faith-designated, ‘all-through’ school in Derby. This, he says, “felt like a dress rehearsal for the events that unfolded in Birmingham in early 2014, and is significant because it appeared to prove to Gove that there was indeed a thin line between the political Islamism advocated by a minority of the Muslim population and the views of the overall Muslim population in the UK” (page 22). The school had been set up in September 2012, but was declared inadequate by October 2013. As Diamond presents the story, it went in a space of a few months from being outstanding in its first inspection after being set up, to being placed in special measures. It would turn out that it was its non-Muslim headteacher, Andrew Cutts-Mackay, who acted as a ‘whistle-blower’ against the governing body.

This was one of a number of actions against Islamic faith schools initiated by the DfE around the same time. The Ofsted report indicated serious problems of governance, while the EFA report was concerned with financial mismanagement and irregularities. Neither report indicated a prefiguring of Trojan Horse concerns with ‘political Islamism’ although there were media reports of ‘religious hardliners’, including by Richard Kerbaj and Sian Griffiths for the Sunday Times. They would go on to write the first media reports on the Trojan Horse affair. Moreover, although financial irregularities at PVET were alleged in their EFA report, none were found in a subsequent audit conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers notwithstanding it being flagged as a possible concern within the EFA report. Why, does Colin Diamond connect them?

He does not say anything about his own walk on part in the ‘dress rehearsal’ at Al-Madinah where he was part of the team seeking to find a solution. This included seeking the support of various educational bodies representing Muslim interests, which would themselves come to be discredited by Clarke. Ultimately, this initial intervention in the school proved to be unsuccessful and the DfE resolved the situation by closing the secondary school and incorporating it within Greenwood Academies Trust. It is this experience that preceded Diamond’s role in relation to the EFA inspections of PVET and Oldknow. It is disingenuous, then, for him to represent the concern with ‘political Islam’ as simply deriving from Michael Gove. It is something he also brought to his own engagement with the Trojan Horse affair and it was deeply embedded within the DfE.

I mention these connections because they are important in how Clarke approached the Trojan Horse affair under the influence of DfE ‘insiders’. The example of Al-Madinah seems to have suggested that a ‘turnaround’ at a school – from ‘outstanding’ to ‘failing’ – could happen over a matter of months and be occasioned by the government’s flagship academies programme which gave governing bodies and senior leadership teams a free hand. This scenario would seem to be crucial in the only successful prosecution, that of the acting head teacher at Oldknow who had only joined the school in April 2013.

Park View had become a ‘converter academy’ in April 2012 following an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspection report. It was then invited by the DfE to become a Multi Academy Trust and ‘sponsor’ two failing schools, Nansen primary in October 2012 and Golden Hillock secondary school in October 2013. This was the ‘takeover’ described in the Trojan Horse letter of November 2013 outlining an Islamist plot. Of course, the academies programme involved introducing the practices and personnel from the sponsoring school. So what was it that was problematic about Park View’s practices?

Let’s turn to chapter 5 of the Clarke Report which purports to discover the ‘ideology’ (a term taken from the 2011 Prevent Strategy) attributed to PVET and its ‘agenda’. The core of this ideology is presented across paragraphs 5.2 and 5.3:

“Rejecting not only the secular and other religions, but also other strands of Islamic belief, it goes beyond the kind of social conservatism practised in some faith schools which may be consistent with universal human rights and respectful of other communities. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to convert secular state schools into exclusive faith schools in all but name. This agenda, though not necessarily the tactics involved, appears to stem from an international movement to increase the role of Islam in education. It is supported by bodies such as the Association of Muslim Schools–UK (AMS-UK), the International Board of Educational Research and Resources (IBERR), the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the recently closed Muslim Parents Association (MPA). The movement provides practical advice and religious legitimisation to those who, in the words of the IBERR, seek to ‘Islamise the provision of educational services’. Some of the individuals who have featured in the investigation were associated with, or held positions in, these bodies.”

Notice that none of these allegations about ‘ideology’ would form part of the professional misconduct case against the senior leaders at PVET and Oldknow. But it was a framing that was being developed by the DDCE. It is part of Colin Diamond’s account of the pressures on headteacher Cutts-McKay leading to the rapid collapse of Al-Madinah after a period of initial success.

This was the script that set up expectations about what happened at PVET and, at least initially, positioned the longstanding Headteacher at Park View and Chief Executive of PVET, Lindsey Clark, as being in a similar position to Cutts-Mackay. Ms Clark was expected to describe similar pressures to those described by him. She did not; instead, she endorsed the policies and practices that she had implemented together with her Chair of Governors, Tahir Alam. And so it was that a white, atheist and feminist headteacher would be charged with being a ring leader in a plot to Islamicise schools.

Notice, too, a possible explanation of why no-one was interested in the question that animates the Serial/NYT podcast of who wrote the Trojan Horse letter. If the circumstantial evidence they set out points towards the headteacher at Adderley primary school (who was confronting a difficult HR investigation), she is positioned as potentially a ‘whistleblower’ similar to Cutts-Mackay and, thereby, in need of protection. This was so notwithstanding possible problems in her methods – as the podcast sets out, Colin Diamond was assigned that role of managing the Council’s approach to the Adderley employment tribunal, given that it remained an LA school.

School improvement

The main focus of Diamond’s book is school improvement, especially in urban areas and for working class and ethnic minority young people. His story about the lessons from Birmingham is straightforward. School improvement can be achieved, he argues, by good school governance and a proper appreciation of the cultural and religious heritages of the pupils. Birmingham schools had longstanding problems going back to the 1990s and involving problematic behaviours of parents, governors and teachers, against which some brave senior leaders had stood out, albeit with local leadership from Birmingham Council and national leadership fracturing after the acceleration of the academies programme in 2010.

But this narrative bears little weight even if it has traction within the media. Sir Michael Wilshaw was also reported in an interview with a Sunday Times journalist before stepping down as Chief Inspector of Schools, as saying that, “Birmingham city council is ‘a rotten borough … beyond redemption’, whose powers to run schools and social services should be overhauled because children are at risk … ‘the “appalling children’s services” and “awful schools” in Britain’s second largest city had been his greatest cause of concern during his five years in office. He warned that a repeat of the so-called Trojan Horse scandal, which saw a radical Islamic ethos introduced to schools in the city, was likely unless the government acted.”

The poor general state of the council’s governance was the subject of the Kerslake Report, commissioned in July 2014 with a view to its possible break-up. It deferred the matter of schooling (a part of the wider scope of children’s services) to Kershaw and Clarke, but provided a statistical analysis (in an annexe to the report) that was missing in the Clarke and Kershaw reports, which provided no data on school performance in Birmingham. Kerslake reported in December 2014 together with comparisons between Birmingham and other similar councils – among them, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – as well as England as a whole. On all measures – poverty, unemployment, adult qualifications – it was among the worst performing councils and below the national average.

The only exception was schooling, where Birmingham had out-performed all the other councils since 2008-9 in terms of the proportion of pupils achieving at least 5 GCSEs including English and Maths and had a higher proportion of schools judged to be ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

In effect, by the time of the Trojan Horse affair Birmingham was a model of school improvement. Indeed, an Ofsted/Audit Commission report in 2002 had declared its school improvement policy to be outstanding. Park View had also been a failing school in 1994 when Tahir Alam became a governor and, as Chair in 1997,  appointed Lindsey Clark as headteacher. By 2006 it was judged to be one of the most improved schools in England, and in 2012 it was judged by Ofsted under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s new, more rigorous inspection regime to be ‘outstanding’ and in the top 14% of schools in England by examination results.

In fact, it was an exemplar for the government’s argument that good schools could overcome socio-economic circumstances. For example, while 15% of pupils in schools nationally received free school meals (28% in Birmingham), over 70% of pupils received them in Park View, which indicates the deprivation which many of its children experienced. While over 80% of pupils at schools nationwide spoke English as a first language (64% in Birmingham), in Park View that figure was only 7.5%, adding to the immense challenges that the school managed to overcome. But 98.8% of Park View’s pupils were from a Muslim background, and it is that fact that was most salient in representing the school as ‘risky’.

Surprisingly, Colin Diamond does not discuss how these outcomes by PVET could have been achieved, despite his mantra that good outcomes depend on good governance. We can be certain, however, that had his book been written in 2012, there would have been a chapter by Tahir Alam, or Lindsey Clark, setting out their approach (9 of his 14 contributors, including Diamond himself, have an honour for services to education; Lindsey Clark was awarded an OBE in January 2014 and was due to retire in March at around the time the Trojan Horse story broke).

There is a chapter in the book on the subsequent ‘turnaround’ success of Rockwood Academy (the re-named Park View) by the chief executive of its MAT. But the school’s achievements at GCSE in the latest data are well below that of Park View in 2012 and below the current average for Birmingham, while that of Birmingham schools, more  generally, has also declined to be at the national average.

