Chris Allen, University of Birmingham
There was always a distinct possibility that an anonymous letter leaked via the Sunday Telegraph alleging an Islamist ‘plot’ to take-over of Birmingham schools was a hoax. Dubbed ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, the letter set out a five-step guide alleged to have been written by Muslims on how to overthrow existing teachers and governors in non-faith state schools in order to replace them with more ‘Islam-friendly’ individuals prepared to run schools in accordance with conservative Islamic principles.
Whilst West Midlands Police continue to investigate the letter, few accept its authenticity. The recent investigations into 21 Birmingham schools undertaken by Ofsted that were prompted by the allegations also show no evidence whatsoever of a plot. Yet still the allegations linger, the investigations go on, and the politicians continue to intervene, resulting in the story remaining in the headlines and front pages of an ever insatiable media. What then is it that keeps Trojan Horse in the public and political spaces?
One of the worrying trends to have emerged out of my research into Islamophobia over the past decade or so is that, even when stories about Muslims and Islam are proved to be incorrect or just untrue, many in wider society continue to believe them arguing that there is ‘no smoke without fire’. With Trojan Horse, the sheer scale of the response from central government would be seen to offer a semblance of evidence that resonates with this response. Factor into that the public and political discourses that have repeatedly focused on Muslim ‘hardliners’ and ‘extremists’ and, as one senior politician was alleged to have put it, the need to ‘drain the swamp’ in Birmingham and it is almost certain that levels of suspicion and mistrust shown towards Muslims will have increased.
In this article, I reflect on the allegations and fallout from Trojan Horse to consider how these are likely to feed into widespread negative views about Muslims and Islam as also what the impact of this might be on Muslims in Birmingham and beyond.
Ofsted, evidence and interference
While there was no evidence of a ‘plot’ in Ofsted’s recent investigations, there were some incidents in specific schools that made for uneasy reading. Primarily though, these were concerned with matters of school governance rather than anything else. With five schools being placed in special measures, it is right that appropriate action is taken where problems are identified. However, significant concerns have been expressed about the independence of the Ofsted investigations if the experience of Park View Academy, the school at the centre of the allegations is anything to go by. Located in a densely populated Muslim area of the city, Park View was once judged to be one of the worst schools in Britain. In recent years however, the school has undergone significant improvement with almost eight out of 10 students going into higher education, achieving above the national average and being many times oversubscribed. Unsurprisingly, Ofsted classified the school to be ‘outstanding’ as recently as March this year.
Soon after the allegations broke, inspectors went back to Park View and it is alleged found it to be outstanding. According to the Guardian, when presented to the Department for Education the findings were rejected, prompting a further inspection that resulted in a series of minor recommendations being replaced by more severe criticisms leading to its classification as ‘inadequate’. Park View was one of the five schools placed special measures. Led by Tim Brighouse, a former chief education officer in Birmingham, a group of leading educationalists have voiced their opposition to this, claiming that such behaviour has the very real potential of ‘tarnishing’ all of the findings and bringing into question the political independence of Ofsted as an objective and professional body.
Politics, extremism and power struggles
Indeed the politics of Trojan Horse stretch well beyond the city of Birmingham and concerns about Ofsted. At its most bizarre, this was evident in the seemingly unfounded claims made by former Prime Minister, Tony Blair who said that a link existed to what is unfolding in Birmingham’s schools from the extremism behind the kidnapping of 200 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Also at the geo-political, some have suggested that the extremism evident in British schools is a causal factor in the process of ‘radicalisation’ that has seen hundreds of British Muslims going off to fight in Syria. It is worth reiterating that in spite of such claims, no tangible evidence of extremism in schools in Birmingham or, indeed, elsewhere has yet to emerge.
In Westminster, however, it would seem that some continue to believe a plot exists and, by default, that extremism in schools is a major problem. Leading such thinking would appear to be the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. When he appointed the former counter-terrorism chief from the Metropolitan Police, Peter Clarke, to oversee the Department of Education’s investigations into the allegations – an appointment even West Midlands Police had concerns about – the message was stark. Gove and his allies often talk of a ‘conveyor belt’ that carries vulnerable Muslims from conservative Islam through to extremism. Gove first explored this in his 2006 book, Celsius 7/7 – conspiracy theorists have noted it contains a chapter titled ‘The Trojan Horse’ – and he would seem to still believe this to be the case, especially if, as it is claimed, he sought to extend the government’s definition of extremism to include Muslim girls wearing hijabs as part of a voluntary code of conduct aimed at combating extremism in schools as recommended in the Extremism Task Force’s 2013 report.
