In this reflection on the recent NY Times/Serial podcast investigation into the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, the author examines how the true Trojan Horse story is not the alleged ‘Islamification’ of some schools in Birmingham, but the turbocharge given to the Prevent agenda, which has demolished the integrity of every public sector official. They have been transformed into the agents of the surveillance state, ever fearful of recriminations lest they overlook the smallest signs of extremism, and thus end up policing speech, fashion, and religious practice.
Speaking truth to power is the hallmark of all successful nations. We live in an age when the truth is manipulated and dissidents cancelled, vilified and labelled as extremists.
The investigation into the Trojan Horse Affair, undertaken by a New Yorker Brian Reed, a Birmingham doctor-turned-journalist Hamza Syed, along with the many who worked in the background, serves to shine a light on Britain in the 21st Century – struggling to deal with the challenges of identity, sovereignty and still shackled by its colonial past.
The objective listener can judge if this is yet another example of so-called false “Muslim grievances”, or a sinister Muslim extremist plot. Such is the reach of this narrative that even prominent Muslim activists have been known to assert that Muslims are not victims but architects of their own misfortune – internalising the Islamophobia as a means of survival.
There is a historical trend here: a deep seated contempt for poor and marginalised people. Victims created by political careerists in Whitehall who are seemingly at ease with taking any opportunity to establish themselves in the public eye, using a compliant media to push across a destructive narrative or victimisation of the “other.”
In 1989 we saw the contempt for truth that similar actors had toward the people of Liverpool after the Hillsborough tragedy. The media and government criminalised and victimised the people of Liverpool for having the boldness to seek justice and who suffered, by virtue of the place of their birth, the scorn of certain powerful elements in the corridors of power. They were the “other.”
It took the people of Liverpool three decades to be vindicated. The tireless struggle of families, community activists, councillors, teachers, some politicians and lawyers, worked to bring some form of closure and help end the false characterisation of the people of Liverpool. The powers-that-be and the legal system were finally compelled to act in order to properly investigate a series of events that led to tragedy.
Fast forward to Birmingham 2014, another vibrant and ethnically diverse city, and the parallels are all too clear. We see the same patterns emerging.
The podcast examines the hysteria that gripped a city with failing schools and an impoverished minority and immigrant population described by many residents as “apartheid city.” You only have to spend time in the areas immediately outside the city centre to understand why such an assessment is not an over exaggeration. The impact of deprivation is visible on the faces of the residents.
The Trojan Horse – often referred to as the Trojan Hoax – scandal illustrates the outcome when a toxic mixture of identity politics, incompetent and/or corrupt local politicians and an agenda driven by neoconservative policy makers comes together .
What the podcast did not bring out is that Birmingham is a racially segregated city with self-serving local politicians and divided communities. The utter deprivation of the areas where the minority communities reside is plain to see but never mentioned. The high unemployment rates, destitute housing conditions and educational underachievement is not only staggering but entrenched over decades.
Yet the local politicians manage to retain their posts and have remained ineffective and ineffectual. Perhaps that is of no surprise in a city that has elected Mr Khalid Mahmood several times as one of its MPs, despite his outspoken attacks on Muslim activism and links to the hawkish neoconservative and Islamophobic Henry Jackson Society (HJS) and Policy Exchange thinktanks.
It seems the electorate and Labour Party are illiterate when it comes to the objectives of the HJS. So when the volunteer school governors and teachers at the heart of the scandal came under sustained attack, there was no support from the minority ethnic politicians in Birmingham – despite the fact that many have held and continue to hold powerful posts in the Council. Like global capitalism, local government also needs a bit of compliant colour diversity to win over the market.
As is always the case when the government and media agendas promote division and discord through the narrative of the so called “War on Terror”, only the courageous are able to speak truth to power.
It seems few were moved to point out the surreal fact that a few months before the scandal the very same schools targeted at the centre of a supposed Islamist plot were ranked as “outstanding” by Ofsted, or the phenomenal improvement in achievement for pupils. Instead, eager to hang on to their privileges at the high table, the elected officials fell into line amidst the clamour to find the Muslim conspiracy to take over children’s educational institutions.
Ofsted for the record is hardly an innocent player in the game, and would only have been too willing to make a u-turn to condemn the same schools it had championed a few weeks earlier. No charges of hypocrisy or double standards were ever made.
The ‘Muslims are coming to attack our way of life’ virus, germinated by neoconservatives in the corridors of the White House and Pentagon to justify foreign misadventures, was far too alluring and powerful – a narrative regurgitated wholeheartedly by Prime Minister Blair and further developed by those following him in the Conservative Party. Music to the ears of people like Michael Gove, who wrote an anti-Muslim diatribe entitled “Celsius 7/7”, setting out the manifesto for Islamophobia, which has become the Bible for the civil service.
No hiding under rocks for him, he wears his colours openly. The chapter entitled Trojan Horse – coincidence or conspiracy – was a foreboding of the kind of Islamism that he argued had been tolerated:
“It is reassuring to imagine that the problem we face is restricted to a very small group of individuals … who will be easy to identify and deal with without having to engage on a broader front,”
but says this approach is fatally misconceived. He compares jihadists who make the case for violent action with Nazi Brownshirts and Bolsheviks as the militant vanguard of a wider movement and goes on to claim that:
“there are many Muslims across the globe, within Europe and in Britain, who share the same basic ideological assumptions behind the jihadist worldview.”
