I didn’t feel great after I gave Hamza a hard time for going off on Richy Thompson, the British humanist.
And truth is, it wasn’t the first time I’d done something like that, where I called him out for crossing lines I thought he shouldn’t be crossing as a journalist.
The first time was early on in our working together.
How’s it going?
It was my last week of journalism school, as I cramming to get my final project done, when Brian got in touch saying we needed to talk.
Well, it’s not great, honestly.
So I just got this email.
This was when we were looking into Adderley Primary school, trying to find information about the head teacher, Rizvana Darr and the four teaching assistants who said their resignation letters had been faked.
When Brian requested records from the employment tribunal about the case, the tribunal contacted the people involved to ask whether they wanted the records released.
It turns out, some of them did not.
Brian started reading a letter to me that just been sent to the tribunal by the three Muslim TAs in response to his request.
The main responsibility of a journalist is to report the news in a truthful, unbiased, and apolitical way, and to educate the public about events. and issues and how they affect their lives.
I do not believe these matter will be reported in quote, unquote, “an unbiased and apolitical way.”
The lead figure in this exercise is Mr. Syed, a student journalist who intends to use Mr. Reed’s radio station as a medium to advocate his opinions.
We have received letters directly, indirectly, slash indirectly, from Mr. Syed, attached.
They attached my letters?
It is the contents of these letters which raise concerns.
We quote a paragraph from the letter addressed to Mr. Aslam.
Mr. Aslam is the brother of two of the teaching assistants from early primary school.
Brian and I had a weird phone call with Aslam early on to ask if he’d connect us with his sisters.
He was reluctant to admit it was him we were speaking to.
He asked suspiciously how he got his number for his law office, even though it’s just advertised online, and then he hung up on us.
It seemed like all he heard were the words journalist and Trojan Horse, and he shut down.
We decided to follow up with a letter.
Usually, Brian I look over each of other’s emails and letters to potential sources before we send them, but Aslam had seemed especially distrustful of reporters.
Shortly after we talked, he actually changed his WhatsApp profile picture to a Malcolm X meme about media controlling the minds of the masses.
So I said to Brian, let me try a more personal appeal with this one.
Let him know there’s someone with some shared background involved in this project.
Brother to brother I think are the words I actually said to Brian.
And so with this one letter, I drafted it on my own, sealed it in an envelope, and I dropped it off at Aslam’s office.
I never heard back, until now.
As Brian read to me the court finding that he, and the people involved in the earlier case, including Rizvana Darr and the Birmingham City Council, had just been sent as well.
Quoting my letter to ask Aslam.
Quote, “I’m on a master’s program for Investigative Journalism currently.
I graduate this September.
The Trojan horse began as my dissertation project, and it is my first attempt to start righting wrongs.
I never believed in the official narrative regarding the Trojan Horse.
I never believed the letter was authentic.
I never believed Tahir Alam was masterminding the sinister Islamic plot.
I never believed Birmingham City Council.
I never believed Peter Clarke.
I never believed Michael Gove.
I never believed Rizvana Darr and I never believed your sisters wrote those resignation letters.
What I believe is, I’m going to change this narrative, inshallah.”
With each, “Oh, boy,” I was coming to terms with both how bad and how confusing the situation was.
By this point, I knew the TA’s didn’t want to participate in our story.
I’ve been trying to get in touch with them all sorts of ways, including through other family members, who told me the TAs didn’t want this painful chapter dredged up again.
And the TAs said as much in this letter to the tribunal.
In fact, they went further, saying they’re worried that being thrust back into the public eye could put their safety at risk somehow.
But, in addition, the TAs were not making the bewildering argument that they didn’t want me to have the records from that case, because I was too biased in favor of them.
We trust the above sets out clearly our position as the applicants in this case.
And then they’ve attached both your letter to Aslam and then your letter to Rehena as evidence.
It’s one thing, as a reporter, to have a read on a situation, to have theories.
It’s another to have such an unambiguous take, and to spell it out in writing and send it around to people.
Others could do exactly what the TAs were doing, brandish what Hamza had written to try and discredit our work.
It could cause people to distrust our reporting.
Plus, we hadn’t even asked Rizvana Darr for an interview yet.
She’s obviously one of the key people we were reporting on, and I was hopeful she might talk to Hamza and me.
But this letter, this was likely Rizvana Darr’s introduction to us, Hamza writing that he never believed her.
Dude, I wish you hadn’t wrote this this way.
I’ve got to be honest.
Yeah, I know.
I don’t even know what to do now.
I’m genuinely, genuinely so sorry for writing that, mate.
Clearly I was just trying to —
I was going too strong just to get him on our side, you know?
It wasn’t what I thought would be, like, being passed around.
I thought, OK, we’re not going to be able to win him with anything kind of half-assed.
You might as well just kind of go all in.
Listen, I understand why you wrote this.
And this is new for you.
I get it.
It’s your first story.
I’m sorry, man.
I’m just — I don’t–
I fucked up, mate.
I fucked up.
No, I’m not trying to — dude, I’m not —
I’m not trying to shame you into an apology.
Don’t worry about that.
But, I just — like, it’s not a front.
I want to be clear, I’m open to any possibility of the truth here.
I’m the same way.
And I think you are too.
Like, I don’t — I read this, and it doesn’t feel accurate to how you feel.
It’s not just that we have our — as a journalist, we have our opinions but don’t say them, I really try to really be open while letting facts lead me towards conclusions.
It’s not like I have some conclusion and then just don’t say it.
I’m not trying to lecture you, I’m just trying to talk it out.
Are you there?
Yeah, I’m just —
I’ve, you know — I’ve killed it.
Oh, man, can you just — can you just call me back in five minutes or something?
I kind of just need to, just —
I just need to go drink some water or something.
Hey, I’m sorry.
I didn’t mean to —
I feel like I was lecturing you there.
I didn’t mean for it to come off that way.
I’m really sorry.
No, that’s right.
Listen, you got nothing to apologize for in this situation.
I have fucked us both up.
It’s my fault. And you know, you’re being surprisingly patient with me, if I’m honest.
If I was — trust me, I would not be this diplomatic with you if that was you who’d done that.
Man, whatever, I’ll own those words.
I will own those words, you know?
What do you mean own them?
Do you believe them?
Like, are they true?
