How an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Thrives in the UK

The country’s problem with Islamophobia is laid bare in a recent podcast — and the responses just reinforce its findings

How an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Thrives in the UK
British Asian mother and young children walk in West London suburb / Getty Images

Petulant, disgraceful, bewildering: These are the words that the hosts of The New York Times and Serial Productions podcast series The Trojan Horse Affair use to describe the responses to their in-depth investigation. “I find it truly bewildering,” said Brian Reed, after searching for words, “that after a deeply reported investigative series that lays out in detail how officials in all levels of government used a document they knew was bogus to make sweeping changes to counter-extremism laws, and there’s just been … nothing.” There have been few follow-up questions directed toward the officials involved, many of whom remain in their positions and have even been promoted. “Wouldn’t it warrant some follow up?”

“What really burns me,” added his co-host Hamza Syed, “is that four and half years of investigative reporting is worth one opinion piece. That’s the reality of journalism, that someone can read a single article written in a few hours and use it to dismiss years of research and investigation.”

The response Syed is referring to was an article by Sonia Sodha in The Guardian’s Sunday edition, The Observer, and stands as a case study in the very themes that the podcast explores about structural Islamophobia in the UK. The scandal at the heart of the podcast is a letter, purportedly giving evidence of an Islamist plot to infiltrate and take over schools to spread extremist messaging: the so-called “Trojan Horse letter”. Despite the letter being labeled “bogus” very quickly, it still triggered a response at the very highest levels of government and a wholesale revision of counterextremism laws – which until today is defended as a legitimate response, despite the entire lack of evidence of this “plot”.

Sodha’s article wheels out the same excuses to justify the excessively heavy-handed responses by the press and the authorities to a conspiracy-laden letter. None of the messages from the series have been taken on board by the journalists and officials who responded. Even worse than knee-jerk responses based on unthinking prejudice is the fact that Reed and Syed provided a response to the Observer article before it was published, refuting with detailed evidence many of the author’s points, yet Sodha chose to go ahead with her version — that the real threat is the Muslim community and to defend the podcast with cries of “Islamophobia” is to let down the victims of conservative forces.

It is hard to understand this act of bad faith journalism. “If I was still dabbling in investigative journalism I would pursue it, ask why she stuck to that opinion,” Syed said. Reed added: “That piece wasn’t interested in informing readers with the truth. It was trying to drag the podcast and us into a bizarre and quite frankly unwarranted culture war.” After five years of work, this is the end result: a continuation of the culture war with the same attitudes that led to the demonization of a Muslim community eight years ago.

The structural injustices so painstakingly depicted by Reed and Syed have thus been shown to be bulletproof, resistant to the most sustained and well-researched criticisms. Eight hours of evidence is not enough to change prejudiced hearts and minds with vested interests.

Most people in Britain have heard of the Trojan Horse letter describing an Islamist plot, an unsigned document sent to the Birmingham City Council in late 2013. Some will remember that the letter turned out to be a hoax, and no “plot” was ever found. A series of investigations and inquiries did find various forms of wrongdoing related to undue religious influence in schools, but there was never a suggestion that the problems uncovered were in any way connected to the counterterrorism framework that both inquiries and media coverage used to explore the events in Birmingham schools.

What few people know is that after years of inquiries and sensationalist news reporting of terrorists being trained in our midst, the end of the affair was far more muted. Not only was it not reported, but it was also an epic failure, underlining the string of failures of government and law enforcement that had gone before. As the podcast lays out in excruciating detail, there was no “end.” There was no closure. The years of investigation ended “officially resolution-less,” in Reed’s words, “its own magnificent, enraging shambles.” Enraging is right. The teachers in the dock were neither blamed nor vindicated, unable to clear their names, unable to gain justice.

No one in authority ever had to account for why so many resources had been spent on investigations that simply fizzled out. No one was held accountable as to why counterterrorism officers were brought in to investigate what was a case for a school’s governing body, not national law enforcement. Yes, there were issues, such as homophobic messages passed around via a WhatsApp group, but as we know from recent scandals in the U.K. police and the Roman Catholic Church, homophobia isn’t unique to Muslim communities. But the counterterrorism approach was triggered for a Muslim school, because in the eyes of then-Education Minister Michael Gove, high- and low-level civil servants, police, journalists and others, the default position is to see Muslims as a terrorism risk. As Reed describes in the podcast, this attitude is seen in the very name of the letter: A “trojan horse” refers to enemies hiding in plain sight. The accused was already a suspect in the eyes of those in charge.

