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Swim or Sink: The Trojan Horse Affair as a Witch-Hunt of the Forever ‘Underclass’

by in Identity on 25th February, 2022

During the 16th and 17th Centuries, hysterical witch-hunts and trials swept across large parts of Europe, as religious strife combined with a range of endemic social tensions, and ‘suspicious’ characters presented as easy scapegoats for social unrest and fissure. The scapegoating of ‘witches’ was a convenient diversionary focal point for the governments of the day. A notorious form of torture that was enacted by mobs against alleged witches was known as the ordeal by water. This involved throwing the individual into water and observing if they would swim (a witch) or sink (innocent). Either way, the poor soul’s miserable death was guaranteed. 

Serial’s gripping The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, which has generated resurgent interest among many in the 2014 scandal that rocked Birmingham and dominated headlines and policy discourse, illuminates the events surrounding the contemporary story of another scapegoated group, and the impossibility of its own ‘ordeal by water’. The repercussions of this scandal have placed Muslims in Birmingham, and across the country, enduring under an unforgiving lens of suspicion, and precipitated lasting changes to educational policy.

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The podcast’s first episode opens with sound recordings from a 1993 BBC Panorama documentary entitled ‘Underclass in Purdah’. It is cited by two of the interviewees as their inspiration for entering the field of education – as governors and as teachers. They wanted to change the educational experience of children in their community – to raise aspirations, to improve performance, and to make the schools in their communities fulfilling, safe, validating places to be for Muslim children (who composed the overwhelming majority of their intake). 

Park View, the secondary school which was to become centred in the affair, was noted as a place with low expectations routinely ingrained in its ethos and teaching, and which took for granted the academic failures of its children, operating on the understanding that their life trajectory was predetermined to be limited by their race and class. By dedicating themselves to their local schools and making it their mission to encourage others in their communities to do the same, these Muslims of inner city Birmingham were taking it upon themselves to better the lot of the next generation. They refused for their children and grandchildren to be written off as an underclass, as they themselves had been. 

So far, so ‘pull yourselves up by the bootstraps’. One might be forgiven for visualising this story in the mould of ‘the successful immigrant’ which apparently features in the life trajectory of so many of our minority-heritage politicians and public figures. Offspring of bus drivers who made good regale us with stories of grit and initiative. Surely with the same attitude, and perhaps a good helping of British fair play, these second-generation Pakistani Muslims could also lift their community out of ‘underclass’ status to the promise of achievement and success.

In just under 20 years of sustained and dogged determination (some might say, that ‘blitz spirit’), the efforts of east Birmingham’s Muslim communities had paid off. Park View, once a school beset with problems and notorious for its poor standards, had become a national success story, celebrated in the press, its admissions highly oversubscribed, its governors honoured by the state and invited by the Department for Education to take over the administration of other local schools. 

But in 2014, this success story was summarily upended by nothing less than a witch-hunt. In these politically polarised times, some may balk at such a characterisation, considering it hyperbolic. So let’s take a moment to think about how witch-hunts have historically begun and gained momentum. The scapegoating of any minority group, their stigmatisation, and their public hounding by angry mobs does not materialise overnight.

Extended periods of drip-drip otherisation, of prejudice, exclusion and dog-whistling from key institutions in society and influential figures prime our public discourse and consciousness. It is in the interest of the establishment to identify an underclass, to mythologise its supposedly threatening and undesirable features, and to feed and sustain those myths. Scapegoats are, by definition, a convenient deflection for the powerful from any scrutiny or focus they may face. 

This otherisation desensitises us to what are otherwise unconscionable levels of prejudice, and aggression. The establishment sets the tone and indicates to us why the underclass is undesirable. Words like ‘ghetto’, ‘segregation’, ‘parallel lives’, ’swamp’ and yes, ‘purdah’ are used to suggest that these are a people unto themselves. That they are apart from us. They are not invested in our society. Their ways are ‘alien’, with an air of mystery about them and therefore somehow they are ‘suspect’ and less worthy of our sympathies. Any socioeconomic disadvantage that these communities face is somehow their fault, and no mind is given to the structural conditions that trap such communities into disadvantage and poverty. 

In short, otherisation monsterises the underclass in our subconscious and renders outlandish claims of conspiracy and of subversion (AKA ‘entryism’) plausible to us.

There are telling moments in the Trojan Horse Affair podcast where interviewees admit to this very tendency. For example, when pressed about council and government officials using the letter as a basis for drastic wholesale inquisitions and far-reaching new policies, Albert Bore, the then leader of Birmingham City Council equivocated: 

“Well, no one was wanting to say it was a fake letter.

