Naming the Narratives: the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham

June 5, 2014 — Comment

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.

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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.

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