Well, OK, here’s —
let me just be Frank here, OK?
What’s that list again?
Who am I saying that I don’t believe?
You never believed in the official narrative regarding the Trojan Horse.
That seems fair.
Which I don’t.
I never believed the letter was authentic.
Take that one.
You never believed Tahir Alam was masterminding the sinister Islamic plot.
I never believed Birmingham City Council.
I still don’t.
I never believed Peter Clarke.
I never believed Michael Gove.
I never believed Rizvana Darr.
I feel like what you have there is, like, the reality of just a human being.
You have my mindset as a person of what I thought this incident was, and you have my approach as a journalist of the way I’m pursuing it.
As a journalist, as I begin with, like, a hunch, like an instinct, based on things that I’ve researched —
That doesn’t mean that when facts suggest otherwise I remain stubborn and I just stick to my original premise.
There’s a reason this story isn’t broadcast yet.
I understand what you’re saying, but it also —
the wording is I never believed, you know?
Yeah, never is a strong word, I know.
I am not defending my language, nor the fact that I wrote that, or anything along that lines.
It just poisons everything.
It poisons everything.
Because now it’s not in the hands of impartial journalists, now it’s in the hands of, like, a biased mob.
God, I just wish we’d —
I’d worked with Hamza long enough to know that what he was telling me was true.
Sure, he had suspicions, but he was working hard to uncover facts and following the facts where they led.
I was frustrated that he’d written this breathless letter that didn’t properly capture the work I knew we were doing.
But what I realize now, listening back to this call, with all my sorry man’s and my discomfort, is that I was in the middle of a change, in how I understand my work.
There was a way I’d gone about my job for years that I’d begun to doubt without really admitting it to myself.
This change crystallized for me after our next leg of reporting, when we teased apart the government’s investigations into Birmingham schools.
We dove into those investigations and the reports they produced, because for a year and a half Hamza and I had been hearing that there wasn’t any value in focusing on the Trojan Horse letter, on its source or its purpose.
The letter, people would say, whatever its unknowns or factual errors, didn’t matter anymore, because all of the subsequent investigations had found that something troubling was happening in Birmingham schools.
The most damning investigation was also the most prominent one.
Conducted on behalf of the National Department for Education, by the former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, Peter Clarke.
And once we delved into Peter Clarke’s report, that’s when it really set in for me, what Hamza is up against, as a journalist covering this story and as a person.
From Serial Productions and The New York Times, I’m Brian Reed.
And I’m a pain in the ass.
This is The Trojan Horse Affair.
As I’d made inconveniently clear in my letter to Aslam, which now filed away in the Midlands West Employment Tribunal, I was skeptical of Clarke, but I wasn’t alone in that.
The decision by the Department of Education to appoint the former head of counterterrorism was described as desperately unfortunate by the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police.
It’s a concern that the choice of this former terrorism official to investigate —
Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was the one who chose Peter Clarke to run the Trojan Horse investigation.
And people started grousing the moment Gove appointed him.
The issues in Birmingham schools seemed to be about school procedures, curriculum, hiring, religious practice.
Clarke was known for executing high profile terror stings.
Why would you need someone with that background for this investigation?
ARCHIVED RECORDING (MICHAEL GOVE)
— counter-terrorism, we’re dealing with allegations here, we’re not dealing with al-Qaeda, who’ve had a number of…
But Gove sent Peter Clarke to Birmingham anyway.
ARCHIVED RECORDING (MICHAEL GOVE)
If people have been unfairly alleged to have taken part in activities of which they’re entirely innocent, then there can be no more effective figure to exonerate them of those charges than Peter Clarke.
For three months, Clarke posted up in my city.
He and a team of D of E officials conducted 43 interviews, many on condition of anonymity, with staff connected to schools in East Birmingham and others.
And at the end of it, he published his report.
His conclusion was this, that there had been, quote, “coordinated, deliberate, and sustained action carried out by a number of associated individuals to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham,” and that these people in positions of influence, quote,
“espouse, endorse, or fail to challenge extremist views.”
Clarke writes that he conducted his investigation in an atmosphere where there was a great deal of rumor, speculation, and unevidenced assertion.
And so, quote, “I’ve treated the entire investigation as an exercise in fact finding and establishing a sound, verifiable, and whenever possible, fully corroborated evidence base.”
When I read Peter Clarke’s report for the first time, though, I was not seeing a fully corroborated evidence base.
Far from it.
For instance, let’s look at Park View School, to which Clarke devotes a lot of attention in his report.
In one chapter, he includes a bullet point list of allegations about Park View.
And at the very top of the list, the first item.
Peter Clarke speaks about a terrorist video in the school.
Terrorist video in the school.
This is Tahir Alam, Park View’s former chair of Governors.
When we asked him about Peter Clarke’s investigation, he remembered this video thing immediately.
It’s one of Clarke’s most incendiary findings from any school.
Quote, “IT technicians recording what appeared to be al-Qaeda terrorist videos into a DVD format.”
Now, what impression do you get from that?
In a school, should there be terrorist videos?
The answer is no.
So the school’s done something wrong, haven’t they?
Now, what information did Peter Clarke have from the people in the school?
That particular video was brought in by somebody who was working for the police.
According to Tahir, someone doing an anti-crime program for the cops had noticed that the school had a DVD burner and asked if they could use it.
And the video they were copying —
The terrorist video happens to be a Panorama program.
You know that show.
It was no terrorist video, it was a documentary done by the BBC Panorama program about, maybe, Afghanistan.
Tahir says Park View shared this explanation with Peter Clarke and his investigation team.
In fact, they shared a lot of mitigating and controverting evidence for the claims people were levying against them.
Yet Peter Clarke includes little reference to that information in the report, beyond one line saying, quote, “It is only fair to point out that Park View had disputed most, if not all, of the allegations.”
Today, if you go on the government’s website, you’ll see the terrorist video still leads the list of claims about Park View, even though the Department of Education later wrote an internal memo that we’ve seen, admitting they can find no proof to back it up.
I wanted to evaluate the other claims in Peter Clarke’s report.
I knew that a year or so after a report came out many of the allegations had been interrogated, in public hearings, at what was known as the National College for Teaching and Leadership, when the government tried to ban a number of the Park View staff from the teaching profession.
