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UK politicians and media need to open their eyes to the Islamophobia they are fuelling

March 31, 2022 at 6:55 pm

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and British politician Michael Gove leave 10 Downing Street in London, UK on 15 June 2017 [Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images]

Ever since the New York Times released its eight-part podcast last month on the Trojan Horse Affair, there has been a reckoning with truth. A reckoning which has not only shaken the British establishment and the mainstream press, it has also exposed the manner and extent to which anti-Muslim racism has taken deep-roots within British society.

The nearly eight-hour long podcast produced by Serial Productions, hosted by journalists, Hamza Syed and Brian Reed, revisits the affair also known as the “Trojan Horse Hoax,” to uncover the source of the mystery letter at the centre of the scandal. In short, the scandal centred on claims that extremist Muslims were conspiring to wrest control of Birmingham schools in an effort to introduce an “Islamist” or “Salafist” ethos into their teaching.

No such plot existed and the letter was later proven to be a hoax. Nevertheless, it triggered a nationwide moral panic in the British media and political circles. Dismissals of staff thought to be masterminds of the plot followed, along with government investigations. Even though public officials had determined the Trojan Horse letter to be a hoax, the highest levels of the British government still used the document to justify investigations into whether there was a plot taking place in majority-Muslim schools in Birmingham.

The then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, widely regarded by British Muslims as one of the most Islamophobic Members of Parliament, used the hoax letter to justify beefing up the UK’s counter-terrorism policy, revamped schools and banned people from education for the rest of their lives.  In his current post as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Gove, who describes himself as a “proud Zionist”, has been relentless in his effort to criminalise the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

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The most damaging, perhaps, is the lasting implications of the media storm and endless coverage of Muslims represented as a fifth-column in British society.  A study by researchers at Birmingham City University in 2014 that was reported by Channel 4 News found that 90 per cent of Birmingham’s Muslims felt that community cohesion was wrecked by the affair.

“To put it simply,” as the Muslim Council of Britain notes, “the Trojan Horse hoax was weaponised, compounding institutional racism.” The disastrous consequences live on. The scandal powerfully shows that Islamophobia operates in a manner unique to itself. Racism and bigotry are part of British society, just as it is part of any society. But unlike other prejudices, anti-Muslim racism is a powerful current within the ruling establishment. It is impossible to imagine that elected officials would come up with a term like “Trojan Horse,” to describe a plot involving a different faith community other than Muslims, let alone publish official government documents and hold debates in parliament, conjuring up the idea that the UK is being secretly undermined by its Muslim population.

When it came to speaking about Muslims, there was no such anxiety about depicting them as the enemy within. That a government minister was able to think of Muslims as a fifth-column and normalise the use of the term “Trojan Horse” in reference to them in such a manner without any push back from another member of parliament, or a single commentator in the media is, itself, an indication of how deep Islamophobia runs in British society, and how far we are from addressing the issue.

The reaction to the podcast has been equally revealing. The likes of Gove, aided by journalists in the mainstream British press, closed ranks and doubled down in what is further proof that they themselves have become victims of the Islamophobic atmosphere which they helped create. A debate in the House of Lords earlier this week, on “extremism and intolerance” is a perfect illustration of the refusal to reckon with truth.

During the debate Dean Aaron Godson, asked what assessment the government had made about the New York Times podcast and “what steps they are taking to prevent extremism and intolerance from gaining a foothold in schools in England”. In response, Baroness Barran, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, defended the government’s response. There was no mention of the fake letter in Barran’s statement but, instead, the Baroness further confirmed that “good progress” had been made on implementing the recommendations of a dubious report that followed the Trojan Horse affair.

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Pressed by other members of the Lords to acknowledge that the Trojan Horse letter was bogus, that Gove went ahead with instituting major reforms based on the hoax letter, Barran refused and further insisted that Gove had nothing to apologise for. The Conservative peer also brushed aside Baroness Hussein-Ece’s question about the fact that subsequent reports and “multiple court judgments” found no evidence of an organised plot.

Instead of reckoning with the truth about how the Tory government had fuelled a culture of anti-Muslim racism, the debate offered one member an opportunity to peddle Islamophobic tropes in the heart of British democracy. “My Lords, do the Government recall that one of the schools in the Trojan horse scandal is actually called the Al-Hijrah School?” asked Malcolm Pearson. The former member of the right-wing UKIP party claimed that the name “Al-Hijra” – which is the name of the Islamic calendar – was “extolling not only Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to his takeover of Medina, but his massacre there of 600 Jews in one afternoon, after which his religion went on to conquer most of the known world.”

Putting aside the fact that this is a misrepresentation of history, what is revealing about Pearson’s remark is the liberty he feels he has in denigrating the Islamic faith from within the Parliament by implying that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted within the Muslim tradition. Citing accounts from religious text on a debate on contemporary political issues in the UK is as useful as looking to the Bible in search of explanations for the many human rights violations committed by Israel in Palestine. Blaming Judaism for Israel’s crime is as anti-Sematic as blaming Islamic religious text for the misconducts of Muslims.

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It is no wonder then that this year, in its 14th annual report on Islamophobia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) named and shamed the UK by placing it on its list of “hot spot of Islamophobia”.  India and France, along with the US and Canada are the four “countries that show the most concerning trend of Islamophobia during the period under review”- December 2020- January 2022.

According to the OIC report, the UK accounted for 19 per cent of all Islamophobic attacks during the two-year period, coming second to only India which tops the list with 20 per cent. “Islamophobia in the United Kingdom has been in constant high since the past five years,” says the report. The major factor for the rise, it argues, is the “worrisome trend, which was the fast growing far-right influence in the country.” The report cites numerous examples, including the role of the British government and far-right groups, such as UKIP, in fuelling anti-Muslim racism.

The UK prides itself in being a fair, tolerant and open country. In many ways it is. But as the ongoing debate about refugees and the recent Trojan Horse podcast shows, there is a current of racism, especially towards Muslim, which the country is refusing to admit to.  Every problem begins with an admission that such a problem exists. Only then can we even begin to solve it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.