The New York Times’ decision to focus their latest Serial podcast, The Trojan Horse Affair, on the British Trojan Horse scandal was met with tentative optimism by many British Muslims and British Muslim parents such as myself. A travesty that ripped through British politics and scarred a generation of Muslims had come to feel like an inevitable miscarriage of justice. Like any media scandal involving Muslims, it contained all the ingredients for the perfect fantasy horror plot: surrealism, hyperbole, and lots and lots of tragedy.
A Backdrop Of Anti-Muslim Politicization
The quotidian nature of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK means that, in the marketplace of ideas, it is undoubtedly the most fail-safe stock for those politicians wanting to appear relatable and electable.
I am by no means a stranger to the cold politicization of the female Muslim identity. I have become accustomed to expecting the supposedly casual, off-hand comment about the hijab or niqab by a suited snake oil statesman every time there is an election pending–a carefully drafted statement brainstormed from a series of focus groups, feeding off of and fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of Islamophobic sentiment that has reached absolute ubiquity in the UK.
Fortunately for politicians, the veiling of women, with its ideologically pregnable history, is the perfect shorthand for “Other.” More generally, the political elasticity of the Muslim identity is election gold; thus it becomes a coin heavy with reassurance, traded most frequently during election cycles and opportune news days, to those desperate to appeal to or distract the electoral majority.
Parenting in Light of The Trojan Horse Scandal
Despite having graduated from this school of British anti-Muslim politicization, becoming a mother and letting my children out into a world shaped by anti-terror ideology still came as a shock to my system.
Having children is almost like having a little bit of you living outside of you. Without an encasing shell, you are left watching helplessly, heart in throat, as they take their first unsteady steps into the world. The natural protective instinct of a parent takes on a new shape for Muslim families, as you learn to attune yourself to the Islamophobia that hangs low and heavy in the air in a completely new way.
The insidious nature of anti-Muslim sentiment means that Muslim children are not always afforded the same childhood as some of their non-racialized counterparts. The reality for Muslim children is that misspelt words, misheard statements, and absolutely normal childhood behavior can result in referrals to police, interviews, and records on the Government’s counter-terror policing database for six years. Criminalization, in short, is what you would call it. The contemporary notion of childhood, with its roots in a Victorian Britain with evolving social constructs, isn’t conceptually big enough to accommodate children of Muslim heritage. Freedom, creativity, and innocence isn’t as easily attributed to them. Dangerous presumptions and surveying institutional eyes follow them on the basis of their religious heritage alone.
As a parent, internalizing the Islamophobic gaze is often part of that protective measure you must assume as a parent–to safeguard your child from the trauma of this frankly mad, yet entirely plausible, chain of events. The paradoxical position of having to be cognizant of your child’s behavior through the hateful lens of Islamophobic legislation is in itself a fraught experience, and that’s without the anxiety of all of its consequences.
We know that wars have been waged in the name of protecting Muslim women from the clutches of Islam–to their detriment. It is perhaps no surprise that this has extended so perfectly onto Muslim children. Coupled with how social anxieties at large project themselves onto the microcosm of the home, through the language of safeguarding and child protection, it is perhaps no surprise we have sleep-walked into the legislative position we have found ourselves in –effectively criminalizing expressions of Islamic faith.
The So-Called “Operation Trojan Horse”One of the major catalysts for this process of criminalization has undoubtedly been “Operation Trojan Horse.” The tellingly-named Trojan Horse Affair, Serial NYT’s latest podcast, centers on a fabricated letter outlining an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham. The letter, which was sent to a city official in 2014 and eventually leaked to the press, led to a redefinition of anti-terror and education policy in the UK. While the letter itself and subsequent investigation alleged a concerted plot to Islamize public schools, the claims were revealed to be fabricated and baseless. Despite the wide-scale harm and long term devastation caused as a result, on both a local and national scale, none of the claims were upheld.
During the course of the affair, the Government’s independent investigation into a local schooling issue consisted of the appointment of the previous head of anti-terrorism at Scotland Yard, as well as two other government agencies. This appointment was underpinned by and further reinforced the “conveyor belt theory,” which has been widely debunked by international research. The “conveyor belt theory” falsely claims there is a direct link between religiously conservative views and violent extremism.
As a result, the Government introduced a range of draconian measures aimed at Muslims. Despite the only legal case into the affair still pending–and which would eventually go on to collapse–the Government introduced a new stringent Prevent strategy in 2015. Crucially, there was a change of focus from violent extremism to non-violent extremism, with requirements of safeguarding children from radicalization that applied to schools, higher education, and the National Health Service. For British Muslims, religiosity becomes a possible indicator of vulnerability to radicalization: for example, under a non-violent extremism logic, developing an interest in prayer and refraining from celebrating other religious festivals become red flags for potentially violent extremist thought and behavior. This notion carves out a dangerous and nebulous “pre-crime” space in the British legal system and further muddies the already murky legal and social understanding of Muslims.