During those hearings, Park View leaders and their lawyers had the opportunity to put forward their side of the story and cross-examine, not Peter Clarke himself, who didn’t testify in the hearing, and also declined to speak to us,
but the DFE officials who investigated Park View with him and Clarke sources from inside the school.
So I got the transcript of the hearing against Park View senior leadership team.
It was thousands of pages and took a whole summer to slog through.
I’m going to take the next 2,000 hours to walk you through each allegation.
I’m kidding, sort of.
I am going to take you through a bunch of the Clarke allegations, ones the government focused on in their case against the teachers, because it’s the only way, I can think of, to fully convey the sinkholes in Clarke’s investigation, and why I don’t think anyone
should be basing their understanding of The Trojan Horse Affair on this report.
A number of the claims in Clarke’s report we’ve discussed already as part of our interview with Sue and Steve Packer.
Peter Clarke reports on the sex education class, the tennis lesson, the lack of promotion and opportunity for women, but there are a lot more.
For one, Clarke writes that Park View student prefects, our version of hall monitors, were trained, according to some staff, to operate as morality police, that they would provide the headteacher with the names of pupils who, say, had a boyfriend or a girlfriend,
or if a girl who wasn’t sufficiently covered.
At the disciplinary hearing a year later, the government was unable to put forward any student who remembers this.
They actually put forward no students to testify against the school at all.
The testimony the government did provide to support this claim was from one Park View teacher who said on the stand that she believed student prrefects were monitoring the school as religious police, because she saw kids in detention and didn’t know why they were there.
And another teacher told her, it was because they were in a relationship.
The school denied that was the reason students were being detentioned, but regardless, this teacher doesn’t explain how she got the idea that it was student prefects who had snitched on their classmates.
Meanwhile, a number of other teachers testified that they never heard about prefects acting as a morality squad.
And a former prefect took to the stand to say, they weren’t asked to do anything like that.
There’s a lot in the Clarke report about the assemblies of Park View school being anti-American, or anti-Christian, or anti-Israeli, with indoctrination of students going on.
But at the hearing, from what I gathered reading the transcript, and this was confirmed by a lawyer involved with the case, most of the staff who made claims about the nature of assemblies admitted they’d never been to an assembly at the school.
Sue Packer was one.
Sue testified the school assemblies were only ever led by men.
And when confronted by a lawyer with the names of women on staff who’d hosted assemblies at school, Sue said her statement about it only being men was based on her, quote, “belief that that was the case.”
One teacher who testified had attended assemblies.
He said during one of them Park Views acting head teacher, Maz Hussain, told children that, quote, “the answer to everything is iqra”” which he found concerning because, while iqra does mean read, or seeking knowledge, in Arabic, it’s a religious term from the Koran.
And this teacher felt uncomfortable with that.
He also testified that he didn’t agree that iqra is the answer to everything.
Peter Clarke wrote that some East Birmingham schools had, for religious reasons, prevented students from hearing musical instruments and from singing.
At the disciplinary hearing, a DFE investigator admitted that he hadn’t checked inside the cupboard in Park View’s music room, where the music teacher says the instruments were kept.
School staff spoke of Park View students singing at assemblies, of children being on stage with Roger Waters, the bassist of Pink Floyd.
Clarke also writes that he found financial mismanagement at Park View school.
One of his fellow investigators from the DFE stated at the hearing that they found no such thing.
This is the problem with the Clarke report.
He provides no clear sourcing or verification for the vast majority of his allegations.
There are scant facts, or figures, or footnotes, or context, which is not, by the way, Peter Clarke’s normal style.
After The Trojan Horse Affair, he went on to become England’s prison inspector.
And in the reports he produced for that job, he’s way more transparent about his work and how his findings are corroborated.
The prison reports are annotated, full of statistics, whereas in his Trojan Horse report, you kind of have to take his word for it.
Even claims that were based on something that did occur, there was often more to the story than what Clarke reported.
For example, Clarke writes that there were attempts to stop Christmas celebrations at Park View.
It’s true that to Tahir Alam and others believed that some parents would object to their kids participating in certain Christmas activities, such as playing a Christian figure in a nativity play.
The student body was around 97% Muslim.
But what’s missing from Clarke’s report is that the school did put up Christmas trees, held a Christmas assembly, where a pastor spoke about the holiday, organized a Christmas music concert.
At the hearing, Steve Packer, who seemed most concerned about Christmas, testified that all this was true, though he said there weren’t Christmas songs sung at the Christmas concert.
Clarke also writes that Park View did not have a procedure for vetting external speakers invited to the school, which leadership acknowledged.
Peter Clarke returned several times to this one imam who visited from Australia, who despite the fact that the Australian government has called him a widely respected Islamic figure in the country, and a moderating influence on Muslim youth, Clarke says has a history of extolling extremist views.
The imam’s name is Sheik Shady Al-Suleiman.
And the specific quote Clarke references, from an old sermon of Sheikh Shady’s, was actually read into the record of the House of Commons by Michael Gove.
ARCHIVED RECORDING (MICHAEL GOVE)
The school invited the preacher, Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman to speak, despite the fact that he is reported to have said, “Give victory to Muslims in Afghanistan, give victory to all the mujahideen all over the world.
Oh, Allah, prepare us for the jihad.”
I know Gove was reciting those words from Sheik Shady’s old sermon as if they’re scary, but at least, from my experience, that’s a pretty generic sounding sign off for Friday prayers.
And we’ve read a lengthy dossier the home office prepared about Sheikh Shady after Peter Clarke’s investigation, in which officials agree.
They write, quote, “This rhetoric is likely to be heard from imams and mosques around the UK and overseas, when they make specific prayers for people affected by wars and other calamities.”
These words are, quote, “used in a very Common Prayer uttered by Muslims everywhere.”
Peter Clarke’s overarching allegation, the big charge that all these are the claims fed into, was that there was too much Islamic influence at Park View and other schools, that they’d become faith schools, as he puts it, in all but name.
But it’s totally unclear from Clarke’s report what standards or benchmarks are used to make that assessment.
The Department of Education provides pretty clear direction as to how schools should incorporate religious education and collective worship, none of which is referenced in the Clarke report.
And that may be because of a stunning revelation made during the hearing.
Clarke’s lead educational advisor, the person from the Department of Education who is supposed to lend expertise about school regulation and management to the inquiry, admitted under cross-examination that she had never read nor provided Peter Clarke any of her own department’s guidance
on religious accommodation in British schools.