This is not a man who believes in the few bad apples theory but is firmly of the view that the entire swamp has to be drained. A lover of literature and the arts, he saw the densely populated Pakistani population of run-down Alum Rock to be not in keeping with the finery of the Royal Opera House, but rather a swamp in an apartheid city in which Islamism was flourishing.
Despite being told by the bureaucrats at the Council that the letter was a hoax, he had finally found a real-life swamp, and not the imaginary ones in his book. With the free press in purdah over his trenchant views at the time and even now, it took Baroness Warsi to out him as a someone whose Islamophobia was on a par with Donald Trump.
The intricacies of crocodile hunting required an expert who could find and hunt down the menaces. Enter Peter Clarke, a man exposed by researchers at Serial as a man seemingly incapable of running a fact based investigation in this case. It seems he is endowed with a magic formula that evades others. The modern day witch finder who appears to be a master of his art. So skilled, in fact, that since finding the non-existent conspirators in Birmingham he has uncovered similar Muslim radicalisation plots in prisons, and terror-supporting groups in the charity sector.
No doubt he will spring up again to discover that the ever-growing waiting lists in the NHS are all part of a jihadist plan to cripple the state, and led by a sub-service group of Muslim healthcare professionals.
Regrettably, as even a cursory glance at British domestic social history shows, engendering suspicion and hatred toward a particular group within what is considered broader society is a road well-travelled.
From the Jews to the Irish, to the wave of immigrants from the empire, the pattern seems clear. It is a pity that the Board of Deputies has been taken over by a leadership that has forgotten the horrors meted on the British Jewish community, as in the past, the whole of Europe dined on conspiracies that always led to some bizarre Jewish plot. Now it’s the Muslims who are the talk of the chattering classes.
There are many questions that have been raised by the podcast but the key one is: What is the end game of this for these architects of Britain’s future?
We need an independent and open investigation, the exoneration of those who have had their careers destroyed, and the urgent improvement of governance in schools. The scandal perpetuated on the back of a hoax letter has been used to roll out the powers of Prevent across all the public sector so that the health worker, teacher, and employer are all part of the surveillance network seeking out Muslim extremists – be that a child, senior citizen, or mental health patient.
Prevent continues to be without doubt a discriminatory policy that is deeply problematic in any free society, heaping on even more pressure on the people it purportedly helps. It is the legalisation of the war on the “other” that is a hallmark of all regimes that oppress sections of their civilian populations.
If a stark illustration of the considerable forces at work is required, simply ponder the actions of Nick Timothy, a former advisor to the Prime Minister Theresa May and subsequently a senior journalist at the Telegraph. Upon learning of the nascent campaign to uncover the injustice of the Trojan Horse affair, Timothy saw no problem with his paper putting pressure on the owner of a Birmingham community hall not to host an event organised by the campaigners.
Yes, a senior journalist at the highest level of his profession had this disempowered band of Muslim activists on his radar. If it was not enough that the ‘free speech’ paper cancelled these troublesome brown folk and bullied a small businessman, the success had to be celebrated in an article lest the restless natives engaged in insurrection again.
It seems that the fundamental rights to freedom of expression only stretch to views that we agree with. In this case any brown face that considered the Trojan Horse Affair an injustice was an extremist or terrorist sympathiser – no wonder the councillors in City Hall have towed the line; who would want their electoral prospects damaged by lurid headlines in the press?
The way forward – Abolish Prevent
The people of Liverpool fought for three decades to establish justice. They fought because a great wrong had to be made right. Their fight should be an inspiration to the people of Birmingham.
Politicians need to be accountable to the people of Birmingham, not merely to the whims of those with an agenda in Whitehall, who seem inundated with charges of corruption and whose incompetence or malfeasance (or both) has led to our country seeing a rapid rise in income disparity, poverty, crime, racial and sectarian division in society.
The true Trojan Horse story is not the alleged ‘Islamification’ of some schools in Birmingham but the turbocharge given to the Prevent agenda, which has demolished the integrity of every public sector official. They have been transformed into the agents of the surveillance state, ever fearful of recriminations lest they overlook the smallest signs of extremism, and thus end up policing speech, fashion, and religious practice.
What we need is all right-thinking people to join our campaign to abolish Prevent and restore the values of equality, fairness, and justice back into our society.
As part of that process Birmingham City Council should commission a judicial inquiry into how an injustice on a scale hitherto unknown could have taken place when there was no evidence of anything untoward, except a few well-intentioned voluntary governors and teachers who sought to improve the life chances of children from minority backgrounds.
The corrupt guardians of “apartheid city” are unlikely to act; they are mesmerised by the red carpet and cocktails at City Hall.
It is time that the community, activists, and investigative journalists finish the job. They need to answer the question of so many young children in Birmingham schools as to why they are not entitled to exercise their right to an education free from suspicion, racism and diktat by right wing ideologues.
CC Image courtesy of stanzim on Flickr
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)