Trojan Horse has also raised wider questions about extremism in Westminster not least as to where responsibility for tackling it lies. Forced into the public domain by the publication of a letter from the Home Secretary, Theresa May to Gove, she criticised him for failing to adequately deal with the problem. With reports claiming that sources within the Home Office saw the Department for Education as running a ‘parallel security policy’, Gove reciprocally believed that a general malaise existed within the Home Office where extremism was only confronted once it developed into terrorism. While there is little doubt a power struggle between two potential future Conservative party leaders was also at play, those for whom the impact of such debates and arguments would be most great were merely bit-part players, overlooked and invisible throughout.
Invisible, homogenous and ‘no smoke without fire’
Rarely in the unfolding debates have Muslim voices been heard or would seem to be cared about. Maybe unsurprisingly, as my research has shown, Muslims are increasingly viewed as problematic and threatening, ever-more a homogenised and undifferentiated ‘other’. It is this that underpins the fact that few challenge the nonsensical logic of claiming links exist between Birmingham’s schools and Boko Haram. As my research also shows, Muslims are also seen to be incompatible with ‘our’ norms, values and way of life. Consequently, the decision to teach ‘British values’ – a highly vague and subjective concept – is welcomed and simplistically conceived as providing the protection against some British Muslims going to fight in Syria and more. So embedded and uncritically accepted have these notions become that they have become normalised, taken for granted, and seen to be common sense. In other words, it’s entirely normal to be suspicious and mistrusting of Muslims: ‘no smoke without fire’.
And this is evident in what might be one of the most damaging legacies of Trojan Horse. Even when engaging in seemingly respectable and responsible behaviour when others do it – namely wanting to be involved in your children’s education and wanting to support, and participate in, the schools they attend – when it comes to Muslims, those normal behaviours have the potential to be viewed very differently. For Muslims, the ordinary and everyday are as easily perceived to be something far more extraordinary, insidious and even dangerous. For Muslims, being involved in your children’s education – as indeed anything else others do without question or scrutiny – therefore has the potential to be misconstrued; seen as further evidence of a hidden conspiracy, of being an ‘enemy within’ or indeed any other Islamophobic construct.
Weariness, isolation and suspect communities
In Birmingham, some Muslims are trying to respond to the allegations and the fallout from these. For others, a sense of weariness exists with many still reeling from the impact of the now defunct Project Champion. As Trojan Horse no doubt will, the placing of more than 200 ‘spy’ cameras around two of the most densely populated Muslims areas in the city sent a very clear message to those living there. As my research with Arshad Isakjee showed, many of Birmingham’s Muslims believed this to have caused less cohesion, more tension between different communities and, most worryingly, increased feelings of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred across the city. Today, Birmingham’s Muslims will likely be experiencing even greater levels of scrutiny and questioning, resulting in them feeling even more anxious and fraught and of more concern, ever more isolated and marginalised; as though they do not belong, not even to the city in which they were born, grew up and continue to live in. Even more importantly, Birmingham’s Muslims will once again feel they are a ‘suspect community’ something that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future at least.
Chris Allen is a lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham where he researches Islamophobia and contemporary issues facing Muslim communities as also the relationships between religion, policy and politics more widely. He blogs at wallscometumblingdown, and tweets @DrChrisAllen.He is author of Allen, C. “Between critical and uncritical understandings: a case study analyzing the claims of Islamophobia made in the context of the proposed ‘super-mosque’ in Dudley, England” in Societies (Vol 3, no. 2, 2013, pp.186-203); Allen, C. “Fear and loathing: the political discourse in relation to Muslims and Islam in the contemporary British setting” in Politics & Religion (Vol IV no.2 Autumn, 2010, pp.221-35); Allen, C. Islamophobia. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.