If she had, Clarke might have had to explain in his report how Park View had run afoul of the requirement.
The school should, quote, “Aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider spiritual and moral issues, and to explore their own beliefs.”
Instead, Clarke’s argument that there’s undue Islamic influence in the schools, or Islamic influence of the wrong kind, is untethered to the statutory guidelines, a broad, free floating, subjective critique.
It’s basically an opinion that there’s too much Islam.
Peter Clarke marshalls this menagerie of allegations, some true, some kind of true, some that turned out not to be true, to lay out a wider story about East Birmingham schools, a narrative which he interweaves through the allegations that I’d summarize something like this.
A lot of these schools were doing pretty well, until a bunch of Muslim governors came in and started agitating for changes in line with an extreme Islamic worldview.
Their methods and motives were improper.
They started taking control at a bunch of schools.
And because the complaints and outcomes repeat from school to school, that means these aren’t isolated incidents, they’re connected.
The school at the epicenter of all this Islamization is Park View.
The person at the epicenter of Park View is Tahir Alam.
Tahir, he’s the main villain in Clarke’s report, which is not my phrase, by the way.
As officials with the DFEs Counter-Extremism unit were working with Peter Clarke to put the finishing touches on his report, one of them sent an email we’ve seen which refers to Tahir, and three other Muslim men who worked with them as governors, as their, quote, “main villains.”
You will see Clarke published a spider diagram on me.
We actually have that printed out.
We wanted to show it to you and get your take on it.
Yeah, I don’t deny any of it.
After the list with the terrorist video, turn the page and you’ll see a tiny 90s clip art image of a man, who looks white, by the way, labeled Tahir Alam.
There are lines emanating from him in all directions, like a web, crisscrossing and connecting between Tahir and icons of schools, and office buildings, and other White looking clip art educators with Pakistani names, all individuals and organizations that Tahir was associated with.
This is painted as some kind of network, but these are things that I’m very proud of.
It says here, for example, he worked for Birmingham City council as a governor trainer.
He’s a vice chair of the Association of Muslim schools.
How bad is that?
And Birmingham governor’s network associate.
I was a member of the Birmingham governor’s network for many years, contributing to improving governance across the city.
So obviously, that’s not, maybe, good either.
Let’s go through it.
There’s only a few more left.
More than a few, but Tahir insisted on finishing them.
He was a member of the local multi-faith organization, SACRE.
He’d been the chair of education for the Muslim Council of Britain, a big national organization.
He was a trustee at the Birmingham Central Mosque.
So Peter Clarke, with his tons of experience as a terror expert, you know, hunting extremists and terrorists down around the country, he’s produced this.
It’s basically your CV.
It is taken from my CV.
Tahir had provided his resume in an application to the DFE some years before, which had this information on it.
I submitted all of this.
They made it into a spider diagram, using it against me.
It’s amazing when you take all the things that would, in a CV, be arranged like a resume, and arrange them in a spider diagram —
It gives a different impression.
–in a government report by a police officer, by a counterterror official.
It just has a whole different vibe.
Yeah, that’s right.
It’s being crafted to give a certain image.
And the spider diagram is supposed to give an impression, as if I’m some kind of criminal who has infiltrated all these different organizations.
This is supposed to serve the idea of the Trojan Horse.
This is giving a reality to the Trojan Horse.
There’s a critical fact about Tahir in Park View that Peter Clarke left out of his report, a fact that, if he had included it, could have thoroughly undercut his entire narrative.
Park View and Tahir Alam were taking over other East Birmingham schools, because they’ve been asked to by the Department for Education.
Park View was considered this huge success, and there were two other schools nearby that really needed help.
And so the whole takeover was authorized and set in motion by the DFE through a program that Michael Gove himself was championing, The Academies Program.
Amazingly, Peter Clarke never explains this.
So you’d be forgiven if you came away from reading his report with the idea that Muslim governors were making these moves illegitimately, if you thought they were scheming under the radar.
Omissions like this, along with all the allegations printed without context or rebuttal, the spider diagrams, it all contributes to a strong impression that Peter Clarke did uncover a plot in Birmingham.
But when you read the report closely, this is another confounding thing about it, Clarke never actually says whether he found a plot or not.
He does write, quote, “The key question is whether what has happened has been an organized plot, as described in the Trojan Horse letter.”
But then he never explicitly answers that question yes or no.
This obfuscation, which is at the very heart of the report’s findings, led to a telling moment as Peter Clarke was testifying in the House of Commons about The Trojan Horse Affair, when a member of parliament said to him.
Can I just ask Mr. Clarke first, in relation to some of the evidence that you produced to demonstrate that there was a plot, and in particular —
Apparently, this MP read the report and took away from it, plot.
Clarke had to correct him, tells him, I haven’t actually said that.
I haven’t said I found a plot.
— the coordinated, concerted action.
Yes, plot, to me, means something slightly different —
The MP pauses for a moment, then asks.
How is that of interest?
How is that different from concerted action?
Well, you can have a continuum.
At one end, there’s a lot of spontaneous things just happen, at the other end you’ve got a group of people, perhaps in a darkened room, sitting around a candle, deciding to do something in a very furtive way.
Somewhere between them, you’ll have people, as I believe we have here, who, with a common mindset, common objectives, known to each other, worked in the same organizations, had worked in the same profession, have shared the objectives
and set about achieving those objectives using a set of tactics which are remarkably similar every time they emerge, and remarkably similar as it happens —
Peter Clarke’s report, rather than clarifying that the Trojan Horse letter was a fake, the plot unevidenced, spun a web of legitimacy around both.
To take my cue from Peter Clarke, I want to share some concerns I have about some people with a common mindset who know each other, have worked in the same organizations, had common objectives, and set about achieving those objectives.
Two people who fit that description are Peter Clarke and the man who appointed him, former Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Those two have known each other for many years, mainly through Peter Clarke’s affiliations with think tanks that Michael Gove helped establish, which could form their own spider diagram, honestly.
These think tanks, and the politicians, and journalists, and officials who are part of them, have long advocated a view that ultimately made its way into the conservative government’s policy agenda, that in order to prevent terrorism, authorities have to target so-called non-violent extremists.
Michael Gove has been pushing the strategy for years.
