On 7 March 2014, the BBC news website reported "'Islamic takeover plot' in Birmingham schools investigated." This story of a leaked letter laying out details of an Islamic conspiracy was followed by a media frenzy, with many newspaper articles about the alleged plot. The Mail Online story "Revealed: Islamist plot dubbed 'Trojan Horse' to replace teachers in Birmingham schools with radicals" is typical.
Almost immediately, doubts were cast on the authenticity of the letter. An article in The Times on 11 March "New evidence raises doubts about extremist plot to take over school" pointed to significant factual errors in the letter that would never have been made by a genuine conspirator. Since then, I am not aware of any commentator regarding the letter as genuine, i.e. a letter written by one Muslim in Birmingham to another Muslim in Bradford explaining how to take over and Islamise schools. Instead, the letter appears to be a fabrication, created by someone to draw attention to an issue in Birmingham schools which itself may, or may not, be a genuine issue.
From the beginning, the entire story has been known as "Trojan Horse" from the use of the phrase in the purported letter.
Shortly after the story broke, some Muslim commentators condemned the allegations as motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice. For example on 9 May Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari wrote "Politicisation of Alleged ‘Islamist Plot’ to Take Over British Schools Is Dangerous " dismissing the allegations. Conversely Inayat Bunglawala writing on his blog on 10 March reserved judgement in his piece "More Developments in the 'Muslim Plot to Take-over Schools' story".
I also reserved judgement, and apart from a few tweets sharing interesting newspaper stories made no comment on Trojan Horse. However on 9 June 2014, the day before the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) reports were due to be published, I wrote a background piece for the Conservative Home website. It is reproduced below.
Mohammed Amin is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.
I have followed the “Trojan Horse” saga since the story broke earlier this year. However apart from occasionally tweeting a link to a newspaper story I have avoided commenting, since I prefer to know the facts before doing so.
While the Ofsted reports are now imminent, it is clear from the press that their objectivity is likely to be disputed, and they will also take some time to digest. Accordingly, I am sharing some thoughts and background in advance of the Ofsted reports, and will write again when the facts become clearer. Sadly, at present the media debate seems polarised between those who regard any manifestation of religion in the public space as illegitimate and those who see every complaint about the conduct of any Muslims as evidence of anti-Muslim bigotry.
As a preliminary point, I haven’t seen any serious suggestions in the media that the “Trojan Horse” letter itself is genuine, not least because it apparently contains simple factual errors which the actual protagonists would not get wrong.
The Chair of Governors at Park View School, Mr Tahir Alam, has been regularly named in the media given his role at that school, and his authorship of the 2007 Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) publication “Towards Greater Understanding: Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools – Information & Guidance for Schools.” Paul Goodman has written about this document at this link and a copy can be downloaded from this link. The booklet is a short 71 pages and is worth reading in full.
I first met Mr Alam about seven years ago when I attended a talk in Manchester by him about the desirability of encouraging more Muslims to volunteer as school governors. From memory, he pointed out that in many cases in Birmingham there had been schools where the pupils were preponderantly or overwhelmingly Muslim, but the governors were all non-Muslim. Quite often such schools were disregarding the religious needs of the pupils, such as halal food, and continuing to hold a Christian daily act of worship rather than one suitable to a mostly Muslim pupil body.
Furthermore the schools had been under-performing academically. In many cases the teaching staff had low expectations of the pupils, and the head-teachers were actively resisting Muslims joining the governing body. However once a critical mass of Muslims did manage to join the governing body, they were able to ensure that halal food was provided etc. Furthermore it was then made clear to the head teacher that academic underachievement would no longer be tolerated, and the results had improved dramatically, either because the head teacher raised their game or because they were replaced.
I found the presentation very impressive, and a year or so later attended a similar presentation in London. When I issued a manifesto to stand as Secretary General of the MCB in March 2010, I included an item on education: “The statistics show Muslims underperforming at school. While the Department for Children, Schools and Families needs to do a better job, Muslims can do far more to engage with schools as parents and governors, and run more supplementary schools. It is our children’s education that is at stake.” While I continue to believe that more Muslims should become school governors, and not just at schools where most pupils are Muslims, I have never had time to volunteer myself.
Against this background, I can understand why some may regard the encouragement of Muslims to become school governors as a “plot.” Unfortunately entryism is often alleged when minorities first seek to play a part in public life. One of the factual questions to be resolved is whether the Muslims who have been encouraged to become school governors are a broad cross section of educated British Muslims, or whether they are drawn from a narrow and unrepresentative clique. I have no information at present.
Broadly speaking, I have seen two types of complaints in the media:
It is the responsibility of any governing body to hire, monitor, and if necessary terminate the organisation’s chief executive. Accordingly I am not surprised if the governing bodies of some Birmingham schools have found it necessary to terminate their head teacher and appoint another. Obviously it needs to be done for appropriate reasons, in a manner consistent with the law. Whether that was the case at all times is a factual question which the enquiries should resolve.
Most of the complaints I have seen in the media allege that the school environments have become too religious. It is worth remembering that Khalid Mahmood MP says that he has received many complaints about these schools from Muslim parents, contending that they chose a secular school for their children, not a faith school, and that the school is therefore letting them down by being insufficiently secular.
Many of the proposals in “Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools” are ones that I would strongly support. I only eat meat if it is halal or kosher, and would want the same provision for my children if it were feasible, which it clearly is if a majority of the pupils are Muslims. Similarly, I once had to write to my daughter’s school to explain the religious rules concerning which hand to eat with, because she had been reprimanded for using a fork with her right hand.
Conversely, as Paul Goodman points out, the cumulative effect of implementing all the proposals in the book would result in an environment very different from most secular UK schools. I don’t know the background of the school governors concerned, but it is quite easy to imagine that if they all come from a conservative religious background they might seek to implement the booklet.
However, the environment that would result from implementing the booklet in full would have similarities to other religious schools, especially those which are devoutly Catholic or ultra-Orthodox. The Guardian reports that the local MP Liam Byrne has suggested having more Muslim faith schools in Birmingham. If the schools concerned had been Muslim faith schools, I suspect many of the parents who have complained to Khalid Mahmood MP might not have done so, since they would have expected the school to give more emphasis to religion than does a secular school.
Again, it is a factual question whether the schools concerned are failing their pupils educationally or not.
I do not want speakers in any school praising Anwar Al Awlaki, Al Qaeda, or terrorism generally. At present we do not know if this has occurred at any of these schools.
While it is not a panacea, I do believe that my proposal for a government register of hate preachers, at this link, would reduce the risk of such things happening.
There were of course a number of readers comments, which can be read below the original Conservative Home piece. As soon as the Ofsted reports were published, I downloaded all of them, and read those for the five schools which Ofsted considered should have a change in management.
After understanding what the Ofsted inspectors had found, I wrote a follow up piece for Conservative Home. My original title was "Trojan Horse – The Ofsted reports" but as the debate was moving on the editor changed the title to "British values? Here are my suggestions – and a test of them".