Naming the Narratives: the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham

Naming the Narratives: the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham


Written by: Robin Richardson

In a week when twenty leading educationalists and Muslim leaders have questioned Ofsted’s impartiality in the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, education consultant Robin Richardson reflects on the factors behind its controversial recent inspections.

The Trojan Horse story in Birmingham is one in which carelessness, incompetence, coincidence, opportunism, self-interest and sheer wickedness all play significant parts. The dominant narrative began to be public when the security correspondent at the Sunday Times provided on 2 March 2014 some quotations from a document which he claimed had been written by a Muslim in Birmingham for sending to a Muslim in Bradford. It was obvious from the quotations to any reasonable person with time and inclination to think about it that the document was a forgery, a false flag operation. It was not, alas, obvious to journalists in the mainstream media, including to its shame the Guardian.

Eventually it did dawn on the mainstream media that the document was an incompetent forgery, for it was riddled with factual errors and howlers and was replete with anti-Muslim stereotypes, fantasies and phrases. The latter include the term ‘Trojan Horse’ itself, widely used in Islamophobic rants, but never by Muslims, to refer to the dangers of democratic accountability. It could not have been penned by the person who pretended to be its author. Follow-up stories in the press, purporting to confirm the authenticity of the document and the reality of a plot, were obviously inventions or malicious exaggerations, or else irrelevant.

But rather than admit they had permitted themselves to be duped, the media said the document was ‘possibly’ a forgery and that in any case there were probably real plots and dirty tricks going on, perpetrated by Muslims. The evidence for such plots was clearly very dubious, however, so the dominant narrative changed yet again. There might or might not be a plot, the story now ran, but there was a real danger of radicalisation – young Muslim males at schools in Birmingham moving on a conveyor-belt towards becoming violent terrorists without their teachers or the city council knowing or caring. This was the narrative fed to Ofsted, and that which Ofsted incorporated into an aide-memoire to guide and drive the inspections which it has been conducting.

The dominant narrative’s discourse, as fed to Ofsted, claims to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. But basically the only good Muslim is one you cannot see. Anti-Muslim discourse was developed from European and North American colour racism, and also from anti-Russian and anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s. It was articulated by so-called terrorism experts in the United States after 11 September 2001, and on this side of the pond by Michael Gove in his book Celsius 7/7 after the bombs in London. More recently it was articulated in a high-profile way by David Cameron in his ‘Munich speech’. According to the discourse, the conveyor-belt towards violent terrorism starts with someone becoming more observant in their religious practice, more orthodox in their religious beliefs, more traditional in their dress, more critical in their personal behaviour and manners towards western mores, and more opposed to western policies and war crimes in the middle east.

Arun Kundnani describes this discourse as ‘the myth of radicalisation’.[1] Myths are unwarranted by scientific data but are emotionally appealing since they provide consoling and flattering explanations for real problems. Also, myths help to defend or advance certain material interests. The myth of Islamic radicalisation – fantasies about ‘what goes on before the bomb goes off’ – serves the material interests of the US and UK military in their operations overseas, and in US and UK domestic counter-terrorism units and services.

Contextual and exacerbating factors

Partly or largely as a consequence of central government policy, there is much uncertainty and anxiety about accountability and legitimate authority in the Birmingham education system, as in most or all other local systems. Particularly the academisation programme creates or contributes to instability, competition and mutual distrust, and to an absence of middle-tier support and guidance. It is when human beings are uncertain and anxious, and when they do not have access to reliable and supportive advice, that they are prone to spread and give credence to notions that in more stable times they would dismiss out of hand.

In common with all other local authorities, Birmingham City Council has lost many senior staff in recent years, and therefore much expertise, knowledge and wisdom amongst senior officers. In consequence it has been unable to understand and deal with the Trojan Horse affair with appropriate insight, professionalism and sense of urgency, and unable to give support and advice when and where these have been most needed.

The realities of journalism

‘Journalists,’ Roy Greenslade has pleaded, ‘are human beings.’ He continues: ‘We work quickly. We are rarely able to obtain all the facts about any story. Some of our informants mislead us, even when protecting themselves with off-the-record briefings. Some people who could correct our interpretations of events refuse to talk to us. From hints, partial truths and concealed agendas, we try to grasp the whole and, naturally enough, there is a tendency to embellish, to stretch the facts which suit the scenario we imagine to be true. Sometimes we simply misunderstand. It is in the nature of our business that we are bound to make mistakes. However hard we strive to eliminate them they occur.’