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In the past, there was an attempt to say that the only way in which we could deal with this problem is if we dealt with extremism when it became violent, and we waited too late.
And I think–
He argues that there’s a pre-violent stage to extremism, during which Muslims get drawn into the ideology of Islamism.
ARCHIVED RECORDING (MICHAEL GOVE)
Islamism is a totalitarian view, like communism, like fascism.
And in that respect, the only way in which one can understand the motivation is if you look at the totalitarian roots of the ideology rather than simply thinking that al-Qaeda are a national liberation movement like other terrorist organizations.
You mentioned the IRA —
The difficulty with this is, what many people see as early signs of extremism, the markers of pre-violence, can be hard to distinguish from the elements of daily life for many Muslims.
Deciding to attend mosque more frequently, dressing traditionally, growing a beard, associating with certain Muslim groups, like the Muslim council of Britain, and having a worldview in which our religion and political opinion are intermingled.
For instance, identifying with Muslims around the world who are being victimized, criticizing Western powers for oppression abroad, or wearing a niqab, which Michael Gove in his book “Celsius 77” characterizes as, quote, “Not so much a mark of Islamic faith
as a badge of allegiance towards Islamist politics.
It marks the wearer apart as one who has become an internal exile.”
Slightly more poetic, I guess, than our current prime minister who called women who cover their faces letterboxes and bank robbers.
Essentially, the concept of pre-violence puts all Muslims on a spectrum in which we’re all capable of sliding towards violence, and so we all need to be kept under surveillance.
This conveyor belt theory of radicalization has been pretty roundly debunked.
Academics, and MI5, and the US Department of Defense, and former CIA agents, have all pointed out that there’s no empirical evidence to support it.
Experts who study radicalization haven’t found a single discernible pathway to terrorism and warned that trying to pin down some sort of pattern or ideology can be counterproductive, because it’s not proven to work, and it can make people feel criminalized and alienated in their own countries.
Still, many of the people who shaped counterterror policy have held on to this theory.
Gove, Clarke, the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, future Prime Minister Theresa May, people in the US, too.
By the time the Trojan Horse had came round, Michael Gove had spent years, and a lot of political currency, investing in this worldview,.
If you read the Clarke report with a theory of pre-violence in mind, suddenly it makes a lot more sense, especially when you consider the most damning evidence in the Clarke report, his smoking gun.
It was a group chat.
That was Peter Clarke’s smoking gun.
We’ve mentioned it before, it was a men-only WhatsApp group that a bunch of Park View staffers were part of called The Park View Brotherhood.
Somebody gave Clarke a transcript of some 3,200 messages from the chat, a year’s worth, and he devotes a whole chapter to them, because, he says, “The messages are proof of the Muslim educator’s collective mindset.”
According to Clarke, most of the messages were mundane, about school events, job postings, ideas for assemblies, but among them were texts that he saw as evidence of the ideology
these men ascribe to, what Clarke called, “An intolerant and politicized form of extreme social conservatism that claims to represent, and ultimately seeks to control, all Muslims.”
The messages he found concerning included an article about pro-european bias in the teaching of world history, a debate about the pros and cons of teaching boys and girls separately, criticism of the British military, an image of the Israeli flag on a roll of toilet paper,
skepticism and theorizing about media reporting on terrorist attacks, and a discussion about possibly having students write letters to the government to protest a far right Islamophobic group as part of their citizenship lessons.
Alongside those, Clarke flagged several really offensive messages, which, if you follow the Trojan Horse inquiries at the time, you probably remember hearing about in the headlines.
These are primarily from one teacher, whom we’ve interviewed for this series, Razwan Faraz In one exchange, Razwan makes a comment about women belonging in the kitchen, serving men.
In another, responding to an article about gay marriage and said, “These animals are going out full force.”
Another time, a teacher posted a link about a shrine in Pakistan being used as a meeting place for gay men.
Several teachers in the chat registered their disapproval, including Razwan who wrote, quote, “The problem of homosexuality is rife in Pakistan.”
These messages are misogynistic and homophobic, and clearly troubling coming from a teacher.
Clarke’s report makes mention of staff for some schools who reported that they had to hide their sexuality.
If true, that’s awful, obviously.
When we asked Razwan about the messages, he told us the kitchen comment was a joke, and that he has since changed his views on homosexuality and become an advocate for gay and transgender rights.
But after Clarke published Razwan comments, a judge found that they went beyond protected religious beliefs and amounted to a breach of professional standards.
Whether and how to talk about sexuality and gender in British schools is still an active controversy.
In 2019, a progressive new sex ed curriculum debuted at a primary school in East Birmingham, and parents lost their minds, protesting in large numbers.
Their opposition included some ugly, homophobic arguments.
Some parents even pulled their kids out of schools.
This isn’t shocking, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Many Muslims who adhere to conservative religious interpretation, Tahir Alam among them, aren’t accepting of LGBTQ people.
The same is true of devout Christians in the UK.
Only 40% of them support gay marriage.
I’m not saying homophobia or sexism doesn’t matter, because we’re not the only ones.
I’m saying, it does matter, because we’re not the only ones.
These problems require good-faith engagement from leaders.
And yet, rather than grapple with the important issues at hand, here’s what our government did in response to these WhatsApp messages and the Clarke report.
Other news now, the government is to fast track a tough, new crackdown on extremism.
It’s a follow up to promises made in the aftermath of The Trojan Horse Affair in Birmingham, and the jailing of extremists such as —
Once Peter Clarke’s report was presented to parliament by the Department for Education, politicians set about using it to make sweeping changes to combat pre-violent extremism, which would have implications far beyond Alum Rock..
Although, as we reported at the time, no evidence of radicalization was ever found, no evidence of violent extremism was ever found, there was no organized plot, but this is about the potential for problems in the future.
So the —
In a speech in Birmingham today, the prime minister compared the threat of extremist Islam to that of Hitler, communism and the IRA.
And in the past, he says–
In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron stood in front of a Birmingham School and invoked The Trojan Horse Affair to lay out the rationale for a robust reimagining of the country’s counter-extremism strategy.
ARCHIVED RECORDING (DAVID CAMERON)
We undertook an immediate review when it became apparent that extremists had taken over some of our schools in the so-called Trojan Horse scandal here in Birmingham.