The case fell apart because of a cover-up and lies. Government lawyers had repeatedly denied that they had been relying on transcripts of interviews with witnesses involved in a previous inquiry. Just an hour before the disciplinary panel looking into the allegations against the teachers was due to draft its decision, it emerged that the government’s team was in fact relying on such documents and was withholding them from the defense. When the panel demanded the government’s senior solicitor appear and explain, she was apparently busy. The panelists discontinued the case, issuing a new decision, which said, “There has been an abuse of the process which is of such seriousness that it offends the panel’s sense of justice and propriety.”

The lack of justice for those accused is a thread that runs through the whole series, though many of those affected were unwilling to talk to the podcast hosts, Syed and Reed, having been bruised by previous encounters with the media. But it is what underlies this lack of justice for so many that is the real heart of this podcast: the wholly different standards applied to different people in this country. The burden of proof is so unequal as to make structural Islamophobia in the U.K. an undeniable fact.

Sue Packer was a teacher at the school at the center of the alleged plot: Park View, in Birmingham. She became concerned about the school long before the Trojan Horse letter was sent, when she heard about a sex education lesson (taught in science class in the U.K.) in which the teacher told the students that wives must have sex with their husbands whenever their husbands want. She flagged this to the school, which conducted an assembly, telling the students that consent is always a requirement in sex: Anything else is rape.

This is laudable of Sue, and the school responded appropriately, correcting an egregious mistake taught in a lesson. It turns out that more should have been done as that teacher was later convicted of grooming and rape of a 14-year-old girl (he claimed they were married); with hindsight it would have been better to refer him to an outside inquiry, but it’s perhaps unfair to expect the school to have predicted such a terrible extension of his views, given that at the time he — apparently — accepted that he had been wrong.

Sue went on to suspect and report other breaches of basic human rights in the school — again, before the Trojan Horse letter was sent. The podcast takes the listener through endless vacillations of what might be the truth about Park View and who gets to say what this truth is.

They interview Sue and her husband, Steve, who was the assistant head at Park View, in an epic seven-hour session at their home. In this long journey, we begin sympathetic to the whistleblowers’ story: Teaching boys that marital rape is OK had to be dealt with — and it was Sue who made that happen. Her depictions of the routine denigration of women on the staff evoke similar responses: This isn’t OK, and someone had to report it.

But the story gets murkier. When Syed and Reed probe the two former teachers, the responses turn defensive, the tone of the interview shifts, becoming unmistakably antagonistic. There are silences, broken sentences, ending in an outburst from Sue claiming that she can’t be bigoted. “My closest friend is a female Muslim girl,” she said, pleading the classic ineffectual defense. When asked why the female Muslim teachers at the school didn’t stand with her, she claims that “no one would speak out.”

Alarm bells start to ring with this stereotype of meek and oppressed Muslim women needing a white savior to speak up on their behalf — a stereotype belied by their voices, for Reed and Syed talked to those teachers Sue claims to represent. They provide an alternative view, denying the extent of the issues in the school that Sue paints. While they don’t deny some of the problems, many said they had been exaggerated, and they were uncomfortable with the overall image of the school that Sue has depicted.

The interviews are woven together in a way that doesn’t advocate for one side or the other in this debate. They cover legitimate concerns that were reported by Sue and subsequently found in official inquiries about attitudes toward women, sex, homosexuality and banning non-Muslim practices (such as the removal of the school’s Christmas card mailbox). It’s possible that the Muslim female teachers were indeed too scared to speak out, but those interviewed forcefully denied this, and it’s the audience who has to decide whether to believe them.

Some of the reviews have said that the podcast got this balance wrong, that the concerns about misogyny and homophobia were downplayed in order to bring out the Islamophobia in our society. With thousands of hours of recordings whittled down to eight, there can always be charges of this sort, that “the thumb was on the scale” as one reviewer had it. But this question of balance is to miss the point of the series entirely.

Reed and Syed don’t just piece the evidence together from witnesses to explore what was going on; much of this is incontrovertible. The more important aspect of what they track is the process: what happened over the three years after the Trojan Horse letter was sent to the council, before the case quietly collapsed. Despite the initial inquiries by the council and police in Birmingham finding that the letter was a hoax, worries were sent right up to the top: After initial investigations by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED – the official body that inspects schools), then-Prime Minister David Cameron convened a meeting of an extremism task force, and Gove appointed Peter Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism for London’s Metropolitan Police, to investigate. The letter was leaked to the media in early 2014, with “Revealed: Islamist plot dubbed ‘Trojan Horse’ to replace teachers in Birmingham with radicals” and “Taught to Hate” just two of the resulting headlines.