Other of Diamond’s governance heroes have question marks against them, too. Bev Mabey, author of a chapter in the book, and Chief Executive of Washbrook Heath MAT submitted her resignation in September 2021 following an EFA investigation and report into financial irregularities at the Trust in November 2020. Diamond also cites Pat Smart, CEO of Create Trust and former headteacher at Greet Primary School in Sparkhill as a guiding spirit. Greet primary had converted to academy status in 2016, having been judged outstanding at its last Ofsted report in 2007 (it had an interim assessment in 2011 when no issues were identified). Its latest Ofsted report just prior to the book’s publication was that it ‘required improvement’. Great leaders can also experience difficulties it would seem.

Despite the fragile status of some of his exemplars, Diamond seems to have a blind spot about acknowledging the success of Park View and the good governance through which it was achieved. Nowhere is this more evident than in his editorial introduction to the chapter by Kamal Hanif, who was appointed deputy head at the school in 2003 and continued his association through to the Trojan Horse allegations – according to Diamond, Hanif “recognises the damage done by a small group of governors at the time Park View became an academy and took on responsibility for Golden Hillock and Nansen schools, which then became the epicentre of Trojan Horse” (page 32).

Hanif’s chapter describes something else, specifically the damage of the Trojan Horse affair in terms of the aftermath of accusations against teachers and governors reinforcing suspicions about Muslim teachers and governors. In addition, he describes Park View school as having been beset by racist and Islamophobic attitudes among white staff, with which the senior leaders had to contend. In contrast, he comments that, “during my time at Park View, governance was fair, free and liberal” (page 47).

Diamond allows that there was racism at the school directed against pupils and staff, but does not pause to consider how this might have been bound up with the subsequent allegations made against Muslim teachers.

White allyship?

So just what was going on at the DfE at the time of Colin Diamond’s involvement there? Why does he swither between the idea that the Trojan Horse allegations apply to a brief period when schools became academies, formally free to pursue policies separate from those of local authorities, and the idea that the problems of harassment of senior teachers by Muslim parents, governors and teachers was longstanding. Indeed, it would seem that a different longstanding problem of ethnic minority underperformance was being addressed successfully and it was being done by greater involvement of parents with their children’s schools as ostensibly promoted by the official ideology of the academies programme.

In fact, the disbelief and dismay about this improvement was not restricted to racist factions within schools, as identified by Hanif, it was also being mobilised at the DfE.  Diamond refers to a third official report on the Trojan Horse affair by Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary at the DfE, in January 2015 about what the department had known about the affair prior to 2014. This report addressed a presentation to the DfE in 2010 by a Birmingham headteacher, Tim Boyes. The latter came armed with a Policy Exchange report on ‘Faith Schools we can Believe in’.

Although the latter report addressed faith-designated schools, it argued that there was a vulnerability of schools to extremism and that the “new academies and Free Schools programmes could be exploited unless urgent measures are taken to counter extremist influence.” (page 5). It recommended the setting up of a centralised ‘Due Diligence Unit’ within the DfE to offset the consequences of outsourced functions at the DfE. As already indicated, the DfE had begun actions against Islamic faith schools, including Al-Madinah, and, with its actions against PVET and Oldknow was beginning actions against academies serving Muslim pupils.

Boyes’s presentation to the DfE began from the Policy Exchange analysis and set out how the ethnic minority presence in Birmingham had grown, together with communities increasingly living parallel lives. He also argued that activists from within the Muslim community were putting pressure on schools, through governors linked with the Muslim Council of Britain, and that there was pressure to introduce Islamic collective worship in schools. Boyes argued that there was a specific problem of Muslim-majority schools to which the answer was that “schools in the Pakistani dominated wards need to be robustly  linked, not done to, with outer schools” (ie schools serving predominantly white pupils). In other words, trusts made up of Muslim-majority schools were potentially problematic, but this could be mitigated by placing Muslim majority schools in Trusts where the other schools, including the lead school, were white-majority.

Wormald’s report did not dwell too much on the implied failures in management of the academies programme, though it did argue that the DfE had been insufficiently vigilant. It argued that a proper response had been made, namely by setting up the new Due Diligence and Counter Extremism Unit (which was further enhanced after the Trojan Horse affair). This was the very unit that came to play such an important role in managing the DfE’s response to the Trojan Horse Affair.

Notice, too, that a connection between religious difference and alleged extremism is, from this moment, instituted within the DfE. We might expect Colin Diamond to say something about the role of religion in maintained schools. Certainly, the Clarke Report seemed to be misinformed, unaware of the requirement on all schools to teach religious education and to provide daily acts of collective worship. Under local authority responsibility, both aspects – curriculum and determinations for other than Christian collective worship – are the responsibility of the local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). However, academy schools do not need to follow the local SACRE curriculum and their applications (or renewals) for determinations for other than Christian collective worship are made to the DfE.

For the most part, Diamond says very little about religion. He argues that a multifaith locally agreed RE syllabus is “more important than ever” (page 340), and wishes academy schools to adopt it voluntarily. The Birmingham SACRE, Diamond argues, was “one of the few local organisations to emerge with credit from Ian Kershaw’s report” (page 340). In fact, PVET continued to teach the curriculum after Park View and its associated schools became academies. Diamond seems unaware that Humanists UK, who supported whistleblowers at Park View, had also had the Birmingham SACRE in its sights for its emphasis on learning from religion, rather than about religion and not including humanists within its representation.

What about collective worship? Diamond has even less to say on the topic, but one of his contributors, Heather Knights, CEO of the National Governors Association, identifies this as a key issue, indicating that her organisation has sought the end of this requirement. However, given that it continues to remain a requirement and that Park View had had a determination for Islamic collective worship from the SACRE since 1996, it is not clear how, or why, this became such an issue. The suspicion must be that the Trojan Horse affair was a convenient means of pursuing a secularist agenda, notwithstanding that the schools were acting within the law as it currently existed.

What we do know from the misconduct hearings is that the determinations at Park View and Oldknow were due for renewal in 2013. We also know that the DfE had in place no process and no expertise for evaluating them (they initially sought advice from the SACRE). Clarke had no understanding of the legislative requirements in the area, but, as we have already seen, an idea was forming in the DfE about the problematic nature of Muslim organisations and collective worship, in part as a consequence of the Al-Madinah ‘dress rehearsal’, but also through the Policy Exchange report and Boyes’s submission to the DfE. The applications for renewal of the determinations alerted the DDCE and set in train actions to protect the academies programme from its ‘subversion’ by new converter and sponsored schools.

Two versions of what happened were parlayed. One that it represented longstanding problems in Birmingham, the second that it was a problem of newly formed academies. In truth, it was neither. The school improvement programme in Birmingham had delivered success, including the increased representation of ethnic minority and minority religious school leaders. Several chapters in the book show the reversal of that representation (Warmington, Campbell-Stephens, Iqbal) and especially of Muslim school leaders as a consequence of  the Trojan Horse affair.

Diamond’s solution is that there should be a network of partnerships connected through successful trusts to create a local system for cities that would “enable the co-construction and co-delivery of school improvement” (page 333). He describes how this was set up in Birmingham, together with Birmingham Educational Partnership (a newly-established  independent agency), the council and DfE (including the DDCE), and the Regional School Commissioner (page 334). Diamond describes himself  as a ‘White ally’ (page 350), but, perhaps unsurprisingly, what he proposes is remarkably like the solution that Tim Boyes described to the DfE in 2010. Indeed, Boyes re-emerged in 2015 as the CEO of Birmingham Educational Partnerships that sits at the centre of the local system in which BAME interests are to be nested.

Conclusion

There is one thing that all can agree on about the Trojan Horse affair. It set back school improvement in Birmingham, it undermined community schools, it reduced ethnic minority participation in leadership positions in schools, and it made the participation of ethnic minority educationalist –  whether as teachers or governors – more precarious. The official view – including that of Colin Diamond – is that these consequences should also be laid at the door of the governors and teachers associated with Park View and Oldknow. As I have shown, this is barely credible.

It is clear that the DfE believed that the problems they identified with the schools at the centre of the affair had  emerged over a short period of time after the schools became academies in 2012. In fact, there was no evidence that anything had changed and the takeover of other schools was with the approval of the DfE and the involvement of their school improvement officials. They agreed to the appointment of staff from Park View (and, in prospect, from Oldknow) into interim positions to bring about necessary change. However, the official inquiries threw up a cordon sanitaire around the DfE’s involvement similar to that which the Serial/NYT podcast found at Adderley Primary.

