The Trojan Horse scandal in the UK

Claims and counterclaims

Claims that Islamists were trying to Islamise secular state schools in Birmingham rocked the British education system to the core earlier this year. Extremist views in the classroom are a sensitive topic at a time when Britain is concerned about its citizens' reported involvement in jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq. Was there really an Islamist conspiracy? Was the whole thing blown out of proportion? And if so, what will be the consequences? Opinions differ. By Qurratulain Zaman

In late November 2013, a letter that became known as the "Trojan Horse Letter" was sent to Birmingham City Council by unknown sources. The four-page letter described an alleged plan by Salafi Muslims to take over state schools in Birmingham.

The letter claimed that this five-step plan, which included the removal of head teachers, would be repeated in another English city, Bradford. The letter also claimed that governors who were not sympathetic towards an Islamic ethos in schools were removed by deceitful means. Initially, no action was taken by Birmingham Council and the Department for Education.

In the wake of the ensuing scandal, the Department for Education commissioned former counter-terrorism police officer Peter Clarke to investigate these claims. Although Clarke claims in his report that there are "co-ordinated efforts" and "deliberate actions" by a number of people in schools and governing bodies in East Birmingham "who endorse or fail to challenge extremist views", he found no evidence of terrorism or violent extremism.

This is the fourth investigation into the claims outlined in the "Trojan Horse Letter". Three others were conducted by Birmingham City Council, the school regulator Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency (EFA). While the investigations by Ofsted and EFA also found evidence of an "organised campaign" by Islamists to target certain schools, the report compiled by Ian Kershaw for Birmingham City Council found no evidence of a systematic plot by Islamists to take over schools.

Peter Clarke (photo: Getty Images)
Former counter-terror chief Peter Clarke was commissioned by the Department for Education to investigate claims of an Islamist attempt to take over state schools in Birmingham. He found evidence of an "aggressive Islamist agenda". Many of the assertions in his report have, however, been rejected by representatives of the Muslim community, such as the Muslim Council of Britain

Muslim council and schools in Britain

Tahir Alam is a former director and chair of the Park View Educational Trust, which runs three schools in East Birmingham. He is the main accused in the "Trojan Horse Letter" and the Clarke report. Alam says that the whole thing is a "witch hunt", adding that "these claims and allegations made by people who want to remain anonymous are presented as facts in the government's report. What kind of investigation is this when people are not coming on record?"

Mr Alam is closely associated with the Muslim Council of Britain, a self-appointed umbrella body of 500 mosques, charities and schools. He was chair of the education committee of the Council for four years and during his tenure in 2007 wrote a 72-page booklet "Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in British schools".

The conservative "Telegraph" newspaper wrote that his book is a guidebook to school Islamisation. Mr Alam, on the other hand, argues that it was written for school authorities to understand the needs of Muslim pupils: "It gives information about Islamic practices and is a guide to understand the Muslim perspective, for example if the parents want their daughter to wear hijab or not to attend swimming class it explains how schools should respond to it."

Nicky Morgan (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
On the basis of Mr Clarke's report, Britain's Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, told the British parliament that there is "disturbing" evidence that people with a "shared ideology" were trying to gain control of governing bodies in Birmingham

School system in Britain

In Britain, state schools enjoy a high degree of independence. Margaret Thatcher's education policies and the 1981 Education Award Act gave parents the right to express a preference on which school their children attend and also gave them more power. It was thought that parents' involvement and ownership would help schools perform well.

School governors are volunteers from the community that help run a school. According to the "Trojan Horse letter", one of the steps in the alleged plan was to put like-minded "Salafi" schools governors in charge. These influential governors allegedly put pressure on head teachers to bring an Islamic ethos to the schools. Clarke's report found evidence that some governors went beyond improving results at schools and used the argument about "raising standards" to justify increasing the influence of faith in those schools.

But do Muslim parents in East Birmingham want their children to have no sex education or art lessons? Do they want them to have compulsory Arabic lessons and learn the Quran by heart in state-run schools?

Shabina Bano is chair of the Parents Association at Oldknow Academy school. She says that the "Trojan Horse letter" and Clarke's report are spreading fear and intimidation in the classroom. "My daughters don't know how to spell radicalisation. Instead of fighting extremism, the government has effectively told Muslim children to go and google it on the Internet."

Ms Bano and other parents have started a campaign to take legal action, challenging the "ill-informed debate" about the alleged "Al-Qaeda style schooling". "These allegations against Muslim governors and staff will push young Muslims more towards radical Islam," she says.

Prayers in the East London Mosque (photo: J. Impey)
According to Saiqa Andaleeb, a second-generation British-Pakistani, many Muslim parents want to live in England without adopting British values. They want the best of both worlds: British schooling with an Islamic ethos

Salafist takeover?

Clarke used a WhatsApp chat group named "Park View Brotherhood" used by some members of staff at the school as evidence in his report, highlighting some of the worst examples of intolerant attitudes found in these discussions. He writes: "the balance of speakers and events promoted in the WhatsApp discussion weigh heavily towards the hard-line Salafi, Deobandi and occasionally Islamist spectrum." The government report finds the contributions in this groups to be "overwhelmingly anti-Western", "anti-American and anti- Israeli". "There are numerous references to the conflicts in Syria, the Middle East and South Asia."               

Jahan Mahmood, a former counter-terrorism expert, says that the media has created hysteria about the Trojan Horse case. "We are looking at this through the lens of extremism and Islamophobia." He thinks issues are being mixed up. "Salafism is not the issue here. Salafism is largely apolitical, and the head of the Salafi movement in Saudi Arabia was the first in the Muslim world denominations to denounce terrorism."

Views within the Muslim community in England also differ. Saiqa Andaleeb is a second- generation British-Pakistani. She doesn't feel alienated in England but says that many Muslim parents want to live in England without adopting British values. "The Trojan Horse saga draws light on the expectation certain families have, which is taking it too far. If they have issues with the state education system, alternative Islamist schools are available. Why not use them?"

Ms Andaleeb, who works in the education sector in Birmingham, says that there are many parents who want the best of both worlds: British schooling with an Islamic ethos. She says that they are holding their children for ransom: "if their demands are not met, will they not send their children to school like many parents did in the 70s and 80s? If that's their bargaining chip and schools give in to this, it's a very sad state of affairs."

Qurratulain Zaman

© Qantara.de 2014

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Comments for this article: Claims and counterclaims

Talking about the the letter, it can't be ignored as it wasn't first given much importance by the officials. As we all know about the world right now, it can't be ignored! As when we talk about the demands proposed by the Muslim parents seems pretty vague! I think religion is one's personal belief and can't be imposed on anyone. I agree with Saiqa Andaleeb on several points she has put forward! We must not impose any religion on anyone. And when they all talk about imposition of sex education or arts studies is something really out of the world. It's a subject. Here in Pakistan, we also have Islamiat as a compulsory subject. I'm not religious but I could use just to rebel against the educational system. I could propose such demands anytime just because people would hear me as I'm a minority and the world just needs a chance to accuse! Same is the case here! Just to form a controversial phenomina such issues are given hype. And then even if the government would form separate education within schools for Muslim students, then it would intense the situation as it would be exploited as discrimanation! Just to keep the situation intense such demands that are nkt acceptable, are made. I think the same as Saiqa here, that children are just used as ransom.
I think that this threat must not be ignored as it could be a part of a big conspiracy! I guess fast investigations must be made to get deeply into the case!

Anushe Noor Faheem15.09.2014 | 19:52 Uhr