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The letter that started a scandal

The Trojan Horse Affair, a podcast from the makers of Serial, exposes the deep-seated fears about Islam in British schools.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

You probably already know the story, or some of it. In March 2014 an anonymous letter was leaked to the British press supposedly authored by “Islamists” describing their organised plot to take over schools in Birmingham. The letter set out the “steps” Muslim educators in the city should follow in order to infiltrate schools and preach “Salafist” ideology to children. It was a strange and implausible document. But it began a media scandal that the Birmingham-born Hamza Syed believes resulted in an oppressive culture of suspicion towards ordinary British Muslims, not least through the anti-terror policing scheme Prevent.

Syed, a first-time journalist, is the host of The Trojan Horse Affair, the latest production from Serial and the New York Times. He was motivated to investigate the letter when he realised very few officials seemed to have looked into its provenance or credibility at the time. Along with S-Town’s Brian Reed, he sets out to discover where the letter came from, and to prove it was clearly an Islamophobic hoax all along.

Syed and Reed explain how one letter quickly provoked such an extreme response and revealed deep-seated fears about Islam in the UK. (As they point out, even the “Trojan horse” metaphor is a racist trope.) In time-honoured Serial tradition, the series mixes complex and often bureaucratic details (key episodes hinge on the discovery of Birmingham City Council reports) with the first-person account of Syed’s involvement with the story: he and Reed discuss whether his emotional investment in the case comes into conflict with the critical distance required of the journalist. The series has provoked a strong response in listeners too. Some critics have argued that the focus on the letter itself means Syed and Reed don’t spend enough time on whether pupils were taught inappropriately on gender and sexuality by ultra-conservative Muslim teachers. It’s clear that the debate over Islam in British schools remains incendiary.

[See also: BBC Radio 4’s “Room 5” tells intimate stories of life-changing medical diagnoses]

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times