Muslims still bear the stigma of the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal. Maybe that’s what was intended

Show caption Education secretary Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street in June 2014 to discuss the allegations with the then prime minister, David Cameron. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Opinion Muslims still bear the stigma of the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal. Maybe that’s what was intended Nesrine Malik The events are historical, but it’s a mistake to believe they are behind us. The atmosphere that fed such lies is still here Mon 28 Feb 2022 08.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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If you were to poll a few hundred people, I wonder what they could tell you about the Operation Trojan Horse conspiracy story of 2014. I wonder how many would know one basic fact: that the furore originated from a single letter that was found, early on, to be bogus. I fear that it would be a pitiful number.

I’m also pretty certain that even if you told those people that the main allegation – that there was an organised plot to take over schools in the UK and run them to strict Islamic principles – was debunked, they would still think: well, there’s no smoke without fire. Maybe the smoke didn’t come from this particular fire, but there is definitely another one elsewhere.

A recent podcast from the New York Times, The Trojan Horse Affair, illuminated how this works. The podcast spent years following the Trojan horse plot and revealed that the government’s response to the letter – which included the suspensions of scores of teachers, an inquiry and changes to education and counter-terror policy – happened after the then education secretary, Michael Gove, who spearheaded the Trojan horse response, had apparently been warned that the letter was fake, a letter that he went on to quote from and cite as evidence of a grave threat to Britain’s schools.

The podcast has itself became a second act in the Trojan horse scandal, because its findings are still resolutely denied by the main players implicated, from Michael Gove to the media establishments that played their part. None has been moved to humility. Instead they point to different smoke, more fires, other concerns that were raised by whistleblowers about worrying practices in some schools. For those who have tried to counter misinformation about Muslims, this is a familiar disappointment – to take on wild untruths and then realise that even when they are exposed and even partially corrected, little changes.

The podcast is essentially about a state and media captured by prejudice, either unconsciously or knowingly, but it is tangentially about many other things. Each of these is a strand that, when joined with others, tells a story about a country in which the truth can be so easily buried through the fumblings and machinations of a whole cast of protagonists. Some are well meaning, but among them are credulous bureaucrats, jobsworth civil servants, motivated ideologues and a few useful idiots. In short, it is about structural racism – a bland, blame-diffusing term that comes to life during the podcast. Listening to The Trojan Horse Affair, I went from thinking not how was this allowed to happen, but how was it ever not going to happen? The only way to describe the feeling is to say that it is the opposite of gaslighting – ungaslighting, if you will.

But despite the podcast’s huge popularity, it will still make little difference where it counts. Because other fires will be pointed to, and in their glare the inconvenient truths – or untruths – exposed by the podcast can be bleached out.

This highlights the fact that it is virtually impossible to go about setting the record straight when it comes to false stories about Muslims without running into the charge that in that process one is minimising real stories about Muslims. Perhaps, some say, there was no Trojan horse plot, but there were findings and whistleblower reports of casual homophobia, the teaching of creationism, and students being told that women could not refuse to have sex with their husbands. Doesn’t that justify everything?

Well, no. What we have are two completely different categorisations of events. One is a plot to take over schools, a deeply sinister trope that paints a community as a threat, seeps into legislation and has profound ramifications on social cohesion. The other – incidents of malpractice within schools – is a problem that should be specifically and forensically addressed, but should not be weaponised to feed into fears about Muslims as a whole. And it should go without saying that the state should not be involved in that conflation, justifying the muddying of those categories for its own ends. It should be a reliable, impartial arbiter.

The response to the Trojan horse letter was a disaster on several levels. It failed both whistleblowers with ostensibly legitimate concerns by not treating their complaints in a responsible, targeted manner, and British Muslims as a whole, who have to live – even now – with the stain and notoriety of an apparent “Muslim plot” to take over schools that has now passed into lore.

Raising concerns about your own Muslim community is a traumatising and difficult task; doing it in an atmosphere of Islamophobia makes it doubly fraught, because amid that toxicity, two impulses compete – the wish to prove Muslims are up to no good, and the equal and opposite desire to defend Muslims comprehensively because they are always assumed by critics to be up to no good. The latter is an impulse to which I constantly have to be alert: the fear that admitting some allegations might be true effectively means conceding – in the eyes of a hostile world – to all the false ones as well. How is anyone expected to bring their fragility and their concerns to the public sphere when it is interested in only one thing: how to use these accounts to advance an anti-Muslim agenda?

The events once again under review are historical, but it’s a mistake to believe they are behind us, for the atmosphere in which the Trojan horse conspiracy thrived and flourished, is much the same today. Our society is, if anything, even more receptive to disinformation about the villainy of Muslims. Since the Trojan horse story, there have been others about “no-go areas”, where those not of the faith dare not tread, and of sinister, proselytising Muslims adopting and Islamicising Christian children.

These lies stick, and they work, and they mean that concerns about Muslims behaving badly in schools will always be seen as an issue far graver than the dangerous irresponsibility of government officials making politically divisive hay with a fake letter.

That is the potency of Islamophobia, where the Muslim is always perceived as the most powerful, most coordinated threat. But in this case, in any fair analysis, surely the most malevolent force was a government that lied, mainstreamed a conspiracy theory that it knew to be false, based legislation on it, and probably ensured that a raft of problems that needed genuine attention didn’t get it.

That is where there is both smoke and fire. If you cannot see that, it is because the fire is not burning you.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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