But I have to be honest here, one year on, although we are making progress, it’s not quick enough.
The think tanks made hay of it.
The home secretary at the time, Theresa May, made her own trip to Birmingham to deliver a Trojan Horse-inspired speech by extremism.
Even the queen got on board, at the request of the Tories, in her own curt way.
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Measures will also be brought forward to promote social cohesion and protect people by tackling extremism.
This all culminated in the government expanding their counter-extremism policy, it’s called Prevent, in a way that we’re still living with it today.
Citing The Trojan Horse Affair, the government mandated that public employees would now be obligated to be on the lookout for people exhibiting the early markers of extremism, or other behavior they find suspicious.
Which means, now in Britain, citizens are informing on each other to the state, based on their own judgment about whether an action or comment is extremist.
Doctors are informing on their patients, workers on their colleagues, teachers on their students.
And the year since The Trojan Horse Affair, we’ve had an 11-year-old referred to the Prevent program, because in response to a question in school about what he would do if he came into a lot of money, said he would give alms to the oppressed, A-L-M-S,
which has misheard as arms to the oppressed.
And a four-year-old was referred for drawing an illustration of his father with a cooker bomb that was later understood to be a cucumber.
We can laugh at all this, except erroneous reports like these can easily follow kids all the way into adulthood, that they were flagged to Prevent.
They remain people of interest.
And these are just the crazy incidents that made the news.
The program has been found by numerous academics and human rights groups to be discriminatory against us.
We’re referred in hugely disproportionate numbers.
As the director of an organization that monitors the program put it not long ago, Prevent injects suspicion and discrimination deep into the imagination of frontline workers, to the detriment of Muslims.
We asked Peter Clarke, Michael Gove, and the Department for Education if they could explain some of the flaws we’ve seen in Peter Clarke’s report.
In return, the DFE sent us a statement saying, “The Trojan horse investigation, led by Peter Clarke, rightly focused on whether the events and behaviors alleged actually happened, and the findings have subsequently been confirmed by a number of independent reports,” end quote.
Just for a minute, a word about those other independent reports.
One the DFE mentioned, by the Education Funding Agency, was not independent of Clarke’s.
The Education Funding Agency was part of the DFE, and some of the same people who conducted that inquiry were also part of Peter Clarke’s team, even drafted whole chapters of his report.
Another investigation the DFE cited was by Ofsted, the school inspectors who had downgraded Park View from the agency’s highest ranking to the absolute lowest.
A downgrade that dramatic is nearly unheard of.
Ofsted said it was because the school wasn’t doing enough to prevent the possibility of extremism.
But a lot of people, including prominent education experts, claimed Ofsted had succumbed to political pressure.
Ofsted’s chief inspector was even dragged in front of parliament and grilled about it.
And lastly, the DFE mentioned Birmingham City Council’s Trojan Horse investigation by Ian Kershaw.
Kershaw collaborated closely with Peter Clarke too.
They did joint interviews, shared evidence.
And while he did determine that some governors had overstepped in pushing for academic and religious changes at their schools, unlike Clarke, he did not allege a sinister ideological threat.
When we interviewed Kershaw, he really minimized the whole affair, telling us, quote, “One should not overblow the Trojan Horse.
Some people say scandal, it wasn’t big enough to be a scandal,” end quote.
One of the recommendations Peter Clarke made at the end of his investigation was that the Department for Education should consider taking action against teachers who might have breached professional standards.
The DFE did.
It restricted or outright suspended more than a dozen teachers, mostly from Park View, with the charge that they had agreed to the inclusion at the school of a, quote, “undue amount of religious influence.”
And the department started holding those disciplinary hearings to determine if the teachers should be permanently banned.
As we mentioned, the most prominent of the cases was against five of Park View’s leaders, people who had been head teachers, and assistant heads, and the like.
Though not Tahir Alam, because he was a volunteer governor, not a teacher.
He was just banned outright, and when he appealed, he lost.
This hearing, it was the first time the Park View teachers would get a chance to try to formally clear their names.
Arshad Hussain was one of them.
The initial set of dates, I think the hearings were three months. Ended up going on for two and a half years.
They’re making it up as they go along.
During this time, Arshad and his colleagues, two of whom, interestingly enough, aren’t Muslim, which let themselves to a drab building in Coventry, where the government would argue that they weren’t fit to work in schools.
You can’t teach.
Your hearings are scattered across the two years, so you’ve got a day here, day there.
It was just horrendous.
By this point, the charge against Arshad and his colleagues have been watered down significantly from when the Trojan Horse allegations first emerged.
As the government’s attorney said in his opening statement, “Despite what you may have read or heard, this case is not, and I cannot stress this enough, this case is not about an evil plot to indoctrinate young children in extremist ideologies or anything like it.”
He said the Department for Education was not suggesting that the educators were, quote, “malicious or ill-willed.”
It was not suggesting that Park View hadn’t had great success.
What the government was arguing, the attorney said, was that the teachers had failed to respect diversity by going, quote, “Too far in inculcating their own vision of the cultural identity they wish these children to have.”
An all-White panel sat and listened to all-White lawyers argue about this until the case finally concluded in May of 2017, three and a half years after the Trojan Horse letter arrived on Sir Albert Bore’s desk.
This essentially marked the end of The Trojan Horse Affair, and the end was its own magnificent, enraging shambles.
It was the final hour.
The disciplinary panel was drafting its decision, and there had been this back and forth that had been going on since the beginning of the proceedings about the transcripts of interviews that Peter Clarke’s team had conducted with witnesses from Park View school.
The Park View teachers had asked for these transcripts repeatedly.
They had a right to see them.
And the whole time, the Department for Education’s lawyers had said they didn’t have them, that they weren’t relying on those interview transcripts to argue their case.
But that wasn’t true.
It emerged at the very last minute that the DFE did have them, and they had used them to mount their case.
The whole time, years, the government’s lawyers have been deliberately withholding crucial evidence from the Park View teachers, their legal teams, and the panel.
The government had been sitting on at least 1,600 pages of documents, including the Clarke transcripts.
When the disciplinary panel learned this, on the eve of reading its decision, the panelists demanded that the senior solicitor for the government’s legal team appear in front of them and explain herself, explain how she’d let this happen.
But she didn’t show.
She said she had a partner’s meeting for her law firm that she couldn’t miss.