Instead, the DfE and BCC allowed the idea that what Colin Diamond calls ‘Trojan Horse activities’ stretched back to 1996 and earlier. In contrast, as I have shown, while the period from 1996 to 2012 was characterised by increased involvement of ethnic minority educationalists in school governance and leadership in Birmingham, it was also a period in which the school improvement programme achieved considerable success and outperformed other comparable cities. It did so against considerable hostility from white professionals as some of the contributors to Diamond’s book set out.

It would seem that it was ‘ideological extremists’ at the DfE that wrought the damaging consequences of the Trojan Horse affair. They traduced a poor Muslim community and educationalists working to secure the educational rights of its children for their own political advantage. They were aided and abetted by the media, but the main explanation of their ability to control the narrative was that, under the academies programme, education has become highly centralised with no countervailing powers. All the main agencies involved in evaluating the affair –  Ofsted, the EFA, the Clarke Inquiry and the NCTL – were agencies of the DfE. Ian Kershaw – brought in by BCC – was the Chief Executive of a Multi Academy Trust and not a Director of Education at another local authority.

The most damaging legacy of the Trojan Horse affair is the subordination of schools to arbitrary, centralised and authoritarian power and the failure of the liberal media to hold that power to account. Colin Diamond’s book merits close reading to uncover the alternative narrative within it that cannot be suppressed – no matter how hard its editor looks away.

Note:

[1] A defence barrister in the case discusses the way in which witness statements to the Clarke inquiry were given and how they were converted into witness statements here.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: Wilshaw chats to pupils at Park View school. Photograph: Andrew Fox for the Guardian

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Holmwood, John 2022. ‘The Trojan Horse affair; an official’s version’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):

The illusion of objectivity, as revealed by the Trojan Horse affair podcast

Rehana Parveen

Before I begin this piece, I want to give a disclaimer and declare my own positionality. As a non-white academic, I am always expected to explore my own biases when I write or research on matters specific to my own faith, background or any aspect of my identity. I have not found the same level of responsibility placed on white academics to explore their own positionality.  I will return to this theme when I look to unpack what it means to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ and how this discourse of objectivity or neutrality as synonymous with whiteness has very real and very practical consequences in the Trojan Horse Affair.

However, before I get to that, I do wish to declare my own personal connections to the Trojan Horse saga.  Not only am I a Muslim from Birmingham, but I grew up in Alum Rock, one of the key areas of Birmingham embroiled in this affair. Moreover, the secondary school that I attended was Park View School. I attended Park View from 1980 to 1985. When I started my secondary education, the school was not called Park View. It was called Naseby School. In my third year it joined with Ward End Park School and was renamed Park View.

For a while many of us students were moved to the Ward End Park buildings and that is where I completed my secondary education. Mr Packer joined the school when it became Park View and he was my computer studies teacher in my 3rd year, I think. I recall I was the only girl in that class. Eventually the Ward End Park buildings would be shut down and the entire school once again based at the campus on Naseby Road. I had left Park View School by the time this final transition of the buildings took place.

I attended Park View school as a minority pupil and this was the case throughout my education there as the majority of students (and nearly all teachers) were white. I recall perhaps around 4 or 5 Muslim students in each class that were from a similar background to mine (Pakistani and Mirpuri/Pahari speaking). There were even fewer Black students. At the time even Alum Rock Road consisted mainly of white owned businesses. I would walk through  Alum Rock Road on my way to school and pass by butchers, Woolworths, Timpsons, a sewing machine shop, fish and chips shops to name a few, all of which were white owned. My parents owned one of the very few Pakistani restaurants on Alum Rock Road. When I left Park View, the demographics of that area changed, and  the ethnic and religious make up of the school also changed. Indeed, by the time our family moved out of Alum Rock it was turning into the bustling, Muslim majority area that is now familiar.

Though I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I was well aware of my minority status at school. I was fully conscious of being different to the majority of students and also how much of myself I left outside of the classroom. I tried very hard to ensure my differences remained largely invisible as I had always thought the best way for me to fit in and progress was to ‘assimilate’; to pretend that the cultural norms of the majority applied in exactly the same way for me. I thought the differences in my life outside of school were unimportant and an inconvenience for me to mention.

For example, I recall a P.E lesson where we were expected to go running for almost the entire lesson. This was during Ramadan in the summer months and I was fasting. When I mentioned this to the teacher she had no idea what I was referring to and seemed to have little sympathy. I felt embarrassed and quickly just ended the conversation and then proceeded to participate in the lesson as though there was nothing different about me.

As an academic, I can now better understand that the invisibility that is welcomed by minimising any differences, is also the source of intense alienation; that classrooms are not neutral or objective spaces and presenting them as such masks the perspectives, values, norms and cultural behaviours of the empowered (Crenshaw 1998).

It is this notion of objectivity and neutrality that I now wish to explore in the context of two different but, in my view, overlapping themes that are addressed in the Trojan Horse Affair podcast. First, is in relation to episode 5 and the evidence of the whistleblowers. I want to unpack what this episode tells us about the way in which whiteness and white culture is made synonymous with neutrality and how difficult it becomes to challenge Islamophobic tropes when they have been embedded into the psyche and culture of our society. Our society is only at the earliest stages of unpacking its own colonial and racist legacies. The particular tropes that I am interested in exploring are the perceptions of Muslim women as illustrated by the interviews with the whistle blowers.

The second, is in the conversations between Hamza Syed and Brian Reed as they explore and address their own personal relationships to the investigations that they are conducting. Hamza’s rawness and at times emotional responses can be contrasted with Brian’s more detached approach, highlighting what I said at the beginning of this piece; that people of colour are more readily expected and indeed invested in exploring their own positionality.

I will draw these two themes together in arguing that exploring positionality is a key method of challenging biases that one may hold. Positionality, in particular allows for challenging  claims to an objective, singular, universal and natural description of the world, and to question issues related to hierarchy and power (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). Euro-centrism and whiteness has generally evaded addressing positionality on the assumption that white culture itself represents neutrality and natural norms of behaviour.

A failure to address positionality both at an individual level and at a systemic level leads to perpetuating racist, colonial and, in the case of the Trojan Horse Affair, Islamophobic tropes. Moreover, positionality challenges the paternalistic ‘saving’ rhetoric (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). Eurocentrism can, however, be so deeply embedded that there remains an unwillingness to reconsider the supposed neutral and objective assumptions when confronted with evidence that directly contradicts those tropes. Episode 5 captures the practical application of this theory.

The whistleblowers

In Part 5, A Study in Scarlett, we meet my former teacher, Steve Packer, and his wife, Sue Packer, the initial ‘whistleblowers’. The meeting between Hamza and Brian and the Packers begins pleasantly enough as they set out their version of events and complaints that they have made. One theme in particular emerges regarding the treatment of Muslim female students and staff by Muslim male members of staff at Park View. Sue Packer expresses her view that ‘there was a lot of unfairness going on. Equality had gone out the door’. A number of generalised claims are made about the treatment of girls and then some specific examples are provided as evidence of the removal of female agency. She further emphasises that she felt ‘the girls needed to be strong. They needed to be feel in control’ [sic].

Sue Packer recounts a particular incident when a Muslim female staff volunteer was berated by a male Muslim staff member on their return from a school outing. In Sue Packer’s view this incident was emblematic of the male/female interactions that were taking place, demonstrating a misogynistic culture which had developed in the school and which was rooted in the Islamically sanctioned religious views of the men. She regarded this incident with such seriousness that it ultimately resulted in her making a formal complaint and her subsequent resignation.

As stated in the Podcast this incident is relied upon in the evidence given by the Packers in the disciplinary hearings and the various investigations that took place. The Packers are convinced that not a single Muslim woman came forward to support their version of events because ‘the [Muslim] women aren’t very good at speaking out…. perhaps aren’t confident to speak out in that community, especially female Muslims. I think there’s just sort of fear about speaking out’

Razak (2004) poses the question of how to address patriarchy within Muslim communities without descending into the well-worn narrative of brown Muslim women needing to be saved from inherently dangerous brown Muslim men, by civilised white Europeans (see also, Spivak 1988). Unfortunately, this framing seems to be exactly what we see on display in this episode and indeed running throughout the investigations. Essentialised and reductive notions of Muslim women are presented thereby justifying them being ‘saved’, reinforcing the notions of superiority of the saviours (Abu-Lughod 2002).

It is particularly troubling that, for the whistleblowers, having worked with Muslims students and staff over a very lengthy period of time and, indeed, in the case of Steve Packer, actively participated in some of the changes that were made to support the environment for Muslim students, the perceptions of Muslim women remained resolutely one dimensional. They steadfastly remained convinced that female Muslim staff and students were unable to speak for themselves and needed them to be speak on their behalf.