Greenslade could and should have added that the scenarios into which journalists fit the facts are often set by newspaper owners and senior editorial staff, and that there is always a commercial imperative to sell more papers, which means not being upstaged or wrongfooted by the scoops and potential scoops of rivals. A favourite scenario, he could have added further, is one which excites a frisson of fear, of moral panic. Readers like scare stories, and newspaper owners like to print them not only to console and entertain their readers but also to put pressure on politicians.

Electoral politics and other political factors

Anti-Muslim hostility advances the electoral prospects of certain political parties and individual politicians, and in consequence narratives about the Trojan Horse affair were affected by campaigning for local and European elections on 22 May 2014, and for the general election in UK in 2015. For example, there are politicians who stress as part of their party’s appeal to voters that Britain is a Christian country and that Muslims should accept this and they link this claim to the Trojan Horse affair.

Also, competing narratives about the Trojan Horse affair are affected by tensions and disagreements between different factions and interests within each political party, and in party-political disputes about the value of academies and free schools, and the respective responsibilities of central and local government.

And then there are the ambitions of individual politicians. The current secretary of state for education, for example, stands to gain a great deal or to lose a great deal, depending on how the Trojan Horse affair plays out. He could become leader of his party, or alternatively could end up in the political wilderness.

But in addition to electoral politics, the Trojan Horse is affected by relationships and power struggles between central and local government, and within local government between councillors and officers on the one hand and headteachers and teacher unions on the other. Also, headteachers are pitted against each other, as are NASUWT and NUT.

Further, there are tensions and disagreements about the role, independence and future of Ofsted, and in relation to the expectations which different interest groups have of Ofsted. These tensions exist within the coalition government, and between the Department for Education and Ofsted, and within Ofsted itself.  In common with secretary of state for education, Ofsted stands to gain a great deal or to lose a great deal, depending on how the Trojan Horse affair plays out.

Rivalries within and between communities

There are rivalries amongst Muslim organisations, both nationally and locally, for state patronage, recognition, grants and funding. These can be affected and reinforced by theological and denominational differences within Islam, for example between Barelvis and Deobandis, and can make it difficult for Muslims to speak out with one voice about matters such as the Trojan Horse affair, and the issues that it raises.

There are also individuals in Birmingham whose personal career prospects are advanced or assisted by the Trojan Horse affair, and/or whose personal grievances are apparently vindicated by it. Also, of course, there are people whose careers are being severely damaged.

The counter narrative

Muslim parents and communities rightly want the education received by Muslim children and young people to be improved. In recent years there have been major improvements nationally in the achievement of Pakistani heritage and Bangladeshi heritage pupils, and nationally there is no longer a gap between the achievement of these pupils and the average for all pupils. But these improvements and greater equality of outcome are not evenly distributed through the country, and there continues to be a need, in Birmingham as elsewhere outside London, for attainment gaps to be narrowed and closed.

Amongst other things this means there needs to be more recognition in schools for British Muslim identities, more attention to issues of bilingualism, more commitment to the human right to freedom of religion, more attention to Islamophobia, and closer relationships with parents and communities. Further, it means there is a need for more Muslims to be involved actively in school governance and leadership.

The Trojan Horse affair must not be allowed to hinder improvements that are urgently needed in educational provision, and in the representation of Muslims in educational policy-making and decision-making. More generally, the affair must not be permitted to hinder debate and deliberation about the role of religion and belief in modern society, and about the needs and tasks of an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

This is an edited version of a talk at Ruskin College, Oxford, 27 May 2014.

Robin Richardson is a director of the Insted educational consultancy and a former director of the Runnymede Trust. Previous posts include adviser on multicultural education in Berkshire and chief inspector for education in the London borough of Brent. He has also acted as a consultant to the Department for Education and Skills on countering racist bullying in schools.



References: [1] See Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (London, Verso, 2014).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “Naming the Narratives: the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham

  1. Trojan Horse

    Tahir Alam is allegedly the man behind a blueprint for the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot for the radical ‘Islamisation’ of secular state schools. An alleged plot to takeover some of Britain’s schools by Islamist extremists has been reportedly masterminded by a ringleader who had drafted a guide document on the process, a media report has said. Tahir Alam, chairman of governors at Park View school in Birmingham, is allegedly the man behind a blueprint for the so-called “Trojan Horse” plot for the radical “Islamisation” of secular state schools. He called for “girls [to] be covered except for their hands and faces”, advocated gender segregation in some school activities, and attacked a “multicultural approach” to collective worship, the Sunday Telegraph’ reported. In his 72-page document, published by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2007, Tahir Alam and co-author Muhammad Abdul Bari categorically attacked many state schools for not being “receptive of legitimate and reasonable requests made by some Muslim parents and pupils in relation to their faith-based aspirations and concerns”. They described how Muslim governors could be activated to press the “views and aspirations of Muslim parents and the local community” on reluctant schools. Birmingham has a large Muslim population, nearly 22 per cent, according to the 2011 census. The “Trojan Horse” plot had come to light recently and involves the alleged takeover of secular state schools and the removal of secular head teachers in Birmingham by radical Muslim staff and governors

