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Trojan Horse On Trial

Britain’s political and media establishment were given convenient cover for their rampant Islamophobia by the 2014 ‘Trojan Horse’ hoax. The fevered response to a new podcast about the affair shows their unwillingness to admit that reality.

Hamza Syed and Brian Reed, hosts of the New York Times' Trojan Horse podcast. (Sean Pressley)

‘Have you heard the Trojan Horse podcast?’

So begins almost every conversation with family, friends, comrades, and colleagues alike in the fortnight since the release of the New York Times podcast. Meticulously detailing the misdeeds, mythmaking, and sheer malice that defined the so-called ‘Trojan Horse affair’ of 2014, it provides a long overdue mainstream assessment of the Birmingham scandal which destroyed livelihoods and demonised entire communities.

For Muslims in Britain, the podcast has been vindicating. The response from the media and political class to it, in contrast, has been profoundly vexing. The long Trojan Horse saga—from the initial hoax and scandal to the latest exposé and the backlash—has served to illuminate the many fault lines that still shape British politics and society today, as well as the perniciousness of the ‘counter-extremism’ industry at large.

The affair was in large part the product of having a racist ideologue such as Michael Gove in a position of ministerial power. It was enabled throughout by a thoroughly pliant British media, who can now be found demeaning themselves before the public in their attempts to hold more critical colleagues ‘to account’. Astroturf organisations on the ‘counter-extremism’ payroll have crawled out of obscurity to echo the government line. And a coterie of politicians and political advisers have closed ranks while trafficking in racist dog whistles about Muslims in Britain.

Taken up with zeal by then-Education Minister Michael Gove, the consequences of the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter—an anonymous photocopy of a section of a letter sent to Birmingham City Council and rapidly assessed to be a hoax—cannot be overstated. The fallout and politicisation of the affair dictated national policy: references to Trojan Horse are peppered throughout the Counter Extremism Strategy 2015, which qualitatively expanded the scope of security policies in Britain, while the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 instituted the nebulous and xenophobic notion of ‘Fundamental British Values’ as an statutory practice in education settings, alongside being a central plank of the despised ‘Prevent’ strategy.

The fact that the letter had such far-reaching consequences can only be understood in the context in which the scandal emerged—as the framework of the ‘War on Terror’ still dominated politics, and with David Cameron declaring that ‘multiculturalism had failed’—with the blame pitted squarely on Muslims in Britain.

The Trojan Horse affair has rightly been compared to a modern day Zinoviev letter—albeit with bipartisan appeal. Tristram Hunt, then Shadow Education Secretary in Ed Miliband’s cabinet, outflanked Gove from the right in a speech to hawkish think tank Policy Exchange, criticising him over a supposed failure to crack down further over the affair. Similar demands were issued by other members of the opposition and shadow cabinet, such that Labour held the hand of Gove and the government as surveillance powers were widened and deepened throughout society. As late as summer 2021, Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, again writing for Policy Exchange, could be found warning of ‘more Trojan-horse style takeovers’ to come in Britain. All this despite the affair having been thoroughly debunked for years prior.

Meanwhile, the frankly debased response to the podcast from British commentators and politicians have illustrated both how the Islamophobia sown so deep into the culture of British liberalism is still bearing fruit, as well as how it served to bring the ‘centre’ and right of the country into a functional alliance over the past two decades.

Chief leader writer at the Observer—and former Senior Advisor to Miliband—Sonia Sodha penned a hatchet job attack in her weekly column in an attempt to undermine and cast aspersions on the podcast and its hosts. For her dutiful deference to the government her article was rewarded with a retweet by no less than Michael Gove himself.

She, along with others resisting a critical appraisal of the scandal, have cited the Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWN UK) as an authoritative voice to back the government’s claims on what happened in Birmingham. What is conspicuously absent from such citations is the fact that MWN UK was itself an early beneficiary of the very Prevent scheme that the Trojan Horse scandal was used to bolster, as well as the ‘Building a Stronger Britain’ programme whose objective was to prop up ‘counter-extremist’ civil society organisations to run cover for government security policy—evidently a strategy paying dividends.

The visceral response to the podcast, therefore, is not simply a matter of individual politicians or journalists reacting adversely to being exposed before the public eye. It is the organised expression of an anti-Muslim cottage industry trying, and failing, to reassert its unearned authority over discourse in Britain.

But the facts of the podcast speak for themselves. The thorough, multi-year investigation by an American and British journalist did what most of the media and political establishment across the spectrum failed to do in 2014—challenge power rather than defer to it. By conceding to the narrative set by Gove, the opposition and media at the time have helped rain misery on Muslim communities across Britain. To this day, the Trojan Horse letter has become synonymous with the notion of creeping ‘Islamist’ entryists, echoing those who believe Muslims should play no part in civic or political life in this country.

While prioritising their prejudices over professionalism, Sodha and other members of the media continue to warn that the podcast ‘reopens old wounds’. Those wounds have never healed, but rather are reopened anew with each child referred to the Prevent programme or forced into silence in their classrooms. There is a reason that discussions among Muslims about the podcast are tinged with both a weary urgency and a latent fury.

Birmingham’s working-class Muslim children, and children across the country, have had their futures torn away from them in service to the agendas of an unrepentant few.

The media and political class had the opportunity to embrace the NYT’s investigation with some measure of humility. Instead their vanity has once again placed them on the wrong side of history.