The Podcast highlights that not a single Muslim female from the school came to testify in support of the claims made by them and yet when challenged on this the only conclusion that they can draw is that the women are unable to speak for themselves; reinforcing the assumptions that they already hold and reinforcing their own virtuous goal of speaking on behalf of muted Muslim women. There appears to be little re-assessment or reflection having taken place over the years since the Trojan Horse Affair, as to any other possible reasons why their allegations received so little support from the women whose interests they claimed to represent.

This critique is not limited to the whistleblowers. Ann Connor, an inspector from the Education Funding Agency Report on Park View Educational Trust and Education Advisor to the Clarke Report had spoke to female Muslim students at Park View School as part of the former review. In giving her evidence she referred to her notebook in which she had noted the fierce and challenging questions that she had been met with by the students. Yet this did not feature in her assessment and nor did this allay her concerns. The framing of Muslim women is so deeply embedded that even when it is forcefully challenged it does not appear to make any impact on those tropes unless Muslim women surrender their faith.

I would argue these are all examples of failing to address one’s own positionality. When one assumes they hold the objective, neutral position there is no need to reflect on one’s own location in the geopolitics of knowledge production. Nor is it necessary to consider one’s own complicity in preconceived notions that you hold, nor to attempt to counter those notions, nor to consider how your own views of the world may be shaped by Eurocentric thought, knowledge and power structures (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). One can remain safe in the assumed comfort that you hold the ‘normal’, ‘neutral’, ‘secular’ position that is untainted by any historical, colonial, political or social context.

Abu-Lughod argues a more productive approach for those seeking to address inequalities is to ask questions as to how we may contribute to a more just society and to think of egalitarian forms of alliances, coalitions and solidarity rather than salvation (Abu-Lughod). This requires giving space to Muslim women, listening to them, recognising they do not all speak in one voice, recognising the significance of faith and the different ways in which faith manifests itself for the women, and acknowledging all the complexities and nuances that this brings.

In my view everyone engages with the world around them through their own particular lens and through their own complex locations. The danger arises when you fail to or refuse to acknowledge that whiteness and Eurocentrism is not a neutral space.

Hamza Syed’s exploration of his own positionality

Throughout the Podcast we see Hamza grappling with his own positionality and the impact this has on his investigations. The very first episode begins with Hamza locating himself within the geographical, political and social context of the letter. Hamza makes it clear from the outset that the consequences of the letter were of significance to him personally as a British Muslim from Birmingham.  Indeed, in Part 6, a member of the Humanist Society almost nonchalantly asks about the Trojan Horse Affair: ‘what impact did it have?’ Hamza’s impassioned reaction demonstrates the deep, lasting and very significant effect that has been felt by Muslims including Hamza himself and Hamza does not hide his emotions or his anger at the casual manner in which the question is asked. 

At various stages of the investigations we see much deeper reflections from Hamza in which he not only reflects on his own positionality but we see him engaging in reassessments of his own identity and his role as journalist. Again, in Part 6, reference is made to an incident in which Hamza sets out his own truthful personal views in a letter to potential witnesses in order to allay concerns and to reassure them as to his takes on the entire affair.

What I find interesting is that Hamza’s openness in revealing the positions that he takes is seen as so problematic. I understand a need to have an open mind when investigating but Hamza’s disclosure of his positionality simply makes clear the lens through which he is approaching the investigation? It recognises that he is part and parcel of the community that has been impacted, it allows for the reflections and analysis that take place, it allows for the different perspectives that he brings to the claims. I would go so far as to say that had Hamza not been a Muslim from Birmingham this entire investigation and podcast would never have been created. It even leads to reflections on the part of Brian of his role as a journalist and the supposed objective place from which he approached journalism.

Conclusion

It is a well-established in decolonial and post-colonial theory that exploring positionality is one of the methods through we can challenge claims to objectivity and neutrality. But exploring positionality is not just for those of us from ethnic or Black minorities. We are already fully invested in undertaking that work. Where we need to move to is for ‘whiteness’ and euro-centric to being unpacking its political, social, historical and geographical contexts in values and norms that it espouses.

For me personally, so much of Hamza’s reflections resonated with my approach to my academic work and the Podcast has given me renewed hope that Muslims and people of colour more generally need to be active in every public space and to reclaim what is seen as objective, neutral or normal.

References:

Abu-Lughod, Lila (2002) ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativisms and Its Others’ American Anthropoligist, 104(3) 783-790.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé ‘Towards a Race-Conscious Pedagogy in Legal Education’, National Black Law Journal 11(1)

Moghli, Mai Abu and Laila Kadiwal, (2021) ‘Decolonising the curriculum beyond the surge: Conceptualisation, positionality and conduct’, London Review of Education 19(1)

Razack, Sherene H. (2004)  ‘Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilised Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marriages’, (2004) Feminist Legal Studies 12: 129-174.

Rehana Parveen is a former solicitor and a former senior tutor at The University of Law. Rehana joined the University of Birmingham Law School in 2012 and completed her doctoral thesis exploring Muslim women’s experiences of using religious tribunals (shari’a councils) and comparing this to their experiences of using state law. Rehana currently works as a Senior Lecturer in the Law School, teaching on a wide range of undergraduate and post graduate modules. Rehana is particularly interested in the developing relationship between English Family Law and Islamic Family Law and how women navigate these interacting frameworks. More recently Rehana has been exploring how legal concepts and structures may be decolonised to place them within their social, historical, political and postcolonial context.

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Editorial – The Trojan Horse affair

John Holmwood

In February of this year, Serial and the New York Times published a podcast on the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair. The latter was an alleged plot to ‘Islamicise’ schools in Birmingham and Bradford that emerged in November 2013. It came to be centred on schools associated with Park View Educational Trust in Alum Rock Birmingham and its teachers and Chair of Governors, Tahir Alam.  

Media coverage of the ‘plot’ was overwhelmingly hostile through a three year period of inspections, inquiries and misconduct hearings against teachers. The case against senior leaders at PVET collapsed in May 2017 because of ‘serious impropriety’ on the part of lawyers acting for the Department of Education and its agency bringing the misconduct cases.  

There was a resounding silence from the journalists and political commentators covering the case, except to observe that the impropriety leading to the collapse was a ‘technicality’. It was at this point that Birmingham-based journalism student, Hamza Syed, pitched the idea of a podcast to Brian Reed, producer of Serial (an offshoot of the public broadcasting venture, This American Life). 

For the next four years, the two of them researched the affair and produced their podcast series in 8 parts, making up around 7 broadcast hours. The series was downloaded over 13 million times in the first three and a half weeks. The series established the injustice that underlay the affair across two episodes as well as the role of various actors, such as Humanists UK, Birmingham City Council and the Department for Education. But it was also a ‘whodunnit’, seeking the author of the letter that had triggered the affair. This was widely accepted as having been a hoax, even by the parties that were prosecuting the idea of a plot.  

It took a media organisation from outside the UK to provide the first systematic journalism to examine the events, but the response from the media within the UK was largely a resounding silence. They had been shown up for accepting the government’s script, but they neither responded, nor took up the offer by Brian Reed and Hamza Syed to provide all their material for further inquiries into the loose ends. Instead, they were denounced for being one-sided.  

This special issue of Discover Society represents the first revisiting of the Trojan Horse affair and its consequences in the light of the podcast. It is curated by Shereen Fernandez and Kamran Khan.  A final contribution, posted after the publication of a book on schooling in Birmingham by Colin Diamond (former official at the Department for Education with responsibility for investigations into Park View Educational Trust and Oldknow school), has been added to this series of articles.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

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Beyond Prevent and the Trojan Horse scandal

Zin Derfoufi

Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition set out its intentions to direct counter-terrorism policies towards ‘non-violent extremism’ in 2011, the Prevent strategy has pivoted away from community engagement and towards a stronger focus on the alleged risks of young people being ‘radicalised’ by their own community. It was not until after the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair that this new agenda was fully implemented, with a legal duty placed on all those providing public services – employees in education, health and mental health and social work, etc – to monitor service users and report individuals who may be a cause for concern to local Prevent panels.

As this article argues, this has further securitised British Muslims instead of empowering them and recognise their ability to challenge violent narratives. This shift toward targeting so-called ‘non-violent extremists’ reinforces Prevent’s problematic assumption that young Muslims are inherently vulnerable to violent extremism due to ideas that are widely held within their communities which, despite being non-violent, promote detachment from British society and, therefore, makes young people unable to resist engaging in violence.

Belonging

Yet, a large body of research shows that it is various anti-terror legislation and policies that are the primary source of discontent. Much of this research focuses on high volume encounters – notably stops and searches, detentions at ports, and Prevent – and highlights a sense of frustration among Muslim communities with the constant questioning of their identities and the role of counterterror policies in sustaining wider societal prejudices over their ability to integrate into British society.