    The man accused of being at the centre of the plot, Faisal Khan, has denied the allegations, saying his sole motive was to improve the standards at schools and that he had no wish to “Islamize” British schools. British authorities are now investigating the alleged plot. UK Education Secretary Michael Gove appointed Peter Clarke, former head of Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command, to lead the probe. The appointment of Clarke has faced criticism, with critics saying the move has resulted in rising fears over a possible government crackdown on Muslim communities in the UK. There are concerns that the plan could prevent ordinary Muslims from getting involved in their children’s schooling affairs for fear of being branded extremist.

    “The idea that MCB document was a Communist or Trostkyite-type plot to takeover all Birmingham/UK schools is laughable. This feeds into a wider ‘counter-jihadist’ (Breivik, EDL, etc) narrative that Muslims want to “take over”.
    To describe the handbook as ‘a document on manipulating teachers and curriculum’ or ‘a detailed blueprint for the radical “Islamisation” of secular state schools’, as Sunday Telegraph says, is an insult to the many thousands of professionals and lay people who have been involved over the last ten years in the massive improvements in the educational achievement of young Muslim people.
    There is a level of hysteria building which is not justified, we need to take the temperature down and politicians must not play with these issues or else face a potential backlash, possibly in community cohesion.”
    Abdul Bari

    The whole saga is outrageous, beyond belief and frankly if it was not so serious, it would be comical. The documents on which this whole action is perused is false and as there is no proof of extremism in schools, Mr Gove has made it illegal for Muslims to have conservative views (coming from a minister of conservative government, its comical really). Feel like we are back in the fifties in the USA again. Michael Gove is an avowed Zionist which is not the best way to approach issues like this! Because it can lead greater attacks on Islam. It amazes me that on the basis of an anonymous letter the whole country has been lead to believe that there is an organised plot to somehow take over schools, now allegedly across the length and breadth of Britain! Furthermore the amount of coverage that this has received from the media as being a credible story, to me, suggests the level of Islamophobia in our society has reached alarming and dangerous heights. I would suggest that for the sake of fairness, equality and justice all schools are subject to the same level of scrutiny. For example Christian, C-of-E, Jewish and Hindu, Sikh schools. I believe that this not only a witch hunt but a move to tarnish and undermine the credibility of Muslims in general and the noble teachings of a widely practiced and rapidly growing religion which a people devotedly choose to follow. Islamophobia should be stopped – especially when the racist is a government minister or department. you must share this island with many people, why does it belong to one people? Grammar schools regularly carry out gender segregation, shall we remove those Head teachers too.

    The horse in question, it is alleged, contained Muslim extremism – brought to state schools by stealth, by governor bodies launching subtle pincer movements, to remove the kind of pesky teachers who might object to the segregation of pupils by sex, or a refusal to stick to the syllabus. How incredibly extremist. Schools where segregation of pupils by sex occur. How different from boy’s only Grammar schools and High schools for Girls that exist in predominately Conservative areas. And that exist predominately in the private school sector. It does though surely produce better exam results, as pupils are less influenced by the idea of ‘girl’s subjects’ and ‘boy’s subjects’, and are less likely to be distracted by sex. Allegations of an Islamic takeover plot of Birmingham schools are just the latest in a string of slurs against Muslims. It is not clear what is meant by an “Islamic plot takeover”, and whether that is the same thing as saying or hinting that some Muslims might want to get some schools to adopt their particular version of Islamic religious values, behaviours and life-styles. If it is the latter, that would not necessarily be an indication of “terrorism”, so I struggle to see the need for ‘counter-terrorism’ input. It is not terrorism in any way shape or form. It is important to remember this is not about Islam as such but yet another chance to bash people perceived as foreigners. To many Muslim is another word for immigrant and coloured person, two terrible bugbears. Why should an unnamed, undated, unspecific source has effected students, teachers, governors, parents in one swoop. It has serious implications on unfounded accusations for hundreds of people. In no way shape or form is this right, nor should have it EVER happened. Just by a anonymous letter how can you judge the schools and it is bringing such bad vibe to Birmingham schools and local Muslim community we feel like we’re targets no matter how hard we try we will never please and move forward from the terrorist labelling. I am disgusted at the way these particular schools and governors were targeted for no reason other than being Muslim. No solid evidence wa available to substantiate these accusations which arose and yet such great weight and focus was attached to them. Morally unjust and utterly unacceptable. The Trojan Horse document was clearly written by someone who knows little about Birmingham and even less about Islam. It has chimed, however, with widespread Islamophobic fantasies and fears amongst non-Muslims, and as a result of unethical reporting in the media has done much damage.