And so the panelists discontinued the case.
They issued no findings.
They were in a new decision which said of the DFE lawyer’s actions, quote, “There has been an abuse of the process, which is of such seriousness that it offends the panel’s sense of justice and propriety.
What has happened has brought the integrity of the process into disrepute.”
I mean, the whole thing is a blur.
Arshad Hussain remembers sitting in the hearing room as the panel read its decision.
As they started pushing in that direction, the abuse of process, and hearing is going to be dropped, I started literally getting flashes in front of my eyes thinking, this has happened because somebody has withheld evidence.
The solicitor had withheld the evidence, and she couldn’t come to the hearing, because she was on a flight that evening, conveniently.
And she couldn’t come and answer the questions, whereas we’d been answering questions for two years.
She just wasn’t up to — available to answer the questions and explain why this happened, you know, why she’d done that.
You’ve messed how many people’s lives up, and you just can’t bother to show up.
I don’t know, my mind, just —
I don’t know, it just went —
I just couldn’t cope with it, that somebody had decided to do that, for this amount of time, and yet I’m the one sitting here just sort of broke down, I think.
It just felt like, when you step on a beetle on the street, or you step on an insect, and there’s no consequence, there’s no feeling of, oh, what have I done.
It’s just, yep, that’s just part of what it is.
We’ve trampled on these people.
Yeah, OK, they’ll get through it.
Yeah, we haven’t won this one, but let’s just carry on.
Eventually, every teacher’s case in The Trojan Horse Affair, except for one, who was not from Park View, was thrown out because of the government’s lawyer’s misconduct, and their unwillingness to share the underlying material from Peter Clarke’s investigation.
After all the drama, the headlines, the investigations, the parliamentary hearings, the banning orders, the million plus pounds spent prosecuting teachers, the new Prevent requirements compelling people to surveil each other, the commandeering of schools in East Birmingham
and worsening academic outcomes for students, that was how The Trojan Horse Affair ended.
It was officially resolution-less.
Park Views teachers weren’t banned, but nor were they vindicated.
So that’s what I saw when we finally turned to Peter Clarke’s report.
This investigative document that became the most common response by officials to questions about the Trojan Horse letter, to not worry about whether the letter was a hoax or not, or where it came from, because Peter Clarke produced a far more reliable document.
Well, it turns out that wasn’t true either.
The Clarke report was also, in its own ways, bogus.
After I internalized that conclusion, I experienced a level of dejection that was hard for me to understand.
After all, this is what I believed to be true when I began the story, that the Trojan horse was much ado about nothing.
And yet the work of reporting on the Clarke report, a.k.a.
Britain’s official narrative of the case, was emptying.
Sitting there surrounded by documents, I struggled to imagine what other group of people you could do this to in Britain and get away with it.
Trying to come to terms with how worthless people must think we are, that they’ll be comfortable assembling an official report riddled with errors and mistruths, submitting it to parliament, sharing it with prominent journalist to write articles about, all with no expectation
that people wouldn’t believe them.
More, far from repercussions, a number of Clarke’s team, including Clarke, were promoted after the publication of his inquiry into the Trojan horse.
And then there’s a process by which I’d arrived at this point, that being journalism, a field in which was made absolutely clear to me when my Aslam letter surfaced.
I’m obligated to keep an open mind, to be fair with the likes of Peter Clarke and Michael Gove, to consider their perspective, try to understand the choices they made, and even if I’m going to come at them critically, to rein in my tone and words
so it doesn’t feel like I’m just out to get them in some way.
It did not seem like that kind of respect was mutual.
I’ve always known that reporting this story is a much different experience for Hamza than it is for me.
Ever since the beginning, when we burst out of Council House after our first interview with Albert Bore.
What the fuck was concerning?
Tell me what’s concerning, mate.
This became the subject of an ongoing discussion between the two of us about how you’re supposed to do this work.
We go through this step by step, kind of side by side, but you are just, like, unflappable.
Hamza perpetually bewildered as to how I was able to take the things we were encountering and learning in stride the way I do.
I’m not going to lie to you, I do think about you sometimes, and I do wonder how you’re wired.
Sometimes I wake up and I think, I should be like that, and that’s how I need to be in order for me to do well in this field.
And me, constantly struggling to explain me and my motivation.
What are you doing here in Birmingham?
I don’t know.
You’re asking me to be introspective in a way that’s difficult.
But by the time we were waiting through the Clarke investigation the tenor of our debate had changed.
I noticed Hamza becoming increasingly bitter about being a journalist, and he started to talk more about how maybe this new field he’d entered wasn’t right for him.
Something about the job felt unnatural.
And he told me he was thinking he might not keep doing it after this series came out, which was dispiriting for me, because sure, Hamza had done a couple of things during investigation that seemed to me ill-advised, but he’s a good journalist, dogged, sharp, intuitive, original.
He seemed as well-suited as anybody for this job.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize Hamza and I were experiencing differently, working alongside each other on this story for so long, the Trojan Horse.
And I don’t mean the Trojan Horse letter, or The Trojan Horse Affair, I mean the idea of the Trojan Horse, this idea which infected every aspect of the events we were investigating, the idea that Muslims, who are participating in civic life in the West,
are, in actuality, using Western Democratic systems duplicitously, as a vessel to sneak into societies and countries that are not really their own so they can subvert them.
That phrase, Trojan Horse, in reference to Muslims, it’s not taboo, it’s perfectly acceptable to use it in the name of official reports submitted to parliament, or as Michael Gove did in “Celsius 7/7,” as the title of a chapter in your book about the Muslim threat, or in the name of your podcast.
It’s acceptable to use it in your campaign for president of the United States.
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This could be the great Trojan Horse of all time, because you look at the migration, study it, look at it.
Now they’ll start infiltrating with women and children.
Donald Trump used the Trojan Horse metaphor to speak about Muslims over and over in his run for president.
It was part of his stump speech.
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Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who probably, in many cases, not probably, who are definitely, in many cases, ISIS-aligned, and we now have them in our country.
And wait till you see, this is going to be the great Trojan Horse.
This trope of Muslims as a Trojan Horse, it’s a racist lie, one that strikes me as not dissimilar in its potency and danger to, for instance, the anti-Semitic lie about a cabal of Jews nefariously controlling Western institutions.