As these are high volume encounters that routinely draw large numbers of Muslims into the focus of counterterrorism, they can be viewed as a litmus test of the relationship between those communities and state authorities. Research shows that these measures promote a sense of the state not being interested in the priorities of Muslim communities nor of their lived experiences as victimsof crime or of the types of anti-Muslim racism in society that are partly sustained by the racialised assumptions of counterterror and counter-’radicalisation’ policies. This sense of injustice is reinforced at the structural level as political violence from the far-right and secessionist groups hardly feature within these measures, despite Europol’s constant warnings over the threats posed by them.

Impact on democracy

The UK’s Prevent strategy is consistently highlighted as a tool for undue state control over civil society. In 2010, a UK parliamentary committee criticised national and local government for using Prevent-related funding as a means for “social engineering”, arguing “There is a sense that Government has sought to engineer a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model”. Although the main community funding schemes were discontinued after this report, a recent study with activists and campaigners across different political causes (both Muslim and non-Muslim) suggests that this practice remains the case with government funding more generally and is creating a climate where organisations in receipt of funding are under pressure to censor critics of counterterror policies and foreign policy, particularly critics from Muslim backgrounds.

Censorship and a ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms are two specific impacts often cited by research in this area. This includes censorship of teachers, health professionals and other public sector staff who express professional concerns over whether their legal obligations to monitor service users for signs of ‘extremism’ is compatible with the relationship of trust needed to promote the wellbeing of their service users. Awareness of how critics are targeted by Prevent has created a ‘chilling effect’ among wider groups of professionals, campaigners and members of the public who engage in self-silencing out of fear of being sanctioned too and, in the case of Muslims, creates anxieties over being able to express even the most basic aspects of their religious identity.

The first study into Prevent’s structural impact on civic space shows that anti-racism, environmental and international solidarity campaigners from non-Muslim backgrounds are now also being targeted by Prevent. It reveals how these groups are being censored across different spaces and that a chilling effect is widely felt as a direct consequence of the securitised climate created by Prevent. Ultimately, Prevent is an example of how counterterror policies are themselves harming democracy rather than protecting it. This is highly problematic because protest movements contain narratives that can robustly challenge violent narratives and in ways that are far more credible than government-led approaches.

Supporting community-led, counter-terror initiatives

Survey-based research into the attitudes of British Muslims alongside community facing professionals – notably doctors and teachers – show a consensus exists on terrorism being a real problem, but these surveys also highlight a sense that counterterrorism policies are failing to address it in a proportionate way. This could explain why Muslim communities and civil society actors are cooperating to challenge terrorism independently of the state. Whether it is British, Dutch, Norwegian, North American or other community of Muslims in the west, a growing body of evidence reveals strong anti-terror narratives already exist in Muslim communities, despite being the primary target of state-led counterterror policies.

However, counterterror policies are undermining community-led initiatives, partly due to local and national government practices that result in groups who align themselves with government policies being supported while those of a more critical stance being discredited and unsupported. It is well-known within grassroots counterterror activities that “those who provide the most invaluable support in drawing people away from violent extremist groups generally come from the demographic or community that is under suspicion”. It is, therefore, important to learn from the mistakes of the past and protect civic efforts to counter violence. This requires national and local government bodies to recognise the value of a broad range of community groups that are operating independently of government and drawing upon their own expertise to tackle violence.

A version of this article was sent as evidence to an inquiry of the European Council’s Parliamentary Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination.

Zin Derfoufi is a lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at St Mary’s University, London. His research blends psychology with sociology to understand why and how people engage in serious violence, and how local communities organise to counter violence. He is an independent advisor to various civil society and community-led groups as well as local and national policing bodies.

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Truth and falsehoods in the Trojan Horse scandal

Shereen Fernandez

“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.

References

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

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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‘Secularism’, ‘religion’, and the public disciplining of nonconforming Muslim civic activism

Khadijah Elshayyal

Muslim civic activism has a history of posing challenge and discomfort to the British establishment. Back in 1989, at the height of the Rushdie affair, British Muslims were organising politically on a coordinated and highly visible national platform for the first time. Responding to their sustained protests and representations, the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, delivered a speech at Birmingham Central Mosque. He acknowledged the pain that Muslims felt at gratuitous insult to their faith and sensibilities but the predominant emphasis of his speech was to lay down what acceptable and unacceptable forms of political engagement were. In his speech, protests were somewhat begrudgingly conceded to be legitimate, but, he declared, if Muslims really wanted to succeed, their priority was to eschew protest and ‘have a clear understanding of the history and institutions of Britain, of its democratic processes’ (Cited in Weller 2009).

By positioning violence and irrationality as the unacceptable alternative to adherence to the rule of law, Hurd’s overarching message was a call for Muslims to leave their (default) backwardness behind, and to toe the line that had been demarcated for them. Essentially, Hurd’s speech was a statement of ‘this is how we do things here’, an assertion that was echoed emphatically in the mainstream press and policy discourse (see, Thomas 2011). Their message was that public Muslimness is fine, so long as it doesn’t disrupt our (rational) liberal and secular sensibilities.

This is a theme which has endured and sharpened over time. Yet we can note that an irony of the British political class which promotes the impression that it doesn’t ‘do God’, is that actually, it does. We reassure ourselves that ours is not a militant secularism (as in France), and that neither are we overbearing or bombastic about it (as we perceive to be the case in US public life). Yet to think that the secularism of our public and political life is a guarantor of fairness or neutrality, is to ignore the foundational connection that the very notion of secularism has with justifying white supremacy.

Can we understand secularism, or indeed, European notions of ‘religion’, without considering their role in justifying European colonisation as a civilising mission, and how western Christianity was promoted as a superior worldview to the regressive ‘backwardness’ of the east? (Manzoor-Khan 2022)How does this inextricable connection bear out in the ways that civically active Muslims are received and their aspirations and arguments engaged with?

The Trojan Horse Affair (THA) presents us with an instructive and compelling case study affirming the longstanding reality of how the options and possibilities for Muslim civic activism are subject to exceptional preconditions – and that any departure from these constraints carries the threat of punishment in the form debilitating public humiliation and/or sanction.

Let us take for an example a key argument presented by barrister acting for the government in the legal cases against teachers implicated in the affair, namely that they were going “too far in inculcating their own vision of the cultural identity they wish these children to have.” (Trojan Horse Affair podcast, part 6)

This charge is built on an inaccurate and unaddressed assumption that state schools in England and Wales are supposed to be neutral spaces when it comes to religion and culture, and that these teachers were contravening this neutrality by promoting too much (Muslim) religion and culture. The assertion that these were ‘secular’ state schools was repeated throughout the Clarke report, and was most recently reiterated by Nick Timothy, who in the wake of the affair was successively Downing Street’s Chief of Staff and then a columnist at the Telegraph, and asserted that these were ‘secular state schools’.

But there is a glaring disingenuousness in this portrayal. Aside from the obvious complication that no critically honest observer of any curriculum or educational environment would concede its neutrality, we are left again with the question of what this highly prized value of secularism actually looks like. Since we are not like France or the US, there are no hard-and-fast rules about ‘secularism’ in non-denominational state-funded schools, schools like those in Birmingham’s Alum Rock, that were caught up in the THA. There is, however guidance about the nature of mandatory collective worship at such schools. This provision for regular worship stipulates that it should be ‘wholly or mainly Christian in nature’, unless individual schools are granted the ‘determination’ to depart from this arrangement.

Unsurprisingly, considering the overwhelmingly Muslim local populations that they serve, the schools implicated in the THA had sought and received such a determination. Park View had a ‘determination’ in place since 1997 and Islamic assemblies had long been an established element, receiving high praise in inspection reports of 2007 and 2012 (see Holmwood and O’Toole, 2018),  Deemed by recent Ofsted inspections to be highly successful, Park View and other schools’ converted to academy status that afforded them a greater degree of autonomy in curriculum and governance. School leaderships understood that their approach of validating and celebrating their pupils’ faith and culture was a legally uncontroversial way of building a safe, nurturing and motivational environment. On this understanding, activists such as Tahir Alam (then chair of governors at Park View) and others describe the decades of community service they had given to their local schools as driven by the hope and determination to lift their children out of a systemically predetermined track towards academic failure – one that they themselves had experienced and felt fortunate to have escaped against all odds.

Yet regardless of this background and context, inspectors and investigators operating under the unforgiving conditions of a hysterical witch-hunt were predisposed to understand the environment within the schools as being subjected to what the Clarke Report called, ‘undue religious influence’ and a ‘sustained and coordinated (ideological) agenda’.

