In January 2022 the New York Times podcast Serial brought the story of the Trojan Horse Affair back to public attention.
When the story first broke in 2014 it did so on a narrative wave characterized by terrifying headlines of a ‘plot to Islamicise British schools’. This alleged ‘conspiracy’ had come to light via an anonymous letter sent to Birmingham City Council, implicating a number of schools within a deprived Muslim community in East Birmingham.
Even by the time the story hit the presses, it was widely accepted that the letter was in fact a hoax and had been more or less discarded. But the salacious headlines continued and an investigation into the allegations ensued.
That the response to this scandal demonstrated a complete failure of British justice is explored in detail in John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole’s book Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. As the book demonstrates, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the affair. The one Serial takes as its main focus is that of who wrote the letter.
“The mystery element of who wrote the letter is a useful and important hook. Through it Serial have achieved renewed exposure and audience interest in the story – and all credit to them for that,” says Holmwood, who was involved with the show’s researchers, giving them access to his sources and aiding their fact-checking.
“I respect the editorial independence of the show but ultimately, it doesn’t matter so much as to who wrote the letter. It matters how it was misused.”
The Serial Podcast addresses the deeper injustices caused by the misuse of the letter, to some extent, in a number of episodes.
The Trojan Horse Affair, sparked by a letter that was quickly dismissed, had massive long term, national implications. The controversy led to the development of a new phase in the government’s Prevent agenda and the affair and the letter were used by government to back the implementation of a Counter Extremism Strategy. The fake letter gave rise to a ‘National Curriculum’ in ‘fundamental British values’, in other words an education policy developed through the lens of national security.
The letter also led to great personal injustices – to the poor, marginalised, mainly Muslim communities of East Birmingham, to the governors and teachers against whom misconduct cases were held, though ultimately dropped, and to the schools named and the pupils they served.
Publication of the podcast has led to a resurgence of interest in the Trojan Horse Affair but also to a doubling down on the original narrative.
“What’s disappointing is that the response [from the media] hasn’t been in relation to the deeper injustices at the heart of the case,” says Holmwood.
“There’s lots of material – all publicly available, including transcripts from the court cases, which raise important questions worth pursuing: Why did the cases collapse? What does that say about how the government inquiry was conducted? What about the series of mis-steps taken by the lawyers? No-one is interested.”
“It’s frustrating to see the complete failure of British journalism to follow up on the process.”
Developing a new narrative
In researching and writing about the Trojan Horse Affair, John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole sought to change an unfounded, incendiary and Islamophobic narrative that had shot up around it.
“What happened with the Trojan Horse Affair bears similarities to Hillsborough in the aspect of how the authorities maintained a problematic narrative against a body of evidence and facts,” says Holmwood.
“Writing an academic book on the subject was one way of generating a new, evidence based narrative. Working with LUNG theatre on the development of the play, Trojan Horse, was about getting the emotional truth of the story out there.”
The Serial podcast is another important way of revisiting and challenging the original narrative, thus adding to the ecology of literature and truth telling about the story – and it is unlikely to be the last we hear on this subject. As Holmwood says,
“What you realise is, sadly, it takes an enormous amount of effort and time to rectify an injustice perpetrated by a government in Britain – be that the Birmingham Six, Hillsborough or the Trojan Horse Affair.”
“False narratives that divide communities and misrepresent British Muslims as self-segregating involve the scapegoating of some for political advantage. They are dangerous for democracy and demoralising for communities. They undermine civic participation by Muslim citizens and create unnecessary anxieties for others.”
“We need an independent public inquiry that allows the true story to be told and the voices of the teachers, governors and local community to be heard.”
Having a high profile show like Serial take up the story, irrespective of its narrative direction, is a critical step towards the possibility of a new independent inquiry into what really happened.
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