But despite all these official and journalistic reports, when Reed and Syed cut between the whistleblowing Packers and the Muslim voices from the school, they were the first to do so. Let that sink in: No one involved in the inquiry who was following up on the Packers’ testimonies ever went to the women who were being — according to Sue — oppressed at Park View school. We hear from Amina, at the center of one of the incidents Sue describes, who says it’s the first time she has been asked. This is a form of silencing as effective as the misogyny that was, no doubt, present at the school.

This is a more valuable point than any individual accusation of wrongdoing. Reed and Syed show that the inquiries themselves were one-sided, taking whistleblowing testimony at face value, without checking the other side. As Reed says in the fifth episode, it was an “unhappy confluence” that the allegations landed on the desk of a government minister at the same time that the Trojan Horse letter made it up the ranks to the same minister’s desk. The minutes of the initial meeting between Gove and the Birmingham City Council were obtained by Reed and Syed. “The police recommendation was that the document was bogus,” the minutes state. Yet Gove chose to investigate it as if it were not, appointing a counterterrorism official to conduct the official inquiry.

This is the point. Yes, there were worrying attitudes in some Birmingham schools, and some of these attitudes were expressed in religious terms. But why was this a counterterrorism issue? If homophobia or misogyny had been found in a Catholic, Hindu, Anglican or Jewish school (all these faith schools exist in the U.K.), would a whistleblower’s report or a bogus letter have ended up on a minister’s desk, mentioned by the prime minister in speeches? Would homophobic comments from a Catholic priest or Orthodox rabbi trigger a wholesale change in our anti-extremism laws? However risible the form of the Trojan Horse letter (made very clear by the podcast), the content was felt to be dangerous enough to pursue, the stakes too high to ignore, because Muslims are all too easily seen as a terrorism risk. Islamophobia drove this whole witch hunt, ending in ignominy and failure.

Gove has doubled down on his actions in response to the podcast, calling the series “tendentious and misguided.” As the sixth episode lays out, Gove was working with the so-called conveyor belt model of radicalization, long since discredited. In this model, which he explores in his book “Celsius 7/7,” dedicated to taking on the “Muslim threat” to the West, there are “pre-violent” indicators of extremism that, without intervention, inexorably lead to radicalization. As Syed describes in the podcast, many of these so-called pre-violent signs are often part of normal Muslim life. The difficulty in separating the pertinent from the irrelevant when assessing radicalization risk is one reason the conveyor belt model has been discarded from policy; another reason is that the resulting policies were discriminatory and damaging to relations between government and Muslim communities. Bigotry is pervasive across many communities in the U.K., but not all communities are treated equally when it is found. Only Muslims are suspected of being on the road to terrorism.

Gove said that everything he did was appropriate to protect young people from extremism, ignoring the critiques of the podcast, the thoroughly researched demonstrations of unbalanced treatment and different burdens of proof applied to Muslim schools. This is a familiar excuse used to justify the suspicion that fell on Muslim communities during the Trojan Horse Affair; it would be wrong to not investigate and necessary to support those at very real risk. This is also the line taken by Sodha in the The Observer, accusing the podcast of being “a one-sided account that minimizes child protection concerns, misogyny and homophobia,” which is neither accurate nor on point. In fact, we can read in her piece all the problems in the U.K. that the podcast lays bare — it is precisely pieces like this that enabled the entire fiasco of the Trojan Horse Affair.

There are three layers of issues with Sodha’s piece: those obvious to anyone, those obvious to listeners of the podcast and those evident only to the production team. The obvious Islamophobia is seen in a telling detail: The defense of the man at the heart of the Trojan Horse letter, Taher Alam, is bracketed. “(Alam told me, ‘Not a single actual child protection or safeguarding issue has been cited in any of the reports.’),” Sodha writes, dismissing Alam’s views with those brackets alone, rather than engaging with the — highly relevant — content.

Next is the fact that she says the podcast ignores the evident problems in these schools that were uncovered by the inquiries triggered by the Trojan Horse letter; anyone who has gone through the whole eight hours (or just the fifth episode) can attest that this is not true. Another telling bracket shows just how much Sodha missed the point of the podcast. “(The Humanists have also exposed the teaching of creationism in orthodox Jewish schools and issues with sex education in Catholic schools),” she writes. The question begging to be asked is why weren’t these stories picked up by the counterterrorism department? In failing to ask this question Sodha herself applies a standard to Muslim communities different from what she does to other faith communities in the country.

But there were other issues Sodha raised that caused me more unease: that the Packers were promised anonymity, for example, but were actually named; that they complained to The New York Times about their experiences, calling it “torture”; that the production team ignored video evidence from Birmingham school heads from the time the letter was first exposed. I emailed the podcast to ask for a response. We set up an interview with the hosts, and for preparation they sent me the email sent to Sodha before the publication of her article. This email refutes in detail many of her claims, yet she chose to go ahead and publish them anyway, in an astonishing act of bad faith journalism. I ask them why.

