In 2014, a series of allegations surfaced about schools in Birmingham. The central claim was that a group of Muslim men had conspired to take over governing bodies in order to “Islamise” schools. The story quickly became a national – even international – scandal. The media descended on a small corner of Birmingham, and the ripple effect went up to the highest levels of government.
Yet three years later, there is still no evidence that there was a conspiracy. So what happened? I spent over a year working on a piece for the Guardian’s Long Read section, investigating events at Park View – the school at the centre of the scandal – and schools affiliated to it. I spoke to former teachers, students, politicians and council workers to try and build up a picture of what happened and what went wrong in the handling of it.
Three years on, the Trojan horse affair remains perhaps the best known and most polarising story about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. For many, the story has come to symbolise the failures of multiculturalism and the threat that hardline Islamic ideology poses to the future of the country. It was mentioned in the 2017 Ukip manifesto, and it is rare for a month to go by without some reference to the scandal in the rightwing press. (Several reports this year in the Telegraph and the Times have warned of a “new Trojan horse plot” in different parts of Britain.) For others, it is a confected scandal promoted by rightwing newspapers, the product of a climate in which all British Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and complex questions about faith and integration are reduced by politicians and the media to hysterical debates about terrorism.
You can read the full story over at the Guardian, and the clipping is below. (I also wrote about the Trojan Horse affair at the time, in this 2014 article for the New Humanist)
In August, it was reported that Kadiza Sultana, one of three teenagers who had left their homes in Bethnal Green to go to Syria, had been killed in an airstrike. The three girls had become one of the best known cases of young Brits travelling to join ISIS, their photographs published on the front of every newspaper. In this report for the New Statesman, I spoke to the family lawyer and people from local communities about what happened, and interviewed experts about why young women might decide to make this journey at all.
In Syria, out of the glare of the world’s media, Sultana soon regretted her decision to join Isis. Her husband, an American fighter of Somali origin, was killed in late 2015. She was scared. “She simply did not feel safe or comfortable there, she didn’t feel she could trust anyone other than her immediate circle and she didn’t want to stay in that environment any longer,” says Akunjee. Sultana spoke regularly to her eldest sister, Halima Khanom, who is 33 and lives in London. It was difficult for her to convey her fears given the risk of phone calls being monitored by Isis.
The full piece is available at the New Statesman website, and a clipping will follow.
During my latest trip to Pakistan in spring of this year, I traveled around the country and reported on different aspects of extremism. I recently wrote a long feature for the New Humanist (Summer 2016 issue) looking at the country’s notorious network of madrasas (religious seminaries), examining their relationship to terrorism and the reasons why successive attempts at reform have failed.
Mohammed Ishfaq and Naeb Amir, two of the teachers, stepped outside to talk to me. “Things were good before this, but now there are problems teaching and praying here,” said Amir. “The number of students – even boys – has decreased. People are afraid to visit. Many don’t want to send their kids here.”
Ishfaq jumped in. “We are teaching an approved syllabus to the boys, but we don’t know what Halima was teaching the girls. There’s no evidence that she changed the syllabus, and we didn’t know about it if she did. We never heard her mention Syria or ISIS or sectarianism. Everyone was surprised.”
I asked what they thought of Cheema’s actions: had she done the wrong thing in going to Syria? “She did wrong,” Ishfaq said, immediately. “Women cannot travel without the permission of their husband. She went against Islam.”
The full piece is available at the New Humanist website and the clipping is below.
Allegations of an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham, which surfaced earlier this year, caused a national outcry. The debate was intensely polarised, with the government sending in a former counterterrorism police officer to investigate, and local residents arguing that the schools simply reflected the faith of their primarily Muslim intake.
In the aftermath of the scandal, I went to Birmingham to speak with people involved about the impact this national scandal has had on the local community. i wrote a long report on the subject for the latest issue of the New Humanist, which is out now.
The sharp differences in narrative illustrate the polarised debate over Birmingham schools: one camp argues that these schools were indoctrinating children, while the other maintains they simply accommodated the cultural needs of their Muslim intake. What is the truth?
You can read the full piece over at the New Humanist website, and the clipping is below.