Who could say which was the correct assessment? Who is to say what constitutes religious influence? Is it the provision of communal prayer facilities, accommodations made for fasting in Ramadan? Is it the content of assemblies, sensitivity or awareness shown to cultural or religious norms in class delivery or content? Is it the provision of Arabic and Urdu in the modern foreign languages curriculum? Who is to say what the parameters of ‘due’ and ‘undue’ in any of these areas would be? The answer to these questions is what tests the apparently widespread understanding among press and policy voices of secularism as neutrality.

Further, this question carries even sharper relevance in the Trojan Horse Affair if we consider revelation about the active role played by Humanists UK (HUK) in supporting ‘whistleblowers’ with their testimonies and grievances. HUK by its own account, is emphatically committed to secularism, adopting the same uncritical stance – that separation of religion and state is a guarantor of neutrality – that I mention above. It therefore had a vested interest in the portrayal of ‘Muslim influence’ in schools as harmful and negative. HUK’s commitment to the myth of secularism as some kind of great leveler amidst our messy diversity is oblivious to the structurally embedded exclusion and marginalisation that Muslims and other minoritised groups face. Thus, removing ‘religion’ from the public sphere, leaves us with a public sphere that has historically developed around presumptions of white and Christian normativity, and by extension, their superiority Goldberg 2006)– in short, one which has not intentionally interrogated its colonial past and present. Even the act of defining what constitutes ‘religion’ (and what should therefore be extricated from our public sphere in the process of secularisation) is one which is reserved to the very same state structures and authorities which have historically marginalised and excluded both in empire and in metropole.

We see this lack of self-awareness unfold spectacularly in the account given by Sue Packer, one of the whistleblowers supported by HUK. Built on a self-styled mission to save Muslim women from their oppressive menfolk, Packer herself trips and stumbles as she is confronted with the shoddiness of her own creative licence – admitting that she had not once consulted or even engaged with the Muslim women she was supposedly advocating for:

“I think it’s just because the women aren’t very good at speaking out.

I shouldn’t say the women, sorry.

A lot of women perhaps aren’t confident to speak out in that community, especially female Muslims.

I think there’s just sort of fear about speaking out.” Trojan Horse Affair podcast, part 5

Let’s zoom back out a little and consider David Cameron’s 2015 speech at Ninestiles Academy, also in Birmingham, which set out the imminent implementation of the Prevent Duty and to which a direct line can be drawn from the THA. Cameron’s discourse reiterated the framework and parameters for legitimacy and acceptability of Muslimness in the public space – a framework that had been set out time and again by preceding governments. Dissent and grievance were characterised as ideologically driven extremism – ‘the root cause of the threat we face’, and compliance with the policy direction of the security state tied to notions of loyalty and belonging.

The deployment of a duty to promote fundamental British values in schools as a yardstick with which to measure loyalty to the state (and therefore acceptability in the public space) was consistent with a longstanding state tactic of disciplining nonconforming civic actors who dare to imagine that they can engage and contribute to civic life in ways other than those which have been delineated for them by the political elites. Presented as well meaning, Cameron’s statements in 2015, like Hurd’s in 1989, were laced with patronising undertones and coloured by the power differential between an old Etonian government minister and a socioeconomically marginalised working-class Muslim community.

In the intervening years between 1989 through to the THA in 2014, these conditions for acceptable civic engagement have haunted Muslims time and again. Whether it is thrust upon them via the familiar periodic niqab ‘debate’, moral panics about gender segregation or ‘child hijab’, as innocuously as it might be framed, the demand to separate religion and state is impossible because it requires a sanitisation of one’s Muslimness as a precondition.

Civic engagement and activism are fine if they embody an unquestioning reverence to state institutions and the policy directions that inform them. Activism which isn’t alive to these parameters, or chooses to test them, is deemed a threat, and something to be ostracised. In the context of the THA, we can rephrase this: community engagement in the leadership and management of local schools was encouraged and applauded by the Conservatives’ academies programme, but when such engagement was found to have a Muslim ‘flavour’, it was considered a subversive threat. So we can see that the prejudice and unease around Muslim civic activism which primed the establishment to unquestioningly believe the hoax from which the THA mushroomed, was not exceptional. Rather it is a par for the course feature that Muslims active in the civic space routinely come face to face with.

A notable feature of this unease is how liberal politicians and commentators agonise over the question of what to do about Muslims who wear their faith on their sleeve. Muslim civic activism, in all its diversity, cannot help but resist the neat (if inaccurate) categorisation of the public sphere as neutral and the expectation that faith is left at the door. It might do so actively – by deliberately contesting received norms or the dominant direction of travel in politics and public life. Campaigns against the incursion of securitisation in the public and private lives of Muslims (and society more generally) offer many such examples.

Or it may resist this categorisation inadvertently and in spite of its best efforts. Again, we have countless examples of British Muslim public figures who may themselves make little of their Muslimness, or may downplay its relevance, even as they themselves support policies that demonise and target Muslim individuals, institutions and communities. Nonetheless, their mere presence in the civic space as identifiable with Muslimness otherises them, arouses suspicion and invites prejudice and discrimination.

This is a dilemma which continues to plague Britain and will persist, as long as these colonially rooted notions of ‘secular’ and ‘religion’ frame our discourse and policy. Ultimately, as understated and sensitive as we may believe our secularism to be, it remains a secularism that does not really know what to do with Muslim civic actors.

What can be done about a faith community that doesn’t play by the rules? A community whose religious belief and practice cannot be compartmentalised in ways that reassure and make us comfortable, and whose faith will not be depoliticised, in defiance of our best efforts? The ubiquity of such questions – expressed overtly or otherwise – means that Muslim civic actors are problematised before they even open their mouths – are they moderate or extreme? Are they native or foreign? Are they loyal or disloyal?

The persistence of such anxieties around Muslim civic activism, of a ‘Muslim problem’, if you will, means that any indicators of Muslim organising or networking can be met with a presumption of ulterior motives. The report authored by Peter Clarke on the THA includes a spider diagram, which depicts Tahir Alam as a hyper-connected mastermind. His various extensive connections to professional and community bodies are insinuated to be conspiratorial and sinister and are used to argue that he has had ample opportunity not only to influence at the policy level, but also to bring about change at the local through delivering training and membership of governing bodies.

As the podcast presenters mention – similar diagrams could be drawn around the associations and interests of serving government ministers and ideological think tanks, lobby groups and media outlets – the difference being that the former are disenfranchised, their citizenship conditional, a case needs to be made for their voices to be heard… and when they are, demands are made that their voices be shorn of anything which makes them distinctive, that they moderate the tone and content of their voices so as to be palatable to the sensitivities of an anxious establishment. As for the latter, they form part of a minority who wield disproportionate power – power which is inherited and bequeathed through centuries-old institutions and the wink, nudge and handshake of the old boys’ club.

The Trojan Horse affair will be remembered in our history not only as a moment that exposed how embedded colonial attitudes in our political and press establishments remained, but also one which was used to justify further the idea of Muslim exceptionalism. It was a public inquisition of an alleged Muslim fifth column within our schools and public spaces that needed to be subdued, contained, and made a cautionary example of.

References:

Goldberg, David Theo (2006) ‘Racial Europeanization’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29:2, 331-364, DOI: 10.1080/01419870500465611

Holmwood, John and O’Toole, Therese (2018) Countering Extremism in British Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, Policy Press.

Manzoor-Khan, Suhaiymah (2022) Tangled in Terror: uprooting Islamophobia, Pluto.

Thomas, Elaine, R. ‘Rereading the Rushdie Affair: The Contested Terms of Being British,. Immigration, Islam, and the Politics of Belonging in France: A Comparative Framework, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 214-244.

Weller, Paul (2009) A Mirror For Our Times: ‘The Rushdie Affair’ and the Future of Multiculturalism, Continuum.

Goldberg, David Theo (2006) ‘Racial Europeanization’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29:2, 331-364, DOI: 10.1080/01419870500465611

Khadijah Elshayyal holds research fellowships at Edinburgh and SOAS. A specialist on Muslims in Britain, she is General Secretary of the Muslims in Britain Research Network and author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain (IB Tauris, 2019). She tweets @drkelshayyal.

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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.”

Uh-oh

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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Islamophobia at Daybreak: a critical reading of Stephen Packer’s fictional account of the Trojan Horse affair

Asim Qureshi

‘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:

“STEVE PACKER

This is my telling of the story of what happened to us at school.

I’ve written it as an Animal Farm type story.

BRIAN REED

So is this fiction?

Is it non-fiction?

How would you describe it?

STEVE PACKER

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):

Underclass in Purdah: Britain’s never-changing relationship with its Asian Muslims and the creation of the Asian Muslim

Fatima Rajina

The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, produced by Serial Productions, has reignited a conversation on the long-standing effects of the hoax and its impact on the Muslim community in east Birmingham as well as the wider British Muslim community. The podcast did many things: for some, it re-opened old wounds, while, for others, it provided clarity and a form of vindication; a vindication that has been long denied as a result of the War on Terror and its associated  rhetoric and logic where Muslims either had to be with ‘them’ (the alleged organisers of the Islamist plot), or stand firmly against them.

