Britain’s Trojan Horse: A hoax that still harms Muslims

The Trojan Horse hoax served to legitimise, legalise, and institutionalise a discriminatory culture against Muslim children.

A photo of a poster against Education Secretary Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy
A poster against then-Education Secretary Michael Gove is displayed on the railings outside Oldknow Academy, one of the Birmingham Schools at the centre of the 'Trojan Horse' inquiry on June 10, 2014 in Birmingham, England [File: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

In 2014, sensationalist headlines circulated in the United Kingdom about an alleged Muslim plot to take over schools. The so-called “Trojan Horse” involved “extremists” infiltrating Birmingham to “sow terrorism” in young minds. As the then chair of the Park View Educational Trust, which ran three of the schools in question, I suddenly found myself in the centre of a media storm, subjected to a multitude of government inspections and inquiries looking into alleged improprieties. It was a classic moral panic.

Subsequently, all of our schools were deemed failures, despite having been ranked as outstanding before. They were placed under “special measures”, which created the possibility of removing senior leadership in the accused institutions. Of course, we rejected the supposed findings of these inquiries and protested the injustice and abuse of power.

As time rolled on, it became increasingly clear that there was no evidence of “extremism and radicalisation” taking place in the schools, nor was there any evidence of a plot. Yet, the damage was done. Years of hard work, creating high-performing schools in highly deprived areas, was destroyed through these interventions. In the process, the entire British Muslim community was vilified and cast as suspicious outsiders in their own country.

As one Muslim pupil succinctly put it to a trusted teacher, “Why are they against us?” The Trojan Horse and the reaction to it framed participation by Muslims in schools, and particularly those in leadership positions, as “infiltration”. This was despite Muslims constituting 98 percent of the student body. Infiltration indeed.

Podcast revelations

Fast forward to 2022. A recent podcast by The New York Times, “The Trojan Horse Affair”, has highlighted serious flaws in the government’s response to the original letter that sparked this whole mess. It is shocking that it took more than five years, and a foreign media outlet, to investigate the malpractice that ran rife through local and national governments, the courts and swaths of the British media. The podcast reveals incompetence so outrageous that it is hardly believable.

To wit: following the arrival of the Trojan Horse hoax letter on his desk in January 2014, the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, leapt at the opportunity to lead an Islamophobic witch-hunt against the Park View Educational Trust. At the time, it was a highly successful multi-academy trust that was in fact developed at the request of the Department for Education (DfE). The podcast makes abundantly clear that Gove, from the very start, was informed that, in all likelihood, the letter was fake. Yet Gove decided to push on nevertheless. No need to let evidence get in the way.

The media, meanwhile, was more than happy to play along, fuelling a moral panic that sought to “protect” children from extremist views and evil Muslims. As the podcast reveals, not a single confirmed incident underpinned the assertions in the Trojan Horse letter. The plot to take over these schools – the real Trojan Horse – was not my own, but instead led by Gove.

At the time, I wrote to the DfE and ministers about the fallacious nature of the letter, asking them to investigate its origins and purpose. It fell on deaf ears, as did my request to Peter Clarke, a former counterterrorism chief appointed by Gove to lead an inquiry on behalf of the DfE. Incredibly, discovering the truth about the origin of the letter was not part of his brief. The assertions that the letter made, however, were to be diligently investigated.

Trojan-induced trauma

It is important to recognise that the effect of the hoax and the subsequent witch-hunt is not confined to an event in the past that affected only a few people. It is a lived reality in the present, which is experienced by Muslim children, parents, teachers, and school leaders alike. Furthermore, it will have lasting implications for future generations of British Muslims. Regulations, laws, as well as educational and security policies like the Prevent strategy, which seeks to stop people from becoming extremists, have been enacted or reinforced with Muslims in mind.

Like many other teachers and governors of schools, I suffered personal and professional harm. I was unable to work in the vocation I love and remain barred from running schools or working as an inspector of educational standards. Being labelled an extremist also wreaked havoc on my personal life. My own friends would request that I remove the batteries from my phone in their presence, in case any bugged recordings would associate them with me and destroy their own careers. In many cases, they were also forced out of education.

As a result of the Trojan Horse hoax, some  20 schools were inspected by the state. Unsurprisingly, these were all predominantly Muslim schools with Muslim majority educational leadership. Their supposed crime, of course, amounted to nothing more than their Muslim-ness. Inevitably, the investigations found nothing untoward.

The Trojan Horse hoax served to legitimise, legalise, and institutionalise a discriminatory culture against Muslim children, where their faith is viewed through the prism of extremism and terrorism. A simple request for prayer facilities in the school is put under the microscope and evaluated through the false paranoia of radicalisation. “We don’t want others making this request,” one head teacher explained to other members of staff (who then informed me in my capacity as governor) when refusing permission. There is something very wrong with this approach in a supposedly open, tolerant, and inclusive society, which ought to respect freedom of religious belief and practice.

Ultimately, the effect of the Trojan Horse hoax will be felt long into the future. The threat of similar hysteria-driven offensives remains real as long as lessons are not learned. It is for this reason that the scandal must remain unfinished business. I endorse the call of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) for an independent inquiry into the travesty, and for an investigation into establishing the origins of the Trojan Horse letter. Those who abused their power and authority in causing so much harm should be held accountable. Those unjustly and wrongfully maligned should be fully exonerated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.