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We’ve all experienced that moment at work, when we relased we’ve fucked up. Our heart immediately sinks and about a thousand thoughts run through our heads. How did that happen? What went wrong? How do I prevent this from happening again? How do I make this up to my colleagues? Is my boss ever going to trust me? I think it’s probably safe to assume that very few of us start down a thought process and end up making choice that lead to the loss of people’s careers, employment tribunals, four national inquiries, the national press camping outside schools, draconian government policy, children as young as eight being interviewed by the police without their parents, and Donald Trump declaring Birmingham a “no-go area.”
It sounds preposterous, but this is exactly the podcast The Trojan Horse Affair believes happened when an incomplete unsigned letter was received by Birmingham City Council claiming that there was a Trojan Horse conspiracy to get extreme Muslims to infiltrate the cities schools and take them over. This letter played into the barely below the surface fears about Muslims that many people hold, albeit some of them unconsciously, and the results were disastrous, and are still being felt my Muslims today.
So when Hamza Syed a doctor going back to school to learn to be a journalist had to pick a project to work on, he wanted this one. He wanted to find out who had written that original letter that had lanced the boil of British islamaphobia, allowing it to spill out into the open, with no one to clean it up, or dress the wound. The Trojan Horse Affair is probably the most impressive school assignment ever submitted as Syed manages to team up with veteran podcaster Brian Reed, who produced nothing less than the jewel in the crown of true crime podcasting, Serial, to both hunt down who wrote the 2014 letter. While they do not find any smoking gun, the podcast leaves us with no doubt about who wrote the letter, and the selfish reasons they think motivated it.
The podcast has been well received, and praised in many areas. However Guardian columnist Sonia Sodha is critical of it’s casual dismissal of very real child safeguarding concerns, and pointing out how when Asian women raise issues of sexism, misogyny and child protection Asian men will often silence them using claims of stoking up Islamophobia. Any defence of the podcast is weakened by several journalistic missteps including not respecting requested anonymity (also pointed out by Sodha) and an email from Syed in which he clearly states who he thinks is lying at the beginning of the investigation, which makes claims to journalistic impartiality much more difficult to make.
Syed also repeatedly gets the scope of the Prevent Agenda wrong. It was politely ignored in Scotland, meaning it did not cover Britain, as is so often said in the podcast, but just England and Wales. Just as Ofsted only inspects schools in England and Wales. While this does not exonerate Scotland from islamophobia, far from it, it does means that the many references in the podcast to Britain, or things that are British, are not really accurate either. This is a mistake incredibly common in the UK where it’s various national education systems and media largely ignore the complex ways in which the countries in the United Kingdom work, and citizens remain largely ignorant of how their own state operates.
Subsequent criticism and complaints about the podcast mean it becomes difficult to take what Reed and Syed conclude as an absolute truth. It is possible that there is both people stoking up islamophobia to distract from their own legal problems, and that some teachers in Birmingham schools were expressing views that are not compatible with child protection and respect for women, creating a difficult atmosphere to work in – trying to cast it as an either/or situation, or that one issue trumps another is possibly naïve and missing the finer more complex points of how we all exist and rub up against each other.
Even though we may never definitively know who wrote the letter there were measurable events and attitudes in it’s wake. Unlike nationally devolved policy areas, the islamophobia that flourished after the letter and prevent agenda, does not stop in England and Wales. Across the Western world the right-wing agenda uses Birmingham as an example of what goes wrong when when you allow Muslim people in – something I imagine proudly multicultural Brummies will not be pleased with. And, it is worrying how such an obvious hoax is being used by those with malicious intent, and how as humans we can all limpet so strongly to lies, even when they give us no comfort, but only enhance our fears. Which leaves us with a more perplexing question, why do we enjoy being so afraid?