That lie, it’s worth noting, was also proliferated by a hoax document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The canard that Muslims are surreptitiously infiltrating Western countries also shows up in some scary places, white supremacist literature about the so-called replacement theory.
white supremacist terrorists, like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, or the man who massacred 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand, they both wrote at length about the threat of Muslims as invaders.
In the last few years, governments around the world have drawn on these same bigoted views to justify assaults on Muslims, the Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar the terrible treatment of Muslims in India,
which seems to be getting worse, the US banning immigration from many majority Muslim countries.
People are carrying this trauma around.
Late last year, a relatively new Muslim member of parliament, Zarah Sultana, gave a heartbreaking speech about what her time in British politics had been like.
ARCHIVED RECORDING (ZARAH SULTANA)
Before being elected, I was nervous about being a Muslim woman in the public eye.
Growing up, I had seen the abuse prominent British Muslims were subject to.
I knew I wouldn’t be in for an easy ride.
When young Muslim girls asked me what it’s like, I’d like to say there’s nothing to worry about, that they would face the same challenges as their non-Muslim friends and colleagues, but Madam Chair, in truth, I can’t say that, because in my short time in parliament, that’s not my experience.
So let me read out a few examples.
One person, for example, wrote to me, and I quote, “Sultana, you and your Muslim mob are a real danger to humanity.”
Another wrote, I’m a cancer everywhere I go.
And soon, they said, Europe will vomit you out.
I have discovered that, to be a Muslim woman, to be outspoken, and to be left wing, is to be subject to this barrage of racism and hate, it’s to be treated by some as if I were an enemy of the country that I was born in, as if I don’t belong.
Madam Chair, this Islamophobia doesn’t come from a vacuum, it’s not natural or ingrained, it’s taught from the very top.
These fires are fanned by people in positions of power and privilege.
Today, our prime minister mocks Muslims as letterboxes, and bank robbers, and far from scrapping for rent, earlier this year his government announced who would lead a review of the program, William Shawcross, a man who once said, and I quote,
“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”
Islamophobia is very real in Britain today.
This is what Hamza was facing that I wasn’t.
And thinking about Hamza’s approach and reactions to our investigation this way, his outspokenness, his anger, his urgency, his sometimes crazed feeling that, no matter what we tried in our reporting, it was never enough, it makes every kind of sense.
We have to stop holding back, mate.
We have to stop holding back.
Every single opportunity we have to go hard, we pull back, we pull back, we pull back.
So I don’t care if you think I’m rude.
I don’t care if you think I’m a dickhead.
I want you to know —
And it makes every kind of sense why this journalistic process, which the way I’d learned it, encourages a detached standpoint, gives space for all relative sides to weigh in and give their perspectives, would, in this instance, with this story, repulse Hamza.
I’m absolutely sick of this.
Mate, we’ve always been nice, we’ve always been nice.
Because what if the dominant perspective in a story is one that’s enmeshed with a racism against you?
At some point, we’ve got to —
I am with you.
But also, remember, we are in a long game.
I’m not listening, man.
I’m not listening.
I have never let myself just be shat on the way I have for a year and a half, never, never.
Fucking sit there and take it because I’m a journalist?
Fuck this title.
Seriously, I’ll throw this title in the fucking river if it means I can’t just be myself.
If I think back to the reasons I got into journalism, if you asked me back then why I was drawn to it, I would have told you, I like stories, I want to learn the craft, I’m interested in people.
I do distrust authority, I want to hold them accountable.
Making a change in the world would have been in there, but not at the top of the list.
But Hamza has been clear from the get-go about his reason for getting into this work.
In fact, aside from that unfortunate paragraph in his letter to Aslam, in which Hamza lists all the people he never believed, most of what he wrote in that letter amounts to a moving mission statement.
“If you believe journalism is an evil organ, capable of causing great damage,” Hamza wrote, “then by default, you believe that same organ can reach as many people to cause great change.
That’s the concept I’ve decided to dedicate my life to.”
He would pursue this work, he wrote, “as a Muslim first and foremost, and as a journalist second.”
Next on The Trojan Horse Affair, officials tell us we’ve gotten the story all wrong, so wrong they threatened to go to a judge to gag us from talking to you about it.
And we realized, actually, we did miss something.
That’s coming up in “The Detail of the Deputies.”
The Trojan Horse Affair is produced by Brian Reed and me, along with Rebecca Laks.
The show is edited by Sarah Koenig.
Additional editing by Ira Glass and by contributing editor Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi.
Fact-checking and research by Marika Cronnolly and Ben Phelan.
Original score by Thomas Mellor with additional music by Matt McGinley and Steven Jackson.
Sound design, mixing and music supervision by Steven Jackson and Phil Dmochowski at the Audio Non-visual Company.
Julie Snyder is our executive editor.
Neil Drumming is managing editor.
Supervising producer is Ndeye Thioubou.
Executive assistant is Alberto DeLeon.
Sam Dolnick is an assistant managing editor of The New York Times.
Audio was licensed by BBC Motion Gallery, Getty Images, and Lola Clips ITV Archive.
Special thanks to Fahid Qurashi, Faiza Patel, Shawkat Toorawa, Andrew Faux, Frank Langfitt, Clemency Wells, Dan Dolan and Sam Johnston Hawke from Reprieve, Al Ryan, Layla Aitlhadj and Paul Ruest
Some books and articles we’ve found really helpful that we want to mention: John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole’s “Countering Extremism in British Schools,” as well as “Against White Feminism” by Rafia Zakaria; “The Muslim Problem: Why We’re Wrong About Islam and Why It Matters” by Tawseef Khan; “Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry,” by Owen Bennett; “It’s Not About The Burqa,” edited by Mariam Khan; Shamim Miah’s “Muslims, Schooling and Security: Trojan Horse, Prevent and Racial Politics,” and Samira Shackle’s piece in the Guardian, “Trojan Horse: the real story behind the fake ‘Islamic plot’ to take over schools”. Also: “British Pakistani Boys, Education, and the role of religion – In the Land of the Trojan Horse” by Karamat Iqbal,James Fergusson’s “Al-Brittannia,” “My Country; Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent” by Innes Bowen; and “Cut From the Same Cloth,” edited by Sabeena Akhtar.
The Trojan Horse Affair was made by Serial Productions and The New York Times.