Just like the family and home become the projected sites of social anxiety, schools (as buffers between the domestic and state spheres) are subject to a similar level of hysteria in policymaking. What greater foothold does the Government have into the home than through the education of children? And built into this education system is all manner of entitlements and assumptions about norms and defaults in morality. The panic over Muslim homes and British families was always going to have the most virulent expression in education policy. And this is not to mention the colonial hang-ups concerning education as a civilizing force, which gives the wider case and its fall-out a further sinister hue.
Aftermath of Trojan Horse: Institutional Islamophobia
Listening to The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, and reliving one of the most obtrusive events on the landscape of British policy for Muslims, has been a maddening experience. What the detailed retelling of this story has done is demonstrate in real-time the crystallization of institutional Islamophobia. As many esteemed academics will tell you, anti-terror/counter-violence extremism logic is policy-based evidence, and not evidence-based policy. It is effectively racist assumptions enshrined in law, and is arrogantly self-referential.
In exposing micro details of events, The Trojan Horse Affair podcast makes apparent how the legal and political climate we live in today was formed: through politicians aligned to right-wing think tanks leveraging this small local dispute to enact widescale change in the nation. It is clear there is some malignancy at the national level when it is revealed that the Education Minister of the time was aware the letter was a hoax. On the local end of this dispute, we see bigotry and illiteracy, as well as the internalized Islamophobia and opportunism of people from within the Muslim community. The full spectrum of Islamophobia that forms this depraved feedback loop is on display.
The Institutional Gaze on Muslim Children
At the time the Trojan Horse letter and scandal ripped through the British Muslim social fabric, my daughter was a few months old. It’s hard to overestimate the impact it has had during the course of her life, and it has been surreal to witness as a parent. Our visit to the general practitioner’s surgery, to name one example, is all the more uncomfortable when the doctor makes an unguarded comment warning me to be careful of my daughter’s faith school as it may be “extreme.” Both the assumption and its potential consequence are colored by what happened in Birmingham.
This assumption that Muslim children might need to be safeguarded from their parents, purely by virtue of faith, is what underpins Prevent culture in public institutions. The view that my child is by nature born secular and that my belief system as a parent is unnatural to her, whereas she was otherwise intended on a liberal life-path, reveals the regressive attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. It reveals the cultural blind spots that policymakers at the highest level possess.
Cementing Islamophobia in Institutions
Listening to the deluded, first-hand accounts in The Trojan Horse Affair from the handful of people who held the discredited view that Birmingham’s schools were “Islamist–” the Governments’ sole legal witnesses–is surreal. We see at a small scale how the misunderstandings concerning Islam emboldens regressive attitudes and how anti-terror culture promotes and secures this. The podcast shows how each racist assumption and every ill-informed judgement or ignorant prejudice has cemented to erect an ugly edifice of racism that upholds many public structures, including health and education.
Schools are intensely personal and political spaces and what the interviewees demonstrate is a shocking lack of self-awareness. They struggle to articulate the nature of their own personal discomfort towards innocuous practices at the schools, and to give weight to the idea that they are dangerous or warranting legal intervention.
Why is this?
The conceptual Muslim in public imagination exists purely as an empty symbol ready to take on the color of the latest social anxiety. Due to this shapeshifting nature of Muslim as the boogieman, feelings of Islamophobia are equally undefinable and senseless. We see how these individuals’ confused and unsubstantiated feelings, hunches, and incoherent thoughts go on to create policy changes that have material consequences for Muslim lives. The practices that the (Muslim) school leaders engage in, which bring such discomfort to the interviewees, are neatly shoehorned into a media narrative of Islamophobia which is self-affirming. This unholy alliance between Government and the media creating an endless cycle of Islamophobic sentiment which feeds and is fueled by this machination, is laid bare. That these views had legs and ran as far as Parliament is testament to the shared language of Islamophobia in Britain.
The 2015 Prevent strategy was borne out of these community tensions, and with depressing irony, ultimately continue to work only to exploit and exacerbate these cultural misunderstandings and intra-community tensions. Prevent referrals are often used to settle community scores and disputes with devastating consequences. They do nothing to encourage dialogue and debate and foster the understanding and harmony that is required. Rather, they force all citizens to perceive Muslims through the distorting prism of Islamophobia and criminality, fostering suspicion and division.
Losing a Bright Future for Muslim Children in BritainThe statistics around Park View Academy themselves paint a depressing figure. A school which was originally one of the most downgraded in the British education system–in which students were called “Paki” and proclamations of “white is right” were made in the staff room–eventually rose to within the top 14% of British Schools after being reclaimed by local British Pakistani Muslims, and before the fake letter surfaced. With a 98% Muslim student body the school is situated in one of the most underprivileged areas in the country in which 72% of children received free school meals compared to a 15% national average. Celebrated by the Department for Education as an exemplary success story in British education, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Trojan Horse scandal is how it robbed this beacon of hope from a community that had worked so hard against all odds to achieve it. The local fall-out from the affair was colossal; the school suffered mass dismissals, teachers occurred life-long bans from teaching, and the school’s academic achievement plummeted. What was once a thriving culturally-aware and culturally-sensitive hub of a school community in Birmingham was left scarred and community relations tarnished. When I think of the Trojan Horse scandal, I feel most pained for the children and young people who had what they deserved taken away from them simply because of their religious heritage.