    On the one hand we get told we are not integrating enough and we should engage more in civic society. On the other, when we do, we get accused of having sinister agendas. Since when do concerns by religiously conservative parents about teaching on homosexuality, girls and boys mixing, and the reciting of prayers, require anti-terrorist experts to get involved? Allegations of an Islamic takeover plot in Birmingham schools aren’t justified by the evidence – and the government response is way out of proportion. Perhaps its best to let the Muslim community sort these issues out. These are in effect Muslim schools now. It is up to the Muslim community to see off hard liners (if there are any) otherwise it is their own children’s’ education that will suffer. I think it would be very difficult for non Muslims to get involved either as governors or management so perhaps that it is one of the reasons for the conflicts that have arisen. It may be best for the Government to but out providing the record of the school is O.K. from an exam point of view. I am so disgusted that even after it was proved there is no factual evidence or basis for that racist and hate filled document, schools in Birmingham are being subjected to this horrific ordeal and the name of many good reputable teachers is being tarnished… Why? Clearly viewable that this accusation has been purposely placed on these schools which surprisingly consists of majority Muslim children. Clearly the school policies are being contradicted by Mr Gove as they clearly state that it is the schools priority and job to meet the needs of the local community and of the students within the school. So if a school is doing that then what is the issue? What is happening feels like the persecution of a religious group. This is important because the wit hunt feeds Islamophobia. As we can see from the bombings and arson attacks on mosques in the UK, Islamophobia is a very dangerous and divisive form of racism. I’m sick of this hatred of Islam and Muslims. Haters, ignorant scum, look for any means to target Muslims, now even in our schools. It’s a joke and this has to stop. How hypocritical does a country have to be to illegally invade Muslim countries and then accuse Muslims of terrorism? I am a Muslim. I am an anti-terrorist.

    I never realised how racist and anti-Islamic this country is until I moved here. These people are here legally and have the right to live how they want to. Just because there are terrorists who use Islam as a doctrine to justify their hateful acts, does NOT mean that every Islam wants to change Britain to Sharia Law, kill the gays and put all women in burkas! These people are being judged and punished for the actions of others that have nothing to do with them, simply because they are of the same religion. Do you judge Germans in the same way because their country committed genocide? Or the Irish if they are from an area where religious conflict was particularly violent? No. Seems like thinly veiled racism to me, not the ‘staunch upholding of British rights against religious extremists’ as you all seem to espouse. What do people mean when they talk about ‘multiculturalism’? If a lot of people come from a foreign country and settle in a particular area they will bring the culture of that country with them. Of course they will want their schools to promote their values. Gender segregation is everywhere in the Muslim world including in EU applicant, Turkey, so either we believe in Britain as multicultural or we don’t. You don’t get to pick and choose the bits you want. Why not sit down with parents and listen to their concerns, instead of ordering an investigation? Shocked at this terrifying witch hunt against Muslims who are simply trying to raise standards. Its totally unacceptable to create a furore in the country over anonymous accusations with no proof. Because it is a divisive move and will affect community relations. This is the very reason why society does not function properly, this is a deliberate attempt to spread fear amongst communities, as the best way to control a nation is through fear itself. because this is NOT ,,I repeat is NOT an Islamic plot to take over Birmingham, so DO NOT put false information in the media to put Muslims down!!!!! What next…..Muslims taking over hospitals, banks, pubs….come on… Tomorrow, a Pakistani MP would become the PM of GB and this does not mean that the country has become a colony of Pakistan.