“It’s actually shocking,” Syed begins. “We gave a comprehensive and thorough reply, and for her to run it as it stood — it’s a deliberate effort to misdirect people.” It’s hard to disagree, yet also hard to believe such callous cynicism by an outlet like The Observer, especially as the podcast praised the paper for raising many of these issues in a long-form essay in 2017. In fact, Sodha’s article contradicts The Guardian’s own reporting from the time, bringing up cases that were deeply questioned by her own colleagues.

But although they’re shocked, “It’s not exactly a surprise,” Syed said. “Episode five is actually about this phenomenon — how whistleblowers, personal grievances, groups and reports are uncritically passed off as verified stories. Sodha’s piece is a demonstration of that, how this happens.” They describe the preparation of the interviews with the Packers: Months were spent poring through all the documents available, noting inconsistencies and gaps as well as the evidence they provided. And as the team set up the interview, the couple were told they were planning a “comprehensive, deeply reported” telling of the whole affair “in its entirety.” These quotes are taken from Reed’s initial email to Sue, which included links to Serial and Reed’s own S-Town podcast so they could get a sense of what the final result would be. Days were spent crafting the questions. And the Packers asked for anonymity only after the interview: It was never discussed or promised. All of this information is in the right of reply the team sent to Sodha before she published.

But even worse than the knowingly inaccurate content of Sodha’s article are its effects. “My worry is that this article gives journalists and officials an out,” Syed said. “If there’s any wondering about how this happened, how misinformation changed laws in Britain and no one cared, well now we can see exactly how that happened. It’s the same reactions, same diversions, same pivot away from the document itself and who wrote it and why, to claims that there was something wrong so everything that followed was justified.”

Although Sodha’s article was only one article among others at The Guardian that praised the podcast, it’s enough to be damaging. Gove shared it, and it provided a way to excuse his behavior and sidestep the deep critiques Reed and Syed make. A journalist at the Birmingham Mail was in touch with the hosts, planning follow-up articles, but then retweeted Sodha’s article and went silent. A week later the Birmingham Mail published Gove’s opinions instead, pivoting away from the critiques. As Syed put it, “The reporting class now has an exit ramp. Instead of talking about some serious claims and what it meant, they could point to Sodha’s article and say, ‘It’s complicated,’ which is far easier.”

BBC Radio 4 also questioned why the podcast was made, rather than investigate the high-level and high-stakes political mistakes. Was it wise to open up an old case, they asked? “Isn’t that our job as investigative reporters?” Syed responded, frustrated. Despite the numerous official conclusions that the letter was a hoax, this program managed to raise doubts; they said twice that they didn’t know if it was real. “If this is the journalism ecosystem,” Syed said, “with the BBC still wondering whether the letter is real, and The Observer is putting out disingenuous hit pieces on you — what motivates you to carry on?” The answer is nothing. “When you weigh up the work we put in and the value of it, it ultimately doesn’t seem to matter. It’s hard to keep motivated.”

This type of doubt cast by the BBC lets officials off the hook despite their own conclusions that the letter was bogus. The Birmingham City Council issued a statement in the wake of the podcast to the effect that this was old news and that the city had “moved on.” “I defy anyone to tell me what ‘old history’ means,” Syed said. “Go to east Birmingham and ask what it means to ‘move on.’” The schools in question have never climbed back to their pre-Trojan Horse results. The community still feels stigmatized. There is academic research about the long-term effects on those caught up in it. “There’s been an atrophying of civic engagement” is how Reed summarized the effects on the local community; an increased suspicion of government programs remains even when they’re beneficial. “It was life-changing for the Muslims at the heart of the accusations, yet no one else suffered any consequences at all,” Syed added, echoing what he said in the fifth episode: “Those responsible, they don’t even care.”

The disappointment from both of them is palpable. Although they appreciate the success in terms of the number of listeners and how people have responded, they went into this thinking it might cause change. This is the truly disappointing outcome: No one in government or media is picking up the baton to ask how such an outrageous situation arose and how we can prevent it happening again. Indeed, responses along the lines of “but there were bad things going on in schools” only show how likely it is to be repeated, how quickly stories about Muslims can be turned into stories about threats. It is astonishing that something on this scale has been exposed by a major media company with rigorous evidence, yet still nothing happens. When you contrast this apathy with the number of inquiries launched by a flimsy letter, the silence in response to a deeply researched, eight-hour podcast by The New York Times is eerie. The establishment, on the left and right, has come together to ignore the evidence.

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