What if a hoax caused a national scandal, dominating Britain’s news for weeks? What if this hoax was used to whip up hate against a minority community, even being used to justify repressive new laws that disproportionately targeted that community? And what if journalists revealed that the politicians who stirred up this hate knew it was a hoax all along? That would be a big deal, right?
It’s more than three months since The New York Times and Serial Productions released The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, a years-long investigation into the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal that rocked British politics in 2014 and cast a shadow over the country’s Muslim communities. But in spite of the podcast’s explosive revelations, it’s been met with near silence by the British media.
This has been painful to watch: I grew-up in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham – the city at the heart of the Trojan Horse scandal – and was a student in the city when it hit the front pages. I saw first hand the devastating effect the scandal had on my community, with politicians and the press using it to whip up hate against Muslims.
The podcast isn’t just about something that did (or didn’t) happen in Birmingham nearly a decade ago. It’s about Islamophobia in Britain today: how it is stoked by the powerful and ignored by the press. Being the youngest Muslim to be elected to parliament, I feel a responsibility to speak out about this too; the podcast even uses a speech I gave in parliament about Islamophobia to explain what life is like for Muslims in Britain today.
So for me, this is personal.
At the heart of the Trojan Horse scandal was a letter purporting to detail a “Muslim plot” to take over schools in Birmingham, supposedly aiming to “Islamise” classrooms. But the podcast reveals that even before the letter was made public, Michael Gove, then education secretary, was repeatedly warned it was almost certainly a hoax. But Gove acted as if it were a legitimate document – and even now the truth has come to light, he still refuses to admit he used a hoax letter to trigger a national scandal.
Having been told the letter was a hoax, Gove repeatedly trumpeted it in parliament, prompting a deluge of bigoted hysteria from the rightwing press. The Daily Mail splashed the story with “Revealed: Islamist plot dubbed ‘Trojan Horse’ to replace teachers in Birmingham schools with radicals”, while The Spectator’s front page read “Taught to hate”, with an image of a child holding the Quran one on hand and a sword in the other.
No evidence of a “plot” was ever found, but the narrative was set.
The scandal mainstreamed Islamophobic ideas about Muslims conspiring to undermine British society, depicting Muslims as an ‘enemy within’ – ideas that were already dominant on the far right. Indeed, Gove was himself ahead of the curve, having fed these tropes and demonised British Muslims in his 2006 book Celsius 7/7. In a case of curious prescience, the book even had a chapter titled “The Trojan Horse”. No surprise, then, that Gove and the Tories seized the moment and immortalised the hoax letter in government policy.
The 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy repeatedly referenced the scandal (still covering up that the supposed plot was then widely known to be a hoax) and the Islamophobic Prevent duty was then put on a statutory footing in educational settings a year after the scandal hit the headlines.
This campaign encapsulated the way in which elites encourage and give licence to Islamophobia across society, with devastating consequences. Last year, for example, almost half of religious hate crimes were Islamophobic, while Tory politicians can describe Muslim women who wear the niqab as “bankrobbers” and “letterboxes” – triggering a 375% rise in Islamophobic incidents – and still go on to become prime minister.
In a healthy democratic society, we might expect the revelation that a national scandal which dramatically shaped government policy was based on a hoax to trigger outrage and contrition. Instead, we’ve seen a mixture of silence and doubling-down. This, really, is little surprise: Islamophobia shaped the media’s response to the hoax letter in 2014 and Islamophobia explains the media’s disregard for the podcast’s revelations in 2022.
Despite the podcast’s huge popularity (topping the downloads charts for consecutive weeks), it has been ignored or maligned by much of the British media. Journalists who splashed “Islamist plot” across Britain’s newspapers have remained silent, even as their reporting has been debunked. A leading Observer columnist, meanwhile, reacted by underplaying the Islamophobia at the scandal’s heart, ignoring the podcast’s revelations, and turning her fire on the New York Times journalists who detailed the hoax. In one of the very few (perhaps only) times Gove has been confronted about it, he was able to effortlessly dismiss questions about his duplicitous role in the cover-up. It seems he’s gotten away with it.
It hasn’t been so easy for British Muslims to forget the scandal, however. It had a profound impact, leaving scars that have still not healed. It fed Islamophobic currents that exist in British society today and threaten the safety of our communities.
The Trojan Horse scandal is a case study in how power operates in Britain: a hoax promoted in the House of Commons, as government ministers worked hand-in-glove with a pliant media. Neither the politicians nor the journalists responsible even feel the need to acknowledge what really happened. It’s a lesson in how punching down pays dividends.
But the podcast shows something else too. One of the journalists behind it, Hamza Syed, had never published anything before this; he had turned to journalism determined to probe the lies of the powerful and to stand up for a community he knew had been unjustly demonised by the establishment. Whilst still a journalism student, he approached Brian Reed, a veteran producer, explaining that he needed to investigate the scandal.
Hamza’s determination has revealed to millions of people the lies and vindictiveness that sustain rotten establishment politics, leading to widespread disquiet among ordinary people at the events of 2014. As we organise to push back against servile journalists and political elites, the Trojan Horse Affair podcast is a powerful lesson.
Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP for Coventry South.