It is believed that at least 25 schools in Birmingham are now being investigated in response to allegations of what the media and city council are routinely describing as ‘takeover’ bids by ‘hardline Muslims’. Birmingham City Council has subsequently announced that it intends to freeze the recruitment of school governors and appoint a new chief adviser to deal specifically with the allegations.
This action comes in the wake of Operation Trojan Horse, a leaked anonymous letter - which some say is a hoax - that claims to reveal a plot to ‘overthrow’ existing teachers and governors in various non-faith state schools across the city and replace them with ‘Islam-friendly’ individuals who will run the schools in accordance with orthodox Islamic principles.
Much has been made of the dossier; some believe it is a conspiracy against Muslims while others cite it as evidence of a concerted effort to ‘Islamify’ Britain or, to use a phrase preferred by some on the far-right, as evidence of ‘creeping sharia’. Trying to disentangle the conspiracy from the connivance is, understandably, extremely difficult.
From my own research into Islamophobia, Operation Trojan Horse would not be the first time that spurious claims have been made about Muslims and Islam in recent years. Such claims have included allegations of Muslims wanting to ban everything from Christmas to piggy banks. In 2005, the Daily Express claimed that Muslims were seeking to ban Jesus. What the journalist behind the headlines overlooked was that such claims could never be true, given that Jesus is recognised as a prophet of Islam and held in great esteem by Muslims.
Understandably, therefore, some have raised serious doubts about the dossier’s authenticity. Indeed, West Midlands Police are currently investigating claims that it is a hoax, and some statements made within the dossier seem to suggest this might be so. These include claims about an attempt to remove a headteacher who was actually dismissed from a Birmingham school almost 20 years ago and inaccuracies about the removal of two other headteachers from Birmingham schools (their respective departure dates were wrong). The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Russell Hobby, was reported by The Times as saying that ‘...the idea that there was an organised plot...seemed far-fetched’.
Some, however, are not so sure. These include a number of former Birmingham-based teachers and headteachers who, among others, have sought to highlight events at the city’s Moseley and Saltley schools and Washwood Heath Technology College. And in the past few days, Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood has said that he has been made aware of similar allegations, stretching back more than 12 years, of concerted attempts by various ‘Wahabi’ and ‘Salafi’ groups trying to take over different schools. Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, recently wrote that he was ‘sadly not so sure’ that the dossier was fake.
Given the extremely serious nature of the allegations made, it is right that they are thoroughly investigated and that those tasked with doing so are given the necessary time and space without interference. That process needs to be open and transparent so that if any of the allegations are found to be true, then appropriate and immediate action can be taken and supported by all.
That same process is also necessary if we are to ensure that the investigations do not turn into a witch-hunt against all Muslims, or more worryingly, that the investigations are not used to feed extremist ideologies. It is this climate of mistrust and fear that creates an environment for radicalising individuals, which in turn, can lead people along a pathway towards terrorism.
Similarly, the allegations have the very real potential to feed into and further reinforce existing societal fears and suspicions about Muslims and Islam that have the potential to become manifested as prejudice and discrimination, bigotry and hate. Whether true or false, Operation Trojan Horse is far from evidence of ‘creeping sharia’.
If the allegations are found to be true, the ramifications for Muslims in Birmingham and elsewhere have the potential to be both damaging and counter-productive. Not only will the outcome of the investigations unfairly increase suspicions about the motivations of all Muslims without differentiation, so too will it create further scrutiny of many ordinary everyday people who already feel they are seen as belonging to a ‘suspect community’.
Where the impact might be greatest, however, is in the education sector: concerns about the teaching of religion in state schools are likely to increase, while fresh questions are raised about the relevance of faith schools in today’s secular world.
Dr Chris Allen
Independent adviser on Islamophobia and Lecturer in Social Policy, College of Social Sciences.