Islamophobia and the Readiness to Believe in Mythical Trojan Horses

selection of newspaper headlines
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It all started with a letter… the anonymous, undated letter entitled ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ first came to light in 2013, but didn’t hit the headlines until published in the Sunday Times in March this year. It was allegedly from an Islamic group in Birmingham spearheading an plot to create organised disruption, get rid of head teachers and leadership teams and replace them in order to create schools that adhered to strict Islamic principles.

After the letter was published it led to widespread, unquestioning publicity:

Revealed: Islamist plot dubbed ‘Trojan Horse’ to replace teachers in Birmingham schools with radicals (Daily Mail)
‘Trojan Jihadist plot to take over Birmingham schools‘ (Birmingham Mail)

It very quickly came to light that the letter was a hoax. However, if the purpose of the letter was to stir up trouble, the authors certainly succeeded. The ‘plot’ has rarely been out of the headlines over the last few months. In the wake of the publicity, the NAHT began an enquiry, as did Birmingham City Council. The DfE began an investigation led by Peter Clark, ex-deputy assistant commissioner of the Met and former national head of counter terrorism; an appointment which led people to draw their own, unwarranted conclusions of the things that were occurring in these schools.

The DfE then announced that Ofsted would be sent into 21 Birmingham schools to conduct snap inspections. Ofsted’s handling of these inspections has been widely criticised, not least in a letter published in the Guardian from a group of educationalists who accuse the Ofsted inspectors of being ill-prepared and pursuing a political, non-objective agenda.

Eye witnesses have also attacked the nature of the inspections and the questions asked of pupils and teachers. For example: “Are you forced to wear that scarf,” “are you forced to sit separately from the boys?”. A girl in a long skirt was asked “Isn’t it very difficult for you to move around?”. Teachers were asked, “Are you homophobic?”

The investigations have not uncovered a plot, nor any evidence of criminality, but they have instead focussed on the religious practices in some of these schools. A DfE official was reported as saying, “religious conservatism is getting in the way of learning and a balanced curriculum”.

State schools are expected to hold a daily act of collective worship, which should be of a broadly Christian nature. Schools at the centre of the investigation were held to task for not conducting this, despite well over 90% of their intake being Muslim. Apparently a daily act of collective Christian worship is good. A daily act of collective Islamic worship is cause for concern. Criticisms have been made of segregation of male and female students in some classes in some schools. This practice has been called “shocking”, yet within England there are over 400 single sex schools, and other secondary academies throughout the country have chosen to segregate male and female students for some or all lessons in a bid to raise standards. The teaching of Arabic and presence of posters in Arabic was highlighted as an issue, at the same time that Michael Gove is trying to encourage schools to teach Latin.

As a result of these inspections, five schools were placed into special measures, four lined up for takeover and 11 others taken to task – mostly for not teaching children enough about the threat of terrorism and extremism. This included Gracelands Nursery School, whose intake are aged 2-4 years old. There are reports that Ofsted is now conducting snap inspections in Muslim schools in Bradford and Luton with a similar agenda, at the request of the DfE. One of the schools at the centre of this scandal, Park View, is in one of the most economically deprived areas of Birmingham; 72% of the children receive free school meals, yet it has a 75% pass rate, one of the highest in the city. Two years ago it was rated as Outstanding, now it has been rebranded Inadequate.

And the media reports continue… Using the term ‘Islamist‘ to describe teachers and governors in Birmingham Schools, in the same breath as using it to describe ISIS’s behaviour in Iraq. When the letter first came to light last year, West Midlands Police counter-terrorism unit investigated the schools and found no terrorist threat. In addition, experts in extremism have stressed that to connect conservative religious observance with extremism is incorrect, that religious observance is not a pathway to radicalisation and to view daily habits of Muslims: what people wear, what they eat, how they pray, through the lens of extremism serves only to alienate young Muslims and increase Islamophobia amongst the general population.

There are valid discussions to be had about the extent to which faith should play within the school system. However, it is important to remember that over one-third of British maintained schools are faith schools, and of these 98% are Christian. The argument against faith in the classroom cannot be had within a framework that suggests that Christian schools can bestow their beliefs on young people, whilst Muslim schools should not.

The case also highlights issues around the accountability of academies, which are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. Alongside issues of the demise of local authority support and local answerability, but these are not problems created by or specific to Muslim schools. They are issues created by the restructuring of the educational system by the current government.

In the wake of the results of the Ofsted inspections being released, The Department for Education has said that every school will be expected to teach the British values of “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths”. Yet, over recent years the government has run down mechanisms that were helping to drive this agenda forward. They have disbanded resources such as the website “Multiverse” designed to support teachers to promote equality and life in multicultural Britian, they have removed the duty to promote community cohesion from Ofsted inspections, and local authority cuts have meant that council services to support schools in this work have been lost.
Across the country, Muslim parents are often deemed ‘hard to reach‘, criticised for not getting involved in school life, for not becoming parent-governors. Schools need teaching staff and governing bodies which are diverse and which adequately represent their student body and multicultural Britain. But, who would want to risk putting themselves in the firing line to face the attacks that those in Birmingham have experienced over the past couple of months?

The biggest concern that this case has highlighted, is the readiness of the media to grasp hold of a story, thin on facts and based on falsehoods, and run with it. The ease with which people in power are happy to use misinformation and exaggerated claims to judge schools and seek to implement wide-sweeping changes, seemingly with a biased agenda of cultural superiority.

Trojan horse fits within the wider Islamophobic narrative which dominates media reporting and much political rhetoric. A study of 352 articles in a week during 2007 found that 91% of articles about Muslims were negative and a Channel 4-commissioned survey of 974 articles from 2000 to 2008 found that two thirds portrayed British Muslims as a ‘threat’ and a ‘problem’. Research published in 2012 found that references to ‘extremist’ Muslims outnumbered references to ‘moderates’ by 21 to one. In the weeks leading up to the explosion of reporting on Trojan Horse, the papers were awash with outraged headlines about food outlets serving up Halal food.

This narrative is not without consequences. Young people attending the schools at the centre of this affair have had to try to focus on exams whilst navigating a media circus. Deliveries of bacon sandwiches have been sent to the schools with malicious intent, and teachers and schools have been targeted with racist hate mail.

On a wider scale, Islamophobic hate crimes in London have risen by 66% over the last year. Muslim cemeteries in Manchester, Newport and High Wycombe have been desecrated. Most recently, on the 18th June a Saudi student was murdered. One line of enquiry is that this attack occurred because she was Muslim and wearing a hijab and muslim robe. On the night of the attack, a leading commentator suggested that there should be a fatwa on wearing the hijab to protect Muslim women from such attacks, placing the blame for such horrific violence at the feet of the victims.

It is vital that voices come together to challenge this narrative. A study by the university of Essex in 2011 found that rather than being isolated and disconnected from British society, 83% of Muslims feel proud to be British, a figure which is higher than the figure of 79% for the general public, the vast majority are well integrated and Muslims contributed £31 billion to British society in 2013. It should not just be left to Muslims to defend themselves in the wake of spurious claims, it is everyone’s responsibility to challenge misinformation and bigotry. We all need to question the judgements and assumptions being made. Where there is imbalanced reporting, write to your MP, complain to the Press Complaints Commission, Ofcom and the BBC. Don’t be too ready to believe in mythical Trojan horses.
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