(In)Acceptable Religious Influence in Schools
These events are, of course, nestled amidst a backdrop of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society flagship policy–encouraging local communities to take charge of their local schools. The Big Society policy led to a vast increase in such school management. Tacit amongst this appears to be a belief that this was only desirable when the “right” kind of communities were doing so, thus implying agency and autonomy isn’t desirable amongst all local communities. Moreover, the only remaining charge that was upheld against one of the 21 schools originally in question was “undue religious influence.” What is interesting to note is that in Britain, schools aren’t strictly secular. All schools must teach religious education and hold daily acts of collective worship…the acceptable kind of worship, it seems.
The Trojan Horse Affair makes apparent the perverse logic and paradoxical nature of anti-terror wisdom. The few disgruntled staff members that testified against the school are only able to reference their mere “belief” that the school promoted extremist beliefs. Here “extremist” or religious beliefs are rallied against because of the claim that they themselves are unsubstantiated outside of a theological model. The cannibalistic nature of counter-violent extremist thinking is woefully apparent here–not all beliefs are created equal. If the nefarious Muslim, carved out by media and political discourse, exists as a form of social and political catharsis–to reassure society that they are not the “Other–” then this inverted identity holds a mirror up to society of the ugly face they wish to ignore. This discomfort reverberates throughout the political food-chain leading to an encroaching criminalization of Muslim identity.
Pitting Islam Against Academic Excellence
Furthermore, what is implicit in this narrative–and what the political consequences of this make clear–is the idea that Islamic thought comes at the expense of academic success or cultural enrichment. The irony of claiming Islam is culturally deficient while holding the most reductionist view of Islam oneself is not lost on many of us. Especially not when done concurrently to pulling down a set of schools, which were by their very definition of “Islamic ethos,” and which achieved considerable academic success. This further stigmatizes and alienates Muslim children in the name of assimilating them into British life. It soon becomes apparent that a concerted, coordinated effort by government agencies with a shared objective to undermine these academically excellent, religiously demographical schools outschemes this supposed Operation Trojan Horse plot to Islamize schools. The question over who is behind an insidious plot to undermine who comes to mind. And all this, in true counter-terror logic, to protect Muslim children.
What The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast Ultimately Tells Us
Ultimately, what is tragic about The Trojan Horse Affair is that our Muslim children, community, and faith doesn’t matter. The discomfort of a few ignorant staff members meant more to the government and had a higher truth value than the life chances of our children in Birmingham and the future of Muslim children across the UK. Nobody cared enough to fact-check, but rather they allowed their ignorance and prejudice to run away with them–an ignorance and prejudice that they created and they continue to encourage to meet their own needs.
That The Trojan Horse Affair podcast was made is a testament to the absurdity of the situation. That it takes an American production to point out the blatant legal injustice and structural racism involved in this case is indicative of the magnitude of this miscarriage of justice–the very America with its flawed legal system and own endemic issues of Islamophobia.
While Muslims are entirely justified to feel jaded at the claim of a neutral investigation into this affair in particular (because media neutrality itself is most often based on Islamophobic grounds), The Trojan Horse Affair‘s narrative is encouraging . As the two journalists, Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, progress through this journey of unearthing the truth, through interrogating the individual, material claims and actions beneath the wider case, the spotlight is for once also pointed on secular discomfort and not just the distractive figure of the Muslim. The burden of proof is finally on those claimants and their views and not on the Muslim’s belief system. Through interrogating these underlying “facts” of the case, the weak foundations of institutional Islamophobia are exposed as whimsical, arbitrary, and completely lacking in substance or truth. The grim and disturbing reality they uphold is finally exposed.
The Trojan Horse Affair shines the spotlight for once on secular discomfort and not just the distractive figure of ‘the Muslim.’ The burden of proof is finally on those claimants and their views and not on the Muslim’s belief system.Click To Tweet
Who is Inside the Trojan Horse?
The letter and alleged plot at the heart of The Trojan Horse Affair sets the stage for a perfect villainous Islamist plot. While the “nefarious Muslim” teaches us about society’s greatest fears, if we pay close enough attention, the unfolding of events reveals details about those elite political classes that have mobilized behind the fabricated plot. The pieces of the puzzle are neatly laid out. The Muslim is projected as clandestine, lacking cultural scope and academic ambition, ignorant, nihilistic, and destructive towards other cultures and people, using women and children as tools to further their own ideological agenda. Indeed, the fingerprints left on the Muslim community show us that those political elite have sculpted the perfect image of themselves in their fiction. What The Trojan Horse Affair makes most apparent to me is perhaps the danger doesn’t lie within Muslim communities.
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Source: Muslim Matters