For me, it laid bare the truth of what happened, how it happened and how a whole narrative had been intentionally constructed to vilify the Muslim community. I was doing my fieldwork for my PhD in Tower Hamlets at the time where the very same journalists who reported on Birmingham were attempting to concoct a similar narrative about the schools in this London borough. In this regard, Syed and Reed’s revelations about the Trojan Hoax embodied the state’s roused hunger to relentlessly hunt Muslims and punish them punitively wherever they may be a significant majority and have access to some local power.

The podcast succinctly articulated the inner machinations at play during the Trojan Horse affair, which many Muslims were already aware of, even if this was denied by key players. Its thorough and critical investigation is what provided some solace, a form of reckoning. However, Serial’s legitimate questions around the affair were met with silence from the media class and the political class. The lack of engagement from the government with the facts and questions raised in the podcast was duly noted, particularly from individuals like Michael Gove, who during the Trojan Hoax was the Education Minister.

Although I could write and dissect much more about the podcast and its reception, I would like to think about a documentary cited in the podcast. In the first episode, Tahir Alam, former chair of governors at Park View Academy, and Moz Hussain, the first Muslim teacher to be employed at the school, mention the BBC Panorama documentary provocatively titled Underclass in Purdah broadcast in 1993. Tahir Alam explains how this documentary captured his attention, mainly focusing on the academic underachievement of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Bradford and Birmingham with a specific focus on the Pakistani community. One of the two schools featured was Park View, the school that Tahir Alam had himself attended.

Tahir Alam has this to say to Hamza Syed, one of the presenters of the podcast, about the documentary and how it made him feel:

“Archived recording: But for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, an astonishing 50% hold no qualifications whatsoever.

Hamza Syed: 50%, half of us, were basically failing school. That hit Tahir hard.

Tahir Alam: That the extent of education failure was so bad that we were at risk of creating an underclass of Muslims, who were, basically, uneducated, prone to crime and unemployment.

So I kind of sat there, and it made me feel guilty, actually, guilt because I was one of the few people who made it from my family, one of the first ones to make it to university and to have a good job and so on.

But there was also a sense of humiliation, really, because I was from this community.”

(The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast, Serial Productions, 2022: episode 1)

It was this that stirred him to push for educational reform in Alum Rock, his east Birmingham neighbourhood, home to a large Pakistani community. As a result, he became an avid advocate for raising the educational aspirations of young Muslims in Alum Rock and giving them access to opportunities that were hitherto unavailable to them.

The Asian or Muslim Asian?

The most striking element about Underclass in Purdah is the title itself. But, before I come back to it, I will provide a brief overview of the documentary and its alleged insights. The documentary claims to widely explore the economic and educational experiences of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Bradford and Birmingham though much of the focus is on the Pakistani community across the two cities, with a few minutes given to explaining differences with the Bangladeshi communities. Nonetheless, the documentary feebly characterises the two communities’ supposed failures and juxtaposes them against the wider Indian and East African Asian communities.

The presenter of the show, Nisha Pillai, a South Asian of Indian descent, bizarrely introduces the documentary with the following line:

“The stereotype “Asian” is the hardworking businessman or doctor doing well for himself [sic] but for the majority of Muslim Asians, that stereotype is a myth. A new generation of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, potentially the biggest ethnic group in the country, is growing up angry and alienated from white society. In tonight’s programme, we lift the veil on this new underclass.”

‘South Asian’, it should be pointed out, is a category that signifies very little. However, even when it is flattened despite its multitude of languages, cultures, customs, clothing, religion and much more, the term evokes a set of imageries and narratives of ‘a people’ to the average person. Indeed, this signifier is as dynamic as any other, but the deeply ingrained habits of perception are why such collapsing is made possible. Having noted that, though, where we notice a shift and a deviation from the term, especially in this documentary, is the continuous use of ‘Muslim Asians’. This category alludes to the material and political circumstances of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.

The repurposing of ‘Asian’ taps into a different set of established fears, particularly around the Muslim. It facilitates, heightens and inflates the importance of how ‘these Muslims are a menace’. At the same time, those who are non-Muslim who hail from the same geographical region are placed in a unique position: to uphold the boundaries of what makes a good ‘other’ citizen. This became ever more defined following the Northern mill town uprisings in the summer of 2001 where ‘…Hindu and Sikh activists had published warnings against the dangers of Islam’ (Bagguley and Hussain 2008: 55) and that those participating were all Muslim Asian boys and men (read: not our boys!). Kundnani elaborates on how such mixed-class snobbery from non-Muslim Asians, especially The World Council of Hindus, came out to publicly ‘disown the Muslim rioters, hoping to make clear to whites that Hindus should not be tarnished with the same brush. Asian solidarity had died’.

It is important to note that although these events happened in 2001, a similar tone is utilised to demarcate the apparent splintering along religious lines in Underclass in Purdah. The example used in the 1993 documentary was the Salman Rushdie Affair and the burning of effigies by some Muslims. Again, the emphasis here was that the Asian Muslims are the trouble-makers while the non-Muslim Asian, rather insipidly, ought to be rewarded and not be infringed upon with the diatribe of Muslim Asians. The Muslim Asian becomes the pariah, expunged into a permanent pathologised frame, corresponding with the tropes and fear-mongering employed by the Trojan Hoax.

Underclass in Purdah – a pathologisation

It is essential to consider the language deployed to discuss Muslims, and here the title of the documentary warrants some attention. Purdah, in its most basic definition, means curtain in Farsi. Within the social context, it refers to the socio-religious and cultural practice of South Asian women, primarily Hindu and Muslim women, secluding themselves through their sartorial choices in ensuring their skin is covered and concealed, including their body form. The practice of purdah also extends to the physical segregation of men and women. Importantly, purdah is also a term used within the UK political landscape before any election to emphasise the specific restrictions while canvassing.

Mobeen Hussain, who focuses on colourism and practices of skin-lightening and examined how bodies were racialised in colonial South Asia, however, argues that the historical practice of purdah went ‘far from fitting into binary narratives of veiling/unveiling and traditional and primitive versus modern and progressive’ but that they were ‘often about navigations of space, familial hierarchies, and changing public roles’ (Hussain 2021: 163). Its use in the documentary title implies that this underclass, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, are in hiding. They are yet to appear in society. The ominous accompanying music also adds to this tension of why these communities are ‘unwilling’ to get themselves out of poverty and why they continue adhering to their ‘strange’ customs, locating the responsibility on those impacted by the structural violence.

The primary problem with the way the two communities are (re)presented is that they are projected as inherently lacking the desire to want change and achieve good grades or give their children a good life. Yet we witnessed how Alam transformed the schools by paying attention to the particular needs of young Muslims in schools in east Birmingham and raising their aspirations, as previously this was non-existent:

‘The racism was pervasive. Razwan Faraz, a former governor and math teacher, says at one of his first governing body meetings, he was shown a list of places the students had been given work placements through a program at the school. And it was all restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores.’The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast, Serial Productions, 2022: episode 1

In the documentary, though, there is no treatment of structural factors with much of the focus on the families alone and their choices. There is also little recognition of meeting the needs of the young Muslims, articulating the claim that they are making it difficult to ‘escape the ghetto’. The families are captured through a monolithic pattern, thereby pathologising them. For example, in the scenes with Muslim women, they are presented as passive individuals who are not invested in their children’s future but are bound by their customs and adhering to their men’s commands.

McLoughlin affirms this by noting how the documentary’s structure alludes ‘to an essentialist set of assumptions about Muslim Asian women as necessarily the confined bearers of traditional izzat (family honour) and sharm (shame) in contradistinction to the goals of a democratic and secular society.’ (McLoughlin 1998: 91). This perfectly illustrates the limits of thinking about the Muslim Asian woman, of continuously relying on prescribed, orientalist-induced workings. These racist fantasies are on repeat within the cultural and political terrain and determined how the political and media class discussed the Trojan Hoax. In the podcast, we hear references made by Sue Packer in episode 5 about her concerns about young Muslim women, including her colleagues, and that they were culturally and religiously trapped, and she wanted to facilitate a way out for them.

As ever, when there are stories specifically about racially minoritised communities, there will always be those from within those communities who present themselves as the alternative. Those who have proven capable of proper, unweird human behaviour (read: leveraging a proximity to whiteness) and substituting the usual patterns of consumption to ‘help’ those left behind. Such individuals project a vilification of the Muslim Asian that is a different form of violence to reassert their sense of awakening, of holding a superior position. The Panorama documentary deliberately seems to avoid discussing, and I would argue is a glaring omission, how there is little discussion around the de-industrialisation of the cities these Asian Muslims are in. The lack of economic opportunities is a critical factor because we see this raised in multiple scenes, including the one where a burglar is interviewed who discusses the lack of opportunities available that pushes many to turn to criminal activities.