    What’s taking place is an absolute disgrace. This whole witch hunt is putting Muslims off from becoming governors at a time when it is need the most. Why should Muslim parents be targeted when all they want at the end of the day is a good all round education for their children. Before Muslims governors came on to the scene all the inner city schools were doing poorly and failing all the children of the school. Muslim parents were criticised for their lack of involvement in their children’s schools. Now they are being vilified. It is an absolute disgrace that an ex anti terrorist police office has been brought in to investigate the situation. It stinks of racism and the desire to label all Muslims into the category of extremist and jihadist. What a disgrace by the national and the local government. It’s wrong for Gove to be deliberately politicising our Education system. All our children deserve respect and not to be scapegoated. What a total waste of tax payers money and tactical manoeuvre by Michael Gove to divert attention away from the real issues. Gove’s war is designed to destabilise governing bodies where Muslims form a majority. Don’t want us to be part of ‘big society’? We totally reject the idea that there is Muslim plot to take over Birmingham schools. We abhor the scapegoating of the Muslim community being whipped up by the media. We call for the removal of Peter Clarke as we believe this is a provocative appointment, designed to divide our community. I don’t believe that there is an Islamic Plot to take over Birmingham schools. It’s a set-up. Anonymous complaints have been used in the past to hound good head teachers of community schools out of their jobs in order to facilitate the creation of academies. This whole story smells of falsification and corruption. I suspect that the people wishing to take over schools are not Islamic extremists, but Academy Chains with business interests. A shamefully irresponsible and sensationalised inquiry whose adverse impact on community relations locally and nationally will sadly be lingering long and far.

    If British authorities are so concerned about their education institutions being infiltrated by “extremists” then I suggest they stop Tony Blair, architect in chief of the illegal and violent 2003 Iraq invasion from speaking at colleges and universities across the UK and the world. His lies and fabrications caused the deaths, directly and indirectly, of thousands of Iraqis, British and Americans. While the survivors of his wars suffer in silence, this former British Prime Minister makes millions through his speaking engagements at educational institutions across the world with little or no sign of remorse for the suffering he caused. Nothing I see in the above articles suggests the British Muslim educators in question did anything illegal, let alone anywhere as remotely destructive as the twice elected British Prime Minister. Britain’s interests would be served better if they questioned their own domestic and overseas policies instead of perennially whining on about “extremist” from their (mostly) law abiding immigrant communities.

    There are a total of 21300 Primary and 3900 Secondary schools in the UK. Finding that 6 out of these 25200 had board members who wanted to push their extremist views over the governance of those school is not a Islamic Plot or Trojan Horse to Islamises UK. This is a massive overreaction and the Islamophobia on display in the comments is more terrifying than the actual case itself. Stop the racist witch hunt in Birmingham schools. We Muslims have a right to our religion. I decry everything which denigrates Muslims in this country. The media and governmental attitudes and actions, inflame prejudice and ignorance. We want the best for our children and such baseless witch hunt of school governors does not help the cause of better education.

    Stop this hate against Muslims. It is not them who are terrorists , but all those who imply they are with the help of media you try bringing others to your side giving false details – twin towers wasn’t Muslim either – that was the Americans – you will not win as Islam Will forever grow and prove it is peaceful through the will of God (Allah SWT)… amen. This is undermining confidence in the Muslim community and increasing Islamophobia. This is another example of the media whipping up hysteria against the UK Muslim community. The way our Govt treating British Muslims is as if all Muslims are terrorists unless they prove otherwise. Govt should focus on its job. Governors of this school worked hard to help a failing school achieve outstanding rating from Ofsted. Please fix Ofsted and stop demonising Muslims. Nick Clegg on LBC radio indicated that the DFE is full of right wing ideologues and extremist loons. Islamic schools protect Muslim children from the onslaught of Euro centrism, homosexuality, racism, and secular traditions. All education systems appear to be indoctrination systems. I went to a good private school. Guess how we were ‘encouraged’ to think about politics! Having a Muslim name in UK is a crime. All UK job application forms have sections ask your race and religions. Most UK employers simply reject your applications just by looking at this section.

    Native Brits must learn to respect and tolerate those who are different. The needs and demands of the Muslim community are different from those of natives. Muslims are in Britain not to give up their cultural heritage. They must integrate in their new home country, learn new languages and apply for political representation — without forgetting their cultural heritage. It is important to learn Standard English, but their languages should not be neglected. They need Masajid and grave yards. Muslim children not only need halal meat or Eid Holidays but they need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their development period also. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.
    A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit. The whole world belongs to Muslims. He/she must learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time, he/she must learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. For a Muslim English is an economic language and Arabic is a religious while Urdu and other community languages are their social and emotional languages.

    Muslim children not only need halal meat or Eid Holidays but they need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their development period also. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. Legally, the state has an obligation to respect the rights of parents to ensure that ‘education and teaching(of their children) is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’ The schools must satisfy the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural needs of Muslim pupils. State schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers are not in a position to satisfy their needs. A good school is not just a knowledge factory or a conveyor belt for churning out exam passes – it is a community, a family. A community is held together by common values and principles.
    London School of Islamics Trust

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.