Sure, sure, (it was fake) but, I mean, when you’re given a snippet of the Trojan Horse document, you just — it conjures up a lot of issues, doesn’t it?”

What Bore, his colleagues in local government, Michael Gove at the Department for Education and the national press in general demonstrated was that society is institutionally predisposed to believe incriminating hearsay about stigmatised groups. Many saw little need to verify allegations about a Muslim conspiracy to take over schools, or to establish their source, because they are ‘corroborated’ by the prejudices that they already hold, even if subconsciously. So with society primed to assume the worst, all it takes is a catalyst for the match of our prejudices to be struck against the matchbox of an establishment invested in Islamophobia. The fake Trojan Horse letter was that catalyst.

When it becomes ok to assert that the underclass are ‘not like us’ then it becomes fairly straightforward for people to accept that their children are not like ‘our’ children. Cue the hounding and harassment of Muslim school children on their way to school and their invasive interrogation with absurd questions such as whether they are forced to wear hijab, or what their views on ‘extremism’ or ‘shari’a law’ might be. Behaviours that society would never tolerate to be directed at its ‘own’ but that somehow seem unremarkable or even justified when they are directed towards the underclass.

We explain away the use of language which pours scorn and belittlement on the physical appearances, cultures and beliefs of whole communities. ‘It is freedom of speech!’ we insist.

We lecture the targets of such dehumanisation if they dare to protest, even as they navigate racialised harm and violence in their everyday lives, which has been enabled by our ‘free speech’. 

We gaslight Muslims, insisting that they grow a thicker skin. Nothing is beyond ridicule, apparently. We drag our heels about defining Islamophobia: ‘it’s not racism, its critique of a religion, stupid!’ and anyway, ‘all forms of discrimination matter!’

Another feature of the witch-hunt is how dehumanisation is justified as a test of both worth and loyalty. We need the underclass to reassure us, so we interrogate it with loaded and unreasonable lines of questioning: are your faith, your culture or your people more important to you than loyalty to the Nation (our Nation, defined in exclusion/opposition to you)? Do you sign up to our values

When faced with these purported tests of loyalty and dispassionate rationality, the underclass may swim or it may sink – either way, as with the certain death faced by alleged witches across early modern Europe, Birmingham’s working class Muslims seem destined to remain trapped in a rigged system.  A forever underclass. 

In truth, the Trojan Horse Affair did not erupt out of the blue; its roots go back much further than 2014. But what the affair did do, was to demonstrate to us how in an age of equalities legislation and of liberal freedoms, the state may well call us all to buy into a ‘big society’, and to directly take the reins of our schools and other community institutions. However, if you are from a minoritised group – specifically if you are Muslim, then the colonial frame persists, power and hierarchy rule the day, civic engagement is conditional, and to coin a phrase, is ‘a privilege, not a right’. 

If we haven’t already got serious doubts about the capacity for legislation and government departments and commissions to safeguard equalities and deliver justice, then now is the time to get cynical. Over the course of 8 episodes, journalists Brian Reed and Hamza Syed lay bare the frustratingly evasive and truncated conversations, the hazy recollections by council employees of meetings and correspondences, or their lack of recollection at all.

The podcast conveys to us the layers upon layers involved in covering up an audit report, with all the associated machinations, allusions, threats and blackmail. All of these a closing of ranks by bureaucrats, the state and the press to avoid scrutiny, potentially to deflect from shortcomings, from vested interests, to facilitate ideological and political ambition, and to do so with the understanding that discarding the hard-earned progress of an underclass and dehumanising it was a price worth paying. 

So we return again to the theme of ‘underclass in purdah’. What on earth were the Muslims of inner city Birmingham thinking when they wanted to lift their communities up, to believe in their children, inspire them to be ambitious and to open up doors of opportunity for them?

The Trojan Horse Affair has demonstrated to us that any deficit in aspiration, grit or determination have never been what has really kept Muslims from upward mobility. The real mistake that they seem to have made may have been their assumption that they could openly and unapologetically ‘swim’, as Muslims.

That they could devote themselves to civic engagement on equal terms, to facilitate for their children a space to thrive and be true to themselves, and that the system would reciprocate in good faith.

The universal reaction from the British press to this podcast has been of either feigned disinterest or paranoid protest and smear, thus demonstrating just how deeply embedded Islamophobia in our establishment is, and why Muslim civic actors will continue to exist under the enveloping shadow of their own ‘ordeal by water’.

Khadijah Elshayyal

Khadijah Elshayyal

Khadijah Elshayyal is a specialist on Muslims in Britain at SOAS and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain, and Scottish Muslims in Numbers: understanding Scotland’s Muslims through the 2011 Census. Follow her on Twitter: @DrKElshayyal