The tenuous attempts to link the ‘anger and alienation’ felt by young Muslim Asian men to essentialist cultural behaviours are fraught. Addressing the current political and social imaginings during and following the Trojan Hoax, the Muslim Asian bears an arbitrary sense of justice. What I mean by this is how the sheer fear that reverberated within the political class, abetted by the media class, was all willing to sacrifice the Muslim to legitimate the ever-expansive surveillance apparatus. After all, the Muslim, especially the body of the Asian Muslim man, is ostensibly the site through which the national identity and image are asserted. Such exclusionary practices were a way for non-Muslim Asians to part ways with their peers.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the documentary provides a shallow analysis for several reasons: firstly, the diluting of the structural; secondly, the over-reliance on crude, essentialist framings of the Muslim borrowed from colonial vernacular in conjunction with using purdah nefariously, including the idea that the documentary aims to ‘lift the veil’ of these communities. The Asian Muslim’s positioning has changed very little since the release of Underclass in Purdah with a more intensified hyper-vigilance and focus on this subject. Its claims are deeply grounded in historical and contemporary (re)configurations of the Asian Muslim who requires regular intervention by the state. This imagining activates the need to brazenly unveil these communities to make them whole, to learn to embody civility and enter modernity. The inferring is that the Asian Muslim simply cannot, and will not, escape their ‘cultural trappings’.

The documentary ends with a quote by the Carlton Bolling College headteacher, Mervyn Flecknoe, that ‘our city centres will become as difficult as American city centres’. This analogy posits the idea that the violence is outsourced to these otherwise progressive cities by outsiders, the internally racialised ‘other’. These impenetrable anxieties around the Asian Muslim defy any pragmatism. The discourse has remained stagnant, and even with the podcast exposing the affair as a hoax again, the lethargic non-response remains, particularly in Birmingham. The lack of engagement or even acknowledgement of an error actually serves to heighten the dismembering of the Asian Muslim. The Asian Muslim is either hypervisible or remains invisible. The caricaturing of the Asian Muslim as an underclass, requiring a necessary intervention to make them unhidden, exposed means their mere existence haunts the imagination of the state. Whether hypervisible or invisible, the Muslim occupies the mind of the oppressor. In this regard, the disciplining of Muslims, through whatever means possible, will endure in the long run.

References:

Bagguley, P., & Hussain, Y. (2008). Riotous Citizens: Ethnic Conflict in Multicultural Britain (1st ed.). Routledge.

Hussain, A. M. (2021). Race, Gender, and Beauty in Late Colonial India c.1900-1950. (Doctoral thesis). , p.163.

McLoughlin, S. (1998). ‘An underclass in Purdah?’ Discrepant representations of identity and the experiences of young-British-Asian-Muslim-women. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 80(3), pp.89-106. DOI:

Fatima Rajina is a Legacy in Action Research Fellow at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University. After completing her MA in Islamic Societies and Cultures at SOAS, she went on to do a PhD after successfully securing a Nohoudh Scholarship with the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS, University of London. Completing her PhD at SOAS, Fatima’s work looks at British Bangladeshi Muslims and their changing identifications and perceptions of dress and language. She has also worked as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge looking at police and counter-terrorism. Fatima was also a Teaching Fellow at SOAS, Research Fellow at UCL IoE, and, additionally, she worked as a Lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University London.

Header Image Credit: Alum Rock Road, Birmingham, K. Khan

Bio Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Rajina, F. 2022. ‘Underclass in Purdah: Britain’s never-changing relationship with its Asian Muslims and the creation of the Asian Muslim’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):

Editorial: Rurality

Sam Hillyard

Welcome to this special issue of the online journal Discover Society.  The general editors have generously elected to feature rurality on the reinvigorated journal’s agenda.  The authors of this collection have sought to contribute both to what we know about rural issues and how we think about them, too.  This is the ambition for this special issue and merits greater explanation.

Rural sociology in the UK remains a marginal subdiscipline.  It is not seen as an exciting field, or where innovative and dynamic way of grasping the complexity of the social world may arise.  The reason for this, of course, lies with the history of the discipline – the catalyst of the industrial revolution prompting the growth of the city and a seismic change in the where and how most of the population live.  The rural harks back to old ways of living.  Yet, and as the general editors of this journal are fully cognisant, rural areas remain sites of inequality, poverty and neglect.  Such areas are subject to a set of circumstances that both underpin and recreate these inequalities.  On that basis alone they merit serious sociological attention.

The question therefore becomes, how best to approach and understand – and to unlock – rural circumstances?  That question underpinned my thinking in pulling together this issue’s contributors.  They have all approached a rural issue in a distinctive or innovative way.  Not all authors on my wishlist were able to submit in the end – some authors were keen but found that the issue they wanted to discuss proved (or perhaps confirmed) that rural matters can be too complex to capture in short-format articles.  I am therefore pleased and grateful that all authors featured here have elected to signpost their work further – their ideas and further publications can be followed up in greater detail.  Also, and extremely pleasingly, there is a breadth of disciplinary backgrounds reflected in the papers.  This is when sociology performs something special.  It makes a space for dialogue and perhaps new ways of seeing things to emerge.   Now, to outline the editorial approach to this SI collection and to overview the contents of the papers.

As stated above, the core ambition was to offer some new angle, light, perception, to inform or surprise about rurality.  The paper by Anne Matilainen and Merja Lähdesmäki takes the not-particularly-remarkable – even banal – product of moose meat as the focus of their analysis.  They outline its status as a product – and pivotally a non-commercial product.  Their discussion then follows on to explain why this is the case and the status and role of hunting cultures in their native Finland.  To discuss moose meat is therefore to begin to unravel complex – and longstanding – patterns of landownership, control and interaction with rurality.  It is a paper that begins to show that rurality has a cachet beyond its intrinsic value.  This is theme is also found in Ed Lord’s article.

Drawing upon extensive ethnographic research, Lord seeks to discuss the intangible – the benefits of occupying rural spaces and how this has permeated the contemporary zeitgeist.  Using an array of commentaries and literatures, he traces how we have reached this point.  While the exact therapeutic benefits of using rural spaces are difficult to pinpoint, there is a growing consensus that the great outdoors is good for us.  Moreover, this appreciation – whilst dominant now – is not new.

In the wake of the global pandemic, which has seen in the UK context an increasingly emphasis upon access to green spaces, Lord’s work is an important contribution towards our understanding of why.  His analysis traces back some roots underpinning the emergence of this zeitgeist.  Lord asks difficult questions – how to see afresh what has become culturally taken-for-granted?  Furthermore, his conclusion asks what will occur if such values become commodified?  Again, the theme of equity emerges and how can rural spaces – in all of their diversity –be enjoyed by all.

Rowan Jaines’ article is perhaps the most speculative and provocative.  It can be read as a provocation for us to think afresh about rurality’s status in society.  It does so by stripping back the status of the rural vis-à-vis the earliest formation of the city.  Present-day patterns of both ownership and also the cultural status of the rural are shaped by this background.  Jaines’ argument is provocative because it argues we have stopped thinking and reflecting upon what the rural is.  Indeed, what it could become.  Yet we remain dependent upon its produce.  She concludes with a call for greater ontological status to be accorded to nature. 

Finally, my own contribution tries to explore what is not there –  specifically, the shortfall in vets.  A global and longstanding issue, the article looks into what the vets have had to say and also specific work on vets by academics.  They concur that a vet’s work is complex – both technically and emotionally – and hence difficult to fully grasp.  Here we might apply Matilainen and Lähdesmäki and also Jaines’ research strategies.  That is, to see the situation in a broader landscape.  Vets are subject to global trends and forces.  There is a move from large to small animal practice and also the role of service work they inevitably are involved in performing.  The sociology of work literature is brought in to try to see this important rural profession in a new light.  Pivotally for vets, is the status of non-human animals and the article calls for their greater inclusion in our analyses. 

To conclude, the collection is a varied one – and deliberately so.  They can be approached in any order, but the issue remains more than the sum of its parts.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the contributors and also the general editors for the opportunity to showcase a rural theme.

Sam Hillyard is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, where she teaches sociological theory and methods.  She is series editor of Studies in Qualitative Methodology (Emerald) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Qualitative Research.  Her current research includes work with rural GPs and colleagues in Lincoln’s International Institute for Rural Health.

Header Image Credit: Valley Farm, West Wratting. Andrew Stawartz

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Hillyard, Sam 2022. ‘